What is Bangladesh’s role in the Indo-China tug of war?
Just after the sudden visit of Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla to Bangladesh on August 18-19, I went through a lot of articles published in Indian newspapers and posted on online news portals.
Most of the articles tried to prove that the relationship between Dhaka and New Delhi was now slightly cracked -- a bit of mistrust had been created between both countries, and Bangladesh was leaning towards China, similar to other neighbouring countries of India.
While reading some of these opinion pieces, one could presume that Chinese influence in Bangladesh’s politics and economy had increased noticeably, which, undoubtedly, is a security threat to India. That’s why Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi might have sent Shringla to Bangladesh on a special aircraft with a message of peace and friendship, and for preventing further alliance with the “Dragon.”
Sadly, many have mentioned that Harsh V Shringla did not get a cordial welcome in Dhaka, the office of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina kept him waiting for several hours before seeing him. Although Shringla is well-known in Dhaka as a former Indian high commissioner from 2016 to 2019, not giving him importance was not personal; it was a reflection of diplomatic disappointment from the Bangladesh government’s side.
A few major newspapers, however, were a bit of an exception -- echoing the South Block, they said that relations between the two countries were normal and Shringla’s visit to Dhaka was a sign of warmer relations. This visit, they claimed, was useful in discussing specific initiatives in several key areas of mutual interest. It also reflected the priority that India accorded to Bangladesh as part of its Neighbourhood First policy.
In the near future, Narendra Modi and Sheikh Hasina will jointly inaugurate the Akhaura-Agartala railway line and the Rampal power plant.
The Foreign Ministry issued a press release on August 20 about Shringla’s visit and meeting with his counterpart Masud Bin Momen, where there was no hint of what had been discussed at the meeting between Shringla and the prime minister.
On the other hand, after a brief hiatus, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs issued a statement on August 26, most of which revealed the issues discussed during Shringla’s meeting with the prime minister of Bangladesh.
In many bilateral meetings, Bangladesh sought help to repatriate about 1.1 million Rohingya refugees who have taken refuge in Cox’s Bazar, but India has so far done little. Even this time, congratulating his counterpart on India becoming a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, Masud bin Momen conveyed Bangladesh’s greater expectation from India as a member of the UNSC to play a more meaningful role for a lasting solution to the Rohingya crisis, including their early repatriation to Myanmar.
But in the statement issued by the MEA on the foreign secretary’s visit, India stated that the Rohingya refugees were “Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs),” a term which is completely different from refugees; it ultimately reflexes Myanmar’s claims that these Bangla-speaking Myanmar citizen are Bangladeshi.
The MEA statement said: “The issue of safe repatriation of internally displaced persons from the Rakhine state also came up for discussion.” Note that, unlike Myanmar, they are not pronouncing the word “Rohingya.” By definition, an IDP is someone who is forced to flee their home but did not cross a border to find safety. Unlike refugees, they are on the run at home.
Bangladesh does not always talk and intervene in anyone’s internal affairs -- in the time of Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar’s visit to Dhaka in August last year, Bangladesh officially announced that Kashmir was an internal issue of India. In the same way, Bangladesh can expect its neighbours to not bother about any of its internal matters.
Unfortunately, when Bangladesh bought a submarine from China, then Indian leaders and media analysts asked, mockingly, who Bangladesh would fight.
You don’t have to be a big country to fight. For instance, Israel, with a population of only 9 million, has survived the last seven decades by fighting 400 million Muslims in the Middle East alone.
Unfounded security concerns
In a tender for the construction work of the second terminal at Sylhet Airport, a Chinese company got the project while competing with an Indian company. And that’s why India is asserting that the construction of that terminal is a threat to Indian security, as the airport is next to its eastern states, known as the Seven Sisters.
What is the security concern? Delhi’s concerns about the Seven Sisters’ separatist movement have long been addressed by Bangladesh. On the contrary, by closing the bases of Indian separatists on the soil of Bangladesh, arresting separatist leaders and handing them over to India, Bangladesh has put its own security in jeopardy.
China is Bangladesh’s main arms supplier, investor, and trade partner. The two countries became strategic partners in 2016. Bangladesh’s defense agreements with China -- which include an ultra-modern submarine base called BNS Sheikh Hasina in Cox’s Bazar, a new naval base in Patkhauli, and the delivery of a Chinese Corvette to strengthen its naval forces -- are not new at all.
Bilateral trade with 97% duty-free access for Bangladeshi products in the Chinese market has made China not only Bangladesh’s largest trading partner, but also its largest investor. China has already invested $10 billion in Bangladesh towards a string of power and infrastructure projects under the Belt and Road Initiative. Despite its mounting dependence on China, Bangladesh is careful to balance its relations with Delhi and Beijing as it needs both of them for its growth.
Even in the ongoing vaccine diplomacy, liberally, Bangladesh has kept the balance by giving the opportunity to both China and India to run the trials of their vaccines for Covid-19 in Bangladesh.
It is not necessary that, since China’s relations with India are not going well, India has to be worried about Bangladesh completing its mega-projects with Chinese funding. Sheikh Hasina receiving a phone call from Imran Khan should not be viewed with suspicion; it has no connection with the hostility between India and Pakistan.
India has to admit that it lacks capacity to cooperate in the development of a country like Bangladesh. India is claiming to give an $8 billion loan to Bangladesh, saying that it is their highest loan given to any country.
The reality is that the loan is being spent on projects that are all in India’s interest, and for the need of constructing the mainland’s rail, road, and river connectivity with its eastern states via Bangladesh.
India is already getting the result, the most recent being the shipment of cargo from Kolkata to Agartala via Chittagong port. The Bangladesh-Tripura water route trial is to be held in September from Daudkandi in the Comilla district to Sonamura in Tripura through River Gomati.
India’s new concern has been added based on a piece of published news which said that the Bangladesh government is going to take on a project called “Teesta River Comprehensive Management and Restoration” to reduce the width and increase the depth of the river in the Rangpur region.
China agreed to fund a massive project for the management of the Teesta river for nearly $1 billion. The Teesta flows into Bangladesh from north Bengal. There is no official word on when the Chinese will release the money for the project and what the overall theme of the project will be.
India has been promising a Teesta water-sharing agreement since 2011. Now it is blaming West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee for not having an agreement, but she has said that Teesta water has been withdrawn and taken to Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, and Madhya Pradesh. How would they give water to Bangladesh even if there was an agreement?
After passing the Citizenship Amendment Act, Bangladesh was labelled by many across the border as a country persecuting Hindus. Indian Home Minister Amit Shah in 2018 said that illegal immigrants in Assam were like termites who took away the jobs of locals; Shah repeated his sentiment again in West Bengal during the 2019 campaign, adding that if the BJP came to power, it would throw all infiltrators into the Bay of Bengal.
Though the Indian government calls Bangladesh one of India’s friends in the region, there continue to exist members of the Hindutva party who are constantly spreading hatred against Bangladesh.
Anis Alamgir is a journalist and columnist, known for live reports from the Iraq and Afghan wars. He can be reached at [email protected]