Sheikh Hasina sets off on a visit to India next week in what promises to be the Bangladeshi leader’s most important trip to the neighbour that all-but surrounds her country.
Last year Hasina turned down India’s request for a 25-year defence treaty. It looks set to be replaced by a memorandum of understanding on purchase of equipment and weapons for UN peacekeeping, disaster response, landmine detectors, spare parts for Russian Migs, etc. For all this India appears willing to extend US$500 million in credit. Indian leaders, policymakers and the media agree that Hasina’s government has gone the extra mile and then some to improve Bangladesh-India relations.
Writing in the Times of India, former BBC correspondent Subir Bhaumik said, “Hasina has been steadfast in her support of Modi government’s ‘isolate Pakistan’ drive, her government has cracked down hard on northeastern rebels and Islamist militants, on fake currency rackets and on Pakistani agents, to address Indian security concerns. … As Hasina prepares for her Delhi visit, Indian and Bangladeshi officials are trying to finalise a deal to allow Indian use of Chittagong and Mongla ports for accessing the Northeast.”
Meanwhile Hasina’s government has switched the narrative from “India as hegemonic oppressor” to “India as development partner” since coming to power in 2009. The story on energy cooperation is also good.
However, the biggest frustration remains in the crucial area of water sharing, especially of the Teesta River. India’s complex and controversial river-linking project hangs over Bangladesh’s head like an axe, with unknown implications for our ecology.
Yet all Hasina’s previous efforts now appear in jeopardy, with India focused on China’s increasing presence in Bangladesh’s development projects and the sensitive area of military procurements. China has been the biggest source of military equipment for Bangladesh for many years, but India has been watching with increasing unease as bilateral cooperation between her two neighbours soars. Indian discomfort spiked last year when Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Bangladesh saw those ties elevated from “comprehensive partnership” to “strategic partnership” and China offered US$24 billion of economic aid plus another $13 billion in private sector investment.
What set alarm bells ringing even louder in New Delhi was Dhaka’s procurement of two Chinese submarines. In response India sent its defence minister to push for a 25-year defence pact. For the first time and to Hasina’s considerable credit, Bangladesh was able to forge close relations with India while simultaneously making China a major development partner.
If there is to be an Asian Century it will have to be built both by India and China – and it has to benefit their smaller neighbours. The stability that is the key to Asia’s future can only be guaranteed by India and China coming closer, which they are doing through bilateral trade approaching US$100 billion along with billions of dollars’ investment in each others’ countries. The old idea of exclusive spheres of influence ringing these Asian Giants, with “No Entry” signs against each other, is doomed to fail in this age of digital connectivity.
A new element in our regional equation is the overt hostility of US President Donald Trump towards China and his declared policy of confronting the latter in the South China Sea. All eyes are on how Trump’s policy will affect Indian leader Narendra Modi’s resurgent Hindu nationalist government, especially the hawks of the party? Will Trump’s anti-China policy encourage India to push for an anti-Chinese policy in her neighbours? Will India see Trump as an opportunity to upstage Beijing in South Asia, especially since China’s support for Pakistan remains strong while India’s relations with the latter have dipped to their lowest ebb?
Whatever the answers, Bangladesh must guard against being drawn into the India-China rivalry. We want India to be our closest friend but not our only friend. Hasina’s commitment to good relations with India is beyond question. So why should her reaching out to China be seen with suspicion?
India must seriously think how to forge a new, dynamic, win-win relationship with its eastern neighbour.
Mahfuz Anam is editor/ publisher of The Daily Star in Bangladesh.