China specter over South Asia impacting India-Bangladesh ties

India and China will do their best to edge each other out in their competition for dominance in the Bay of Bengal and will try to squeeze an economically weak Bangladesh, writes Lt Gen PR Kumar (retd) for South Asia Monitor 

Lt Gen P R Kumar (retd) Sep 01, 2020
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When Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi was elected to the office of prime minister for the first time in 2014, he invited his counterparts from all the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) countries - Afghanistan, 

Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka) to his swearing-in ceremony at the Rashtrapati Bhavan. The move set Modi’s Neighborhood First policy in motion, shifting Indian foreign policy’s focus toward its neighbours. It was a highly appreciated Indian foreign policy initiative toward regional connectivity and cultivating cross border relations. The global geopolitical scenario has changed drastically since then, to a dynamic multi-polar world where all nations are carrying out strategic balancing (including the US and China) to create/maintain/ exploit their strategic space to meet their national aspirations and protect their sovereignty and territorial integrity. 

India’s relations with its immediate neighbourhood have not flowered as envisaged. China appears to have successfully encircled India and cemented it using the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) for which China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is pivotal, with intentions to establish economic, diplomatic, political and influence pathways to all parts of the globe, and not just for altruistic intentions.  Enter COVID-19, and with-it a surge of belligerent and aggressive assertions by China at the global stage in international institutions, muscle-flexing in South and the East China Sea, IOR (Indian Ocean Region) and along the LAC in East Ladakh with India. This ongoing China-India impasse will reverberate in the geopolitical dimensions of South Asia, leading to new relations in the region. Pakistan is now a permanent collusive and client state of China and Nepal appears to be going down a similar path.

Strategic importance of Bangladesh

Bangladesh enjoys a pivotal geographical location in the contested IOR. It is one of the world’s fastest-growing economies and with 160 million people the eighth-most populous country in the world. Situated virtually inside India with an opening into the IOR, and located at the gateway to the North East region, Bangladesh assumes significant economic, trade, and security implications for India. The size of the population, which signifies the size of the market, helps overshadow the small territorial size of this country. Bangladesh recently became eligible to graduate (UN Committee for Development Policy (CPD) bestows this) to developing country status by 2024. The South Asian nation has in recent times endeavoured to balance the relations between China and India. There is a fair amount of speculation in the media that Bangladesh is cooling off and is tilting towards China. 

Is this a geo-political game to exploit both countries which admittedly Bangladesh has been doing; a visible sign of showing discontent to India’s latest promulgation of National Register of Citizens (NRC) and Citizenship Amendment Act (ACC) and few friction points; or is Bangladesh to aligning itself to China on a more permanent basis. This needs further analysis, and it is important for India to make mid-course corrections to the relationship as it will have major security and geo-political-economic-strategic consequences for both countries.

While historically, India and Bangladesh have maintained reasonably close relations, many felt that things will go downhill when Modi Government came to power. However, Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina continued to maintain close ties with India and both the heads of government have worked toward strengthening their bilateral agreements and diplomatic ties. This could be witnessed through the number of high-level visits. During Modi’s state visit to Bangladesh in June 2015, 22 bilateral agreements were signed, including the resolution to a border issue that had existed since 1947 through a successful land boundary agreement (LBA). India did not challenge the UN Tribunal on the delimitation of the maritime boundary and gave up around 19,467 km of its sovereign rights in the Bay of Bengal. India’s concessional line of credit of nearly USD 10 billion is the largest it has offered to any country, and in addition, pledged $5 billion worth of investments in Bangladesh. 

During PM Sheikh Hasina’s four-day visit to New Delhi in April 2017, a civil nuclear tripartite pact was signed between India, Russia and Bangladesh, in which India will play an important role to establish a nuclear power plant in Bangladesh. In March 2019, Modi launched four projects in Bangladesh. On the other hand, China was deepening relations with South Asian countries to form and maintain its hegemony in South Asia. Like other South Asian nations, it suited Bangladesh to lessen dependence on India and open up new avenues of cooperation especially with cash-rich, technologically superior, proven timely infrastructure developer China.

There is a security dimension in the relationship. Surrounded by India on three sides, they share the fifth-longest land boundary (4096 km) in the world and an unresolved maritime dispute in the strategic Bay of Bengal. Apart from the security implications of harboring/presence of inimical elements/or anti-national groups using territories of Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Nepal, another possibility, however unlikely it may sound, is the probability of China using both the continental and maritime route through our immediate neighbours (including Bhutan) to hit at our very vulnerable Siliguri Corridor and North East region, in case of a larger conflict. 

Sharing of the Teesta river water has been a longstanding contentious issue between India and Bangladesh. The river originates from Sikkim and passes through West Bengal before finally merging with the Brahmaputra in Assam and Jamuna in Bangladesh. Dhaka wants a 50 percent share of the river’s water for the December-March period. During his visit to Dhaka in 2015, Modi had promised his Bangladeshi counterpart that the matter will be resolved soon. There has, however, been little progress so far. Bangladesh rightfully wants India to move faster on all the projects undertaken so far, with the progress being extremely tardy. Power projects announced by Reliance Power and the Adani Group remain at nascent stages, and projects such as Akhaura-Agartala rail link, dredging of inland waterways, and construction of India-Bangladesh Friendship Pipeline are all moving at a snail’s pace. 

On the positive side, Indo-Bangladesh security cooperation has not only helped in the taming of insurgency in India’s North East but has also been effective in curbing militancy in Bangladesh.  The active role of the two countries in containing the network of Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh is clear proof of the success of this cooperation. Intelligence ties between the two nations have grown and border tensions have eased.

India’s otherwise solid relationship with Bangladesh turned sour after August 2019, when the Indian government completed the NRC in the northeastern state of Assam. NRC is meant to verify citizenship and rule out illegal migrants from Bangladesh. Over 1.9 million people were left out of the Assam NRC causing concern in Bangladesh due to the possibility of a sudden influx of people forced out of India. When the Indian home minister talked of a plan for an all-India NRC in the Indian parliament and used the terms “illegal migrant” and “infiltrator” with “Bangladeshi”, it hurt the sentiments of Bangladesh people. During her visit in October 2019, Sheikh Hasina was given an assurance that it is purely an internal matter of India. In December, a new citizenship law, the CAA 2019 followed the India-wide NRC announcement. This act, in brief, provided Indian citizenship to persecuted religious minorities from Bangladesh, Afghanistan, and Pakistan who had entered India by December 31, 2014. This brought a new concern for Bangladesh, as India indirectly implied the poor treatment of religious minorities in Bangladesh and brought negative publicity for Dhaka. A feeling of detachment formed between India and Bangladesh. These two combined along with some political machinations drew the ire of the Bangladeshi populace who protested on the streets for the first time against Modi. It gave Bangladesh an opportunity/excuse for exploiting a geo-political situation and seek assistance/better relations with China. Modi understood the importance and sensitivity of the situation and planned a visit in March 2020, which unfortunately could not materialize due to COVID.

Growing China-Bangladesh ties

China replaced India as its top trade partner in 2015.  As a member of BRI, Bangladesh has received Beijing’s support, including through 27 agreements worth $24 billion when President Xi Jinping visited in 2016.  Along with an earlier $13.6 billion investment in joint ventures, those deals amount to a total of $38 billion, the largest sum ever pledged to Bangladesh by a single country. China is also providing help in combating COVID by forming city alliances, which in turn will develop people-to-people relations. China it is believed has assured Bangladesh of priority supply of COVID vaccine is once available. China has become Bangladesh’s top source for arms imports; Dhaka is China’s second-largest arms export destination in the world, behind Pakistan. Bangladesh accounts for 20 percent of all Chinese arms sales. 

Beijing has provided Dhaka with five maritime patrol vessels, two submarines, 16 fighter jets, and 44 tanks, as well as anti-ship and surface-to-air missiles. Most recently, in 2017 the Bangladesh Navy took delivery of two Chinese submarines at a minimum price. This agreement has made India uncomfortable; India has offered submarine training to the Bangladesh Navy. Since the LAC standoff with India, China has begun courting India’s neighbours even more vigorously especially Bangladesh and Nepal. Beijing has granted duty-free access to 97 percent of Bangladeshi products from July 1 and is examining a request for $64 billion through the Investment Cooperation Working Group with China, which was established in 2019. With this move, as many as 8,256 Bangladeshi items will enjoy duty-free access to Chinese markets.  All these moves have made the Modi government even concerned about President Xi's growing influence in Bangladesh, which at present is the closest to India in the neighbourhood. 

Looking at creating a new economic partnership for the future, India is working on opportunities to go beyond trade in goods and look at the trade-in services. A large amount of Chinese investment in India’s most trusted friendly neighbour made New Delhi feel it was falling behind. Therefore, in response, India announced $5 billion in loans for Bangladesh, which is the largest amount ever invested by India in Bangladesh. Bangladesh has been a major supporter of Modi’s call for a regional emergency fund for fighting COVID-19 and declared to contribute $1.5 million to the fund in March 2020. India also provided medical aid to Bangladesh to tackle medical assistance for dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. Besides, railway connectivity got a major boost as freight services were increased in the past few months. Another important development of the period has been India providing 10 locomotives to the railways in Bangladesh as grant in aid because it needed the locomotives to run its services since most of the existing ones have crossed their service life and the new engine order is likely to take some time to arrive from the US. The maritime and inland waterways connectivity was enhanced as a trial for the transshipment to India’s Northeast through Chittagong and was completed in July, a gesture that could have political risks to the Sheikh Hasina government. In May, the two countries signed an addendum to the protocol on inland water trade and transit and added two new routes and five ports of call. These occurrences are reflective of the persistence of goodwill between the two countries. More agreements to include setting up joint coastal surveillance systems, improving air, rail and road connectivity, and securing the international border have also been inked.

Bangladesh playing a balancing game  

Hasina has an unenviable task trying to balance her relations with India and China, and she skillfully explained the differences between the two countries. During her visit to China in July 2019, she observed that Bangladesh’s relationship with India is organic that goes beyond a few billion while China is a partner in mega projects and economic engagement. The statement distinctly showcases Bangladesh’s definition of its relationship with the two Asian powers (China-India). While China and India seek to expand their influence in the Bay of Bengal, Bangladesh is using both to make necessary improvements to its military. If the China-India strategic rivalry intensifies, both countries will double down on their approach to bringing strategically located Bangladesh into their own orbit. China, along with increasing investment, may also open its economy to billions of dollars in imports from Bangladesh, which will help the country to diversify its exports to a new destination beyond North America and Europe.

On the Indian side, New Delhi may ramp up the diplomatic and cultural ties with Bangladesh. India and China will do their best to edge each other out in their competition for dominance in the Bay of Bengal and will try to squeeze an economically weak Bangladesh. As a rapidly developing economy, Bangladesh is in dire need of investment, while China and India both see investment in Bangladesh as a way to extend their influence. Bangladesh is seizing the opportunity and using both China and India to fill its FDI deficit.

Media of both countries closely observed developments and were quick to react, most times in hyperbole. Being the smaller state, Bangladeshi media observes reactions in our media closely on all bilateral issues. A positive mention about the country in the Indian media results in a feeling of joy and negative mention evokes public displeasure, which often gives leeway to some vested quarters to encourage anti-India rhetoric. Indian media should be conscious of these complexities and adopt a more nuanced approach while reporting about the bilateral relationship.

Assertive China hangs like a specter over South Asia and tends to dominate the narrative in the region, and diminishes the many positive developments in the multilateral and bilateral engagements. China also possesses unmatched economic resources and is cash-rich. However, each country will play the game to suit their national interest. Bangladesh is playing the game rather well by remaining elusive, without showing a preference between the two giants. Maintaining good working relations with both India and China is naturally crucial for an economically and infrastructurally weak Bangladesh. Given the strategic and security implications, it is imperative that India-Bangladesh relations remain friendly and warm, and India has to continuously monitor the situation and ensure a friendly Bangladesh and in the immediate neighbourhood. 

The world considers South Asia as India’s strategic backyard and it’s a pre-requisite to meet our aspirations of being a regional power. Statesmanship, vision, mature, and benevolent leadership is the need of the hour. 

(The writer, an Indian Army veteran, was Director-General of Military Operations. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at perumo9@gmail.com)

Reference:

Bangladesh and the China-India Conflict, By Mozammil Ahmad, The Diplomat, 08 Aug 2020, Link -https://thediplomat.com/2020/07/bangladesh-and-the-china-india-conflict/