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Breaking the lull with Bangladesh? An interesting choice

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By Aditya Vashisht

After an interval caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi undertook his first foreign visit since the beginning of the pandemic. Indeed, foreign affairs are witnessing a flurry of activities at present. This dynamism is manifested by the renewed interest of the West in cultivating ties with the Indo-Pacific countries. US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin visited New Delhi to ensure a continuation of the cordial relations between India and the U.S.A. The United Kingdom has also put the Indo-Pacific region in its priority list. In order to implement the assertion of a healthy partnership, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will visit India in April. The QUAD alliance got a renewed push by having its first meeting of the heads of states/governments of the member nations of India, U.S.A, Australia and Japan.

Apart from these events, the Prime Minister also sought to break a lull in his foreign visits by calling upon his Bangladeshi counterpart, Sheikh Hasina. The PM is on a 2 day visit to Bangladesh starting from 26th March, where he will also meet the President of Bangladesh, Abdul Hamid. PM Modi will also take part in the golden jubilee celebrations of Bangladesh’s independence. Incidentally, the year 2021 also marks the 100th birth anniversary of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, The Father of Bangladesh.

The above mentioned visit isn’t without its causative factors. The recent dynamics of geopolitics has compelled the Prime Minister to visit its Bengali speaking neighbour. The Prime minister has emphasized that Bangladesh is a nation with which India shared, “deep cultural, linguistic and people to people ties.” This is similar to the statement which had been given by Bangladeshi Foreign Minister A K Abdul Momen in last year, where he termed the ties between the two neighbours as ‘blood ties’. Both the nations, sans much apprehension, are deeply related. It is often difficult to distinguish between an Indian Bengali and a Bangladeshi, since linguistically, culturally and physically, the Bengali speaking population counts as a unified entity when one measures it on a global scale. But politics since the time of the British rule had ensured divisions, which reached a climax in 1971 when the Bengali speaking East Pakistan began demanding autonomy from the Urdu-Punjabi speaking West Pakistan.

This struggle involved our country too with the result being that another chapter of war was written in the history of our nation. The 1971 war gave birth to Bangladesh in which India’s support for the Bengalis played a big role. Such a history ensures that Bangladesh and India, though distinct internationally, are never obscured from the prospect of a deeper relationship. India’s upholding of the Bangladeshi cause can enable one to say that Bangladesh owes a significant debt to India. This has never been forgotten by leaders from both the sides and thus the Prime Minister isn’t deceptive when he elaborated about the struggle when he was addressing the Bangladeshi population on its Independence day. But emotions and culture aren’t the sole catalysts in the field of diplomacy.

Bangladesh is sovereign country which gives it the right to maintain ties with whichever country it desires, at least technically. China has emerged as a major player in Bangladeshi diplomacy and its rise in the strengthening of relationship with Bangladesh has been phenomenal. Diplomatic relations between both the nations weren’t initiated until 1976, not to mention the initial Chinese opposition and its support of Pakistan. But since then, suspicions have been relegated. Bangladesh became a part of the Belt and Road Initiative in 2016 and as such, has become an important customer of China, which concerns India. Chinese investment in Bangladesh is estimated to be worth $38 billion (2019-2020).

The investments are heavily channelized towards infrastructural projects. The Chittagong port is one of the famous projects undertaken through Chinese cooperation. Apart from that, many railroad projects such as those connecting Chittagong with Kunming in China, construction of an airport in Sylhet, Payra  seaport (an investment of $1.5 billion and is being built by the same companies which are building Gwadar and Hambantota) and a $1 billion investment in the Teesta river project are some of the examples of Bangladesh’s closeness towards China. China is Bangladesh’s largest trading partner and in July 2020, China had abolished duty on 97% of Bangladeshi goods entering its markets. This act invited some opinions of Indian commentators which were criticized by Foreign Minister Abdul Momen. In the defense sector too, Bangladesh and China are close partners. China is Bangladesh’s largest weapon supplier and is the only country with which it has a Defense Cooperation Agreement.

The reason for this cozying up has several roots. At the onset, China’s economic strength has enabled it to cultivate deeper relations with all of India’s neighbors with the exception of Bhutan. Its wealth makes it an alluring partner and India’s economically weak neighbours are assured that the inflow of large amount of Chinese money shall ensure a faster implementation and completion of projects. This point isn’t without weight since Bangladesh isn’t comfortable with the slow pace of projects undertaken through cooperation with India. Slow and elongated progress in projects such as the Meghnaghat power plant, Akhaura-Agartala rail link, lack of an agreement on Teesta water sharing and near abstention of  efforts to re-energize SAARC are some of the concerns which Bangladesh cannot ignore and, as opined by some experts, can make the relationship between Dhaka and New Delhi more transactional.

Bangladesh is also having its own “Look East” policy, similar in nomenclature to India but different in its motives. While India under this policy aspires to be a key regional player in the Indo-Pacific region, Bangladesh seeks to reduce its dependence on India and diversify its relationship. China is, safe to say, filling a big void in that policy. It shall also be mentioned that China as such doesn’t receive much criticism in the domestic circles of Bangladesh. There was no assailing of the perceived Chinese neutrality during the Rohingya refugee crisis. On the other hand, people in Dhaka protested against the CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) (March 2020). The NRC ( National Register of Citizens) has also been not received with open arms, since they involve the prospect of triggering an influx of illegal immigrants into Bangladesh, not to mention the stigmatization of poor Muslims in West Bengal and the North East as ‘Bangladeshi’. The apprehension regarding CAA was significantly due to the portrayal of Bangladesh as an intolerant Islamic nation. Thus the recent scenario are having several aspects and thus, they explain that why Bangladesh has been on the priority list of the Indian foreign policy. 

The opportunity for giving a new vitality to relations came in the form of COVID-19. The vaccine diplomacy is a strong asset and has been an important factor in giving a signal to Bangladesh that India is still a partner in blood.  Though China had sent supplies (not to mention the incident of 10 Chinese doctors being received by Foreign Minister Abdul Momen in June 2020), the course didn’t go as smoothly as expected. Chinese firm Sinovac’s insistence on Bangladesh sharing the cost of clinical trials of it’s vaccine soured the moment. As such India stepped into the foray and provided vaccines to Bangladesh sans hassles. In January of this year, India gifted two million doses of coronavirus vaccine to Bangladesh. Dhaka has further struck a deal with the Serum Institute of India agreeing to purchase 30 million doses of it’s vaccine.

Despite the Chinese investment sounding much intimidating, it is maintained by some experts that these aren’t much in strategic value. Strategically, China doesn’t prize Bangladesh as highly as some may be assuming. Myanmar provides a better and a direct access to the Indian Ocean than Bangladesh. China has a 70% stake in the Kyakpyu seaport in the Rakhine state of Myanmar. This deep-sea port has been pushed forward by china since it provides an alternative route for energy imports from the Middle East and that avoids the Malacca strait, a potential chokepoint. The direct border between China and Myanmar ensure the success of such a project. These interests may also explain Beijing’s flaccid opposition to the military coup in Myanmar, since when do democratic principle stand before national interests?

Bangladesh isn’t oblivious to India’s concerns regarding China. Gowher Rizvi, the international affairs advisor to the PM of Bangladesh sought to allay New Delhi’s concerns by saying that Dhaka’s ties with Beijing were confined to ‘investment and development’. There has also been made a differentiation between the nature of Bangladesh’s ties with India and that of China. The former are ‘blood ties’ whereas the latter are plainly ‘economic’.

Such events exhibit that the relationship between India and Bangladesh isn’t fractured. Tensions aren’t uncommon, owing to the turbulent nature of international politics. Bangladesh is also smart enough to read behind the lines. This also explains its greater autonomous position than those of other nations of South Asia who have directly or indirectly subdued to the Chinese power. India acknowledges it and hopefully the efforts at revitalizing the ties aren’t fruitless. Prime Minister Modi’s visit marks an excellent extension in those efforts.

(Author is student and blogger based in Lucknow. The views expressed are personal opinion of the author. He can be reached at adityavashisht07@gmail.com)

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