Beijing is back with much bigger ideas
China is back in a once backwater region, one which must jettison old prejudices if it wants to breathe, grow, and become a part of the Eurasian project.
The Kolkata to Kunming initiative of the 90s never got off the ground. Delhi didn’t want to dance. Beijing has reappeared with a much bigger idea, encompassing Eurasia -- a super-continent in sync. From the Atlantic to the Pacific. The Arctic to the Indian Ocean.
Within that, the Bengali Delta could still become a key zone. The promise? A region on good terms with each other. Trading and interacting peacefully for economic development and prosperity. Harmony in place of acrimony. In its path is a deadly cocktail of mutual suspicions, sectarian animosity, and worldviews hermetically sealed by the imperial, drawn-up borders of 1947. A whole new mindset is needed to get out of this imbroglio.
Kolkata has long ceased to be a progressive beacon of the region east of the Rajmahal hills. Losing its industrial crown, it is none too thrilled about its traditionally rural eastern cousins. Old East Bengal is today industrializing and growing.
It’s been a shock to the system. Neither Dhaka nor Kolkata have shown the wit to have a strategic conversation on how to revive economic and environmental partnerships, this time on a more equitable basis. Both look past each other.
Dhaka has a primordial fear of an overwhelming India surrounding it on all sides. On the other hand, it neglects to see individual states or provinces, who have different economic priorities than distant Delhi. These next door neighbours have always been ignored, except for when there is a crisis.
The citizenship row (CAA) plus Rohingyas from Rakhine awakened it temporarily. Pro-active outreach from Dhaka is absent. In regards to China, Dhaka unfortunately just sees money and engineers, as it once did with Japan in the 1980s. Subtle it isn’t. Fickle or short-term sums it up better.
In Myanmar, too many visualize Rakhine state as the last stop before an imaginary “massed Islamic population” of 170 million, three times the population of Myanmar. In this view, majority Buddhist Myanmar and Thailand are enveloped by a combined 430 million Muslims in Malaysia and Indonesia to the southeast, and Bangladesh to the northwest. The history of Mujahideen guerrilla forces attempting secession in Arakan/Rakhine state in the mid-1940s is linked in the minds of the Tatmadaw to today’s ragtag ARSA and “Bengali-Muslim immigration.”
Groups in Assam promote the narrative of a contemporary demographic assault by Bengalis, twisted by Hindutva into a religious tirade. Whereas the real problem is that Assam’s resources and minerals always head west to Delhi.
The Seven Sisters region is the start of Southeast Asia. It has similar populations and resources as Myanmar. Both would boom if they coordinated together and focused on economics. Unfortunately, Myanmar is still in permanent state-building mode, unwilling to enact a grand settlement of genuine devolution in return for development. Both Delhi and Naypyidaw remain fearful of centrifugal forces.
Nepal sees itself held back by a poor Big Brother India, intent on seeing it as a buffer state in an out-of-date Great Game and competition in Xizang (Tibet). Nepal, bordering Bengal, sees the Delta as a natural outlet.
Yet, Delhi’s blunt interference including imposing a blockade in 2015 is forcing it to look north and connect to the distant Pacific Ocean via Lhasa. Nepal does not want to end up as a Sikkim with a flag.
How Delhi sees it
The elephant in the room is of course Delhi. In the northeastern “Seven Sister” states, it still uses the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), brought in 1958 -- the year Ayub Khan came to power. Yes, that long. It continues to see the region as a) territory to hold against groups seeking greater sovereignty and b) vulnerable to a perceived Chinese economic and military threat.
It sees Bangladesh as a transit route to that region -- in the 1990s and 2000s, as a convenient gas field to quench India’s energy thirst (another Assam). It was also considered expendable in 2004 when Delhi tried to embark on a Soviet-style river-linking project to divert the Brahmaputra waters to central India.
With a straight-face, today, Delhi complains about Chinese projects on the Yalu Zangbu (upstream Brahmaputra). That’s where beggar thy neighbour policies get you.
Some say Beijing sees the Bay of Bengal as its West Coast, its economic “California,” and outlet to the Indian Ocean. Sky high ambitions next to parochial political elites.
China has been downright disappointed with Delhi’s browbeating of Naypyidaw and Dhaka in the early and mid-2010s, delaying or scrapping road, pipeline, and port projects. Beijing is back again and the 2020s promise to be a very different story.
Farid Erkizia Bakht is a political analyst.