Bangladesh is a very important neighbour for India. The fulcrum of India’s Act East policy and vital for development of India’s North East, it has a major role in the success of BIMSTEC, writes Maj Gen Alok Deb (retd) for South Asia Monitor
Two news items in the past few weeks provide interesting perspectives on the evolving nature of Bangladesh’s foreign relations and their implications for India. The first is a report (June 19 ) which notes that ‘In a significant show of economic diplomacy in South Asia, China has announced tariff exemption for 97% of exports from Bangladesh......Bangladesh imports around $15 billion in Chinese goods but its China-bound exports had been very low in comparison. The supply chain disruption caused by US-China trade war is likely to be filled by a boost in export of tariff-exempted goods from Bangladesh. Multiple sectors of Bangladesh are likely to be major beneficiaries of this move’.
The second item, by the Turkish news wire Anadolu Agency (July 8), refers to the visit of the High Commissioner of Pakistan (an appointment filled only in November 2019 after a gap of nearly 20 months) to the Bangladesh foreign ministry, after which the High Commissioner stated "...we want stronger relations with brotherly Bangladesh in all walks of life. We share common bonds of history, religion and culture..’" Interestingly, the report mentions that the Bangladesh foreign ministry did not issue a statement about this meeting.
Irritants in ties
Bangladesh is a very important neighbour for India. The fulcrum of India’s Act East policy and vital for development of India’s North East, it has a major role in the success of BIMSTEC ( Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation). It has become India’s biggest trade partner in South Asia. India exported $9.21 billion worth of goods to Bangladesh in FY 2018-19, against imports of $1.04 billion during the same period. Despite restrictions imposed by Covid 19, improvements in connectivity continue, the latest manifestation being the Addendum to the Protocol on Inland Water Transit and Trade signed in May this year.
According to this the number of Indo Bangladesh Protocol routes have been increased from eight to ten with new locations added to existing routes. Five new ports of call in both countries have been operationalised, with each country now having eleven ports of call and two ‘extended’ ports of call. India continues to assist Bangladesh in other ways as well. In addition to providing grants for specific projects, it has extended three Lines of Credits (LOC) to Bangladesh in the last eight years amounting to $8 billion for the development of infrastructure in various sectors including roads, railways, shipping and ports – the highest to any country.
For bolstering our Neighbourhood First policy with Bangladesh, leveraging the gains of the last decade while scanning for the remotest cloud on the horizon is an ongoing imperative. While both countries have walked the talk to a great extent irritants continue to bedevil the relationship. Sharing of river waters, and reaction of Bangladesh’s civil society to the Citizenship Amendment Act, and proposed National Register of Citizens are two examples. Though the official line taken by that government on the second issue has been restrained, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s statement to Gulf News in January this year that the Act was "not necessary" reflects its dismay.
This mood gets confirmed when examining the number of official visits from that country which have since been cancelled – prominently those of Foreign Minister A K Abdul Momen, just a day after passing of the CAA, Deputy Foreign Minister Shahriar Alam, who did not attend the Raisina Dialogue, and finally the parliamentary delegation which cancelled its March visit. Bangladesh is also pressing India to take a more active line in resolving the Rohingya issue. Perusal of vernacular media and writings of researchers indicate that views of diehard anti-India Islamists continue to find a constituency amongst the general public and sizeable segments of the opposition. This is where the Pakistani attempt to establish a foothold, mentioned in the July 8 news report merits attention.
China's growing footprints
China continues to woo Bangladesh as a member of the Belt and Road Initiative. Yet the Hambantota debt trap in Sri Lanka has imposed caution on Bangladesh: development of Sonadia port through Chinese assistance has been shelved. The largesse offered, however, is difficult to ignore – whether the $20 billion loan announced during President Xi Jinping’s 2016 visit or the 70% debt for financing the $2 billion Payra power project whose first unit has gone on steam this year. Further, China State Shipbuilding Corporation (CSSC) has announced that one of its affiliates has secured the bid for construction of a yard with ancillaries at the Payra port, the third-largest in Bangladesh.
The Bangladesh military continues to depend on China, importing tanks, fighter jets and frigates. As per the China Power report of CSIS, between 2008 and 2018, China provided $1.93 billion of weapons, supplying a range of systems from Ming class submarines to small arms.
That India has its eye firmly on the ball can be gauged from the communication of External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar to his Bangladeshi counterpart (July 9) where India’s view that ”an early, safe (and) sustainable repatriation of displaced persons from Rakhine (Myanmar) is in the collective interest of all..” has been clearly conveyed. This enunciation of India’s stand on the vexed Rohingya issue would go some distance in dispelling Bangladeshi misgivings.
With some nimble footwork India could also exploit opportunities that the slow pace of execution of China funded projects provide. After close to four years of signing deals for executing 27 projects valued at $20 billion, only six have commenced as of December 2019, as reported by Bangladesh’s Financial Express. India could focus on other important projects which are doable in an efficient and timely manner.
India need not compete with China in Bangladesh. It must remain focussed on mutually beneficial issues decided in an atmosphere of transparency to make this relationship stronger.
(The writer is a former Deputy Director-General of the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA). New Delhi. The views expressed are personal)