Bangladesh Calling China
Geopolitically speaking, India and Bangladesh’s intertwined borders, ethnic and cultural links and the fact that India was the architect of Bangladesh as a nation should have ensured enduring peace built on trade and commerce to benefit the impoverished Bangladesh and a friendly country allowing transit through rail, road and sea to India’s North East. It was a classic case of a win win condition for both the countries.
This blog would not like to get into what India and Bangladesh should have done to build genuine partnership over the years. The aim of the current discourse is to analyse the current problems and suggest a way forward so that Bangladesh does not go calling China in our backyard.
On the face of it, the problems between India and Bangladesh can be narrowed down to the following
India-Bangladesh border management is one contentious issue that needs a lasting solution. In 2002, India began fencing off parts of the 4,090-km border to stop illegal migrants and suspected militants, though infiltration of Bangladeshis continues. This has not helped and innocent civilians continue to die on the borders. As a result, several incidents of BDR-BSF clashes have occurred in recent times. Illegal immigration is a serious issue. A broad spectrum of Indian public opinion is concerned about the perceived demographic challenge from Bangladesh. Time and again, India has shared these concerns and the magnitude of the problem with Bangladesh.
Smuggling, human trafficking, and illegal movements are other issues that border forces have to deal with. In July 2007, Foreign Secretary level talks in Dhaka between India and Bangladesh saw an agreement on three broad issues: sharing of intelligence pertaining to security; India agreed to provide greater access for Bangladeshi goods in the Indian market; and, the two countries agreed to take steps to implement the 1974 Land Boundary Agreement. In March 2006, the two countries signed a bilateral agreement on mutual co-operation for preventing illicit trafficking in narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances.
Another long-standing issue is Ganga water sharing, including operation of the Farakka Barrage by India to increase water supply in the river Hoogly. Bangladesh often complains that it either does not receive a fair share of the Ganga waters or its territory gets flooded during the monsoons because of the release of excess waters by India. Terror remains another thorn duly planted and nursed by ISI and its acolytes in Bangladesh, especially acts directed against India. Bangladesh has also remained the sanctuary to most of the leadership of insurgent groups of the North East and their training camps. In fact some of them have developed business interests in Bangladesh. The United Liberation Front of Assam chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa, commander-in-chief Paresh Barua, and his deputy Raju Barua have operated from Bangladesh with impunity during Khaleda tenure. Today, their location remains uncertain, with China also a possibility on the cards. Trade and commerce between the two neighbours has remained marginal despite the geographical proximity and similar trading patterns.
These problems and more appeared to be ironing out with Awami League coming to power. Shaikh Hasina chose to visit India to build a strategic partnership and resolve most of the problems.
A lot of euphoria was created in both India and Bangladesh after Shaikh Hasina’s India visit in January 2010. This was not without reason. There were path breaking elements in the joint communiqué and in the agreements signed. Bangladesh’s cooperation on counter-terrorism was especially noteworthy. But it is also true that the growing strength of jihadist forces in Bangladesh had created problems for the Awami League itself with many of its leaders becoming victims of jihadist activities. Hasina herself had faced several attacks on her life and she barely survived one of them. Clearly, cooperation on counter-terrorism was equally important for both India and Bangladesh.
Progress was also made on the issue of transit, euphemistically referred to as connectivity. Bangladesh agreed to allow the use of Mongla and Chittagong sea ports for movement of goods to and from India by road and rail. It also conveyed its intention to provide Nepal and Bhutan access to these two ports. It was also agreed that the Akhaura-Agartala railway link would be constructed and that it would be financed with a grant from India.
Enter the Dragon
However before this euphoria could die down close on the heels of her visit to India, Shaikh Hasina visited China. Hasina’s visit needs to be seen in the context of past attempts by Bangladesh to use China as a counter-balance against India. Notwithstanding the fact that Awami League was considered Pro India.
Similar transit facilities have been granted to China as well. Bangladesh has sought Chinese assistance in constructing a highway passing through Myanmar to Yunnan province of China. A rail network passing through the same area has also been proposed. Bangladesh went out of the way to persuade China to further develop and use the Chittagong port and develop a deep-sea port at Sonadia Island. China’s activities at Chittagong are of great concern to India, since it would be similar to China’s involvement in the development of Hambantota in southern Sri Lanka and Gwadar in Pakistan. China reportedly has access to the Myanmar naval base in Hanggyi Island and has established a monitoring station at Coco Island, north of India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Through these ports, China is trying to fulfil two objectives – encircle India as part of its ‘string of pearls’, and gain other openings to sea. This also helps China overcome the Malacca Dilemma. With these rapid inroads into the infrastructure sector, China may well be on its way to turn Bangladesh into a bead of gold in its string of pearls. The other two beads being Pakistan and now Nepal.From an Indian perspective, the growing Bangladesh – China military contacts will make the Siliguri corridor vulnerable. Apart from conventional threat to India, this makes the task of Pakistan in using Bangladesh and Nepal as launch pads for Jihadis easier and compliments supply route of insurgents in North East.
China, in a bid to woo Bangladesh and Nepal, removed duties on imports from these countries.Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping’s visit to Bangladesh in June further cemented these agreements and became famous for the statement “The friendship between the two peoples will live forever”.
While Bangladesh says that it is trying to establish an equal relationship between India and China, it is clearly trying to benefit by leveraging its geo-strategic position between Asia’s two rising powers. This may be a happy situation for Bangladesh and even for China.
Zardari too has entered into six agreements with China during his recent visit. Crucial amongst that is the rail link to Gwadar via POK. Work on rail and road link to Kathmandu is also in an advance stage. The reader can draw these lines on the map to see the portends it has for India.
India needs to proactively invest through private and public sector initiatives in a vast areas of mutual interest in Bangladesh. These initiatives have to be mutually benefiting and on a socio economic platform. We have the advantage of geography to turn this into a win win situation for India and Bangladesh. Awami League may have come just in time to help us achieve that.
India which should be managing a “periphery of peace” has thus plunged into an abyss with most of its neighbours in its backyard looking at China to counter Indian influence. China is gladly investing heavily into these countries to increase its sphere of influence.
This failure of foreign policy in case of Bangladesh and Nepal needs to be reversed, whatever the cost. Four arms of the dragon have already encircled India. A Chinese presence at Chittagong will pose great security threat.
India can only vacillate at its own expense when North East would no remain accessible by road , Kolkata port choked and the dragon dancing in Nepal. India – Myanmar relationship also contributes to this …an issue which merit examination in a separate post.