What holds next for India’s relationship with Bangladesh amidst the Indo-China conflict?
he ongoing Indo-China conflict could reverberate new relations in the regional South Asian geo-political dimensions. Contrary to beliefs that the rivalry between two neighbours makes the relations with other neighbours vulnerable, Bangladesh emerges as a curious case.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi set the “neighbourhood first” policy in motion when he invited the heads of states from Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Maldives, and Bhutan to his swearing-in ceremony in 2014.
This policy set Indian foreign policy’s focus towards its neighbours. However, the ongoing Indo-China conflict has seen India’s oldest ally, Bangladesh, tilting towards China.
The India-Bangladesh relations go way back -- in fact, India was the first country to recognize the sovereignty of Bangladesh and establish diplomatic ties in 1971. Beijing began its diplomatic relations with Dhaka in 1976.
The Sino-Bangladesh relations began as a process of comprehensive cooperation for trade, economy, and technology. The Sino-Bangladesh relationship has transformed from being limited to a few sectors to China becoming the largest trading partner of Bangladesh, surpassing India in 2015.
Effective from July 1, Bangladesh received tariff exemptions from Beijing for 97% of Bangladeshi products. Bangladesh has also received a proposal from China for much-needed medical supplies to tackle the global Covid-19 pandemic.
Though the proposal came with the condition to form a sister city alliance with Chinese cities, it is still a huge lending hand from the Chinese. Sister city alliances are considered to develop people-to-people relations across borders by promoting commercial and cultural relationships.
Some Indian media reported China’s offer as “charity” for Bangladesh, which angered Bangladeshis. The uproar on social media was such that the newspaper apologized.
Also, Foreign Minister of Bangladesh AK Abdul Momen rejected the criticism of the Chinese deal. Clearly, China’s shadow is now looming over India-Bangladesh relations.
Prime Minister Modi’s “Neighbourhood First” policy helped to settle border disputes with Bangladesh and smoothed ties with Sri Lanka and Bhutan in his first term. However, in this second term since, those developments seem to have worn off.
With increasing tensions with China, there was silence from India’s oldest allies. This should signal India to reflect on its relations with their neighbouring countries.
India has been trying to form economic and political relations beyond its neighbours, such as the Quad collective of democracies, the US-led Indo-Pacific group of nations. The aspirations to establish newer relations must not come at the cost of losing its regional ties, especially with Beijing’s expansionist strategies in the South China Sea and South Asia.
Moreover, China has stated that Dhaka will be a priority should it develop a vaccine against the coronavirus. Hualong Yan, the deputy chief of mission at the Chinese Embassy in Dhaka, said: “Of course, Bangladesh is our important friend and Bangladesh will surely get priority.”
India is also in the process of amping up its relationship with Bangladesh. In his wishes for Bangladesh on Mujib Borsho, the Minister of State for External Affairs V Muraleedharan said: “As we are also looking at creating a new economic partnership for the future, there are opportunities to go beyond trade in goods and look at the trade in services.”
The minister also mentioned that India is prepared to further assist Bangladesh in mitigating the health and economic impacts of the pandemic. The impasse on the India-Bangladesh border trade which has been disrupted since March 23 due to lockdown restrictions was lifted on July 4.
Since March 2020, only one-way trade from India was permitted and no export from Bangladesh was allowed due to the integrated check point (ICP) restrictions, causing negative impact on India-Bangladesh bilateral ties. The first truck from Bangladesh entering India after three months has restored the bilateral trade.
Bangladesh also recently requested China for an infrastructure fund worth $64 billion. This request is made through the Investment Cooperation Working Group with China which was established last year.
With strong competition from China, India will struggle to keep its age-old friendship with Bangladesh. With a common cultural and linguistic connection, India still has the potential to mend and establish positive working relations with Bangladesh.
India must also acknowledge that Bangladesh may or may not form friendly relations with other countries in pursuance of its own benefits. Through careful steps, it should double its efforts to keep its long friendship with Bangladesh alive.
Mozammil Ahmad is an independent researcher and a student of law at University of Delhi.