By MR Josse
KATHMANDU: Has India ‘lost’ Bangladesh to China? This query has been ignited by Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent hugely successful state visit to Bangladesh.
There, Xi sought to dramatically ramp up Beijing’s clout in a country virtually joined at the hip with India ever since its gory delivery, from the womb of East Pakistan, in December 1971. Its birth was due in very generous measure to Indian military intervention, backed by robust Soviet diplomatic support at the UN Security Council.
It may be germane to recall that Xi’s host was Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, generally regarded as the new state’s founder. As anyone with a nodding acquaintance with Bangladesh knows, India played a seminal role in her turbulent post-‘liberation’ period that witnessed frequent and wide political oscillations, including political assassinations.
It may be remembered that Bangladesh’s short political history has been largely dominated by the so-called ‘war of the begums’ – that is to say between Begum Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) and Begum Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League. Zia’s leads the ‘nationalistic’ BNP while Hasina heads the Awami League generally considered as ‘pro-India’. Zia has been PM thrice; Hasina’s incumbency as premier is her second innings which began in 2009.
However, to return to the mainstream of this narrative, it should be mentioned that Xi’s state visit to Bangladesh was the first by a Chinese president in three decades. While Xi was in Dhaka, loans and investment deals between China and Bangladesh worth about $ 20 billion were formalized, even as Bangladeshi and Chinese firms signed $13.6 billion in trade and investment deals. For reference, note that during Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Bangladesh last year he announced a $2 billion credit line. The difference between the two is telltale.
During Xi’s visit, the two sides issued a joint declaration upgrading China-Bangladesh relationship to a strategic cooperative partnership. Xi and Hasina agreed that their countries would, inter alia, cooperate in major projects in production capacity, energy and electricity, transportation, telecommunications, infrastructure and agriculture, and agreed to begin feasibility studies on the establishment of a China-Bangladesh free trade area and establish a series of mechanisms such as a bilateral dialogue and cooperation in maritime affairs.
In gauging the politico-diplomatic significance of the latest developments on the Sino-Bangla front, it may be additionally helpful to note (a) after the creation/liberation of Bangladesh, China had vigorously opposed Bangladesh’s UN entry and (b) that the present breakthrough in Dhaka-Beijing ties has occurred during ‘pro-India’ Hasina’s watch, not under that of ‘nationalistic’ Zia’s.
Yet, it must not be forgotten that Beijing’s attitude Bangladesh in the early 1970s was conditioned by (a) the hostile state of Beijing-Moscow relations and (b) the strategic tie-up between India and the erstwhile Soviet Union, at the frostiest phase of the Cold War which, among other things, spurred Sino-American rapprochement, navigated brilliantly by the Nixon/Kissinger and the Mao/Zhou power teams, respectively.
I would now like to draw attention to an illuminating opinion piece by Iftikar Ahmed Chaudhary, a former Bangladeshi diplomat on the South Asian policy implications of the Xi visit to Bangladesh. Writing on the letterhead of the Institute of South Asian Studies of the National University of Singapore, Chaudhary – incidentally, my Bangladeshi counterpart at the UN when I served as Nepal’s DPR – explains that Hasina has managed to “earn Modi’s gratitude” by denying sanctuary inside Bangladesh territory to Indian insurgents in India’s Northeast.
In attempting to explain Hasina’s exquisite tight-rope act between India and China, Chaudhary mentions the conclusion of “historic land boundary agreement that removed a major apple of discord” between Delhi and Dhaka, though he laments that “water sharing promised by India on the Teesta river has still to take effect – much to the chagrin of Bangladesh.”
Significantly, he recalls Dhaka’s prompt decision, following India’s, of not attending the SAARC summit that had been slated for November in Islamabad – as per Hasina’s recent interview to The Hindu – but points out that Bangladesh had it own reasons for doing so, which were “not the same as India’s”. Those, incidentally, relate to Pakistan’s open criticism of the war-crime trials in Bangladesh which she viewed as outright interference.
HASINA’S CHINESE GAMBLE
Hasina emphasised that the sanctity of the Line of Control (LOC) which Chaudhary correctly interprets as implying “distancing from endorsing cross-LOC ‘surgical strikes’.” In my book, that strongly hints at Bangladesh’s apprehension that similar strikes might be conducted across the India-Bangladesh frontier. Notably, too, “a number of (China-Bangladesh) MOUs came under the purview of China’s OBOR initiative”, Xi’s brain-child – a stance that starkly contrasts with India’s sullen attitude towards the same.
On the other hand, one is informed that “China did not walk away with the Chittagong deep-sea port project, obviously as this would upset India, and along with it, the US.” Despite such caution, we are informed that “defense is an area in which bilateral cooperation is buoyant” along with the caveat that the “widening of military relations (between Dhaka and Beijing) could naturally raise some concerns in New Delhi.”
Though there have not been any loud expressions of rage – or cries of ‘betrayal’ – in New Delhi, thus far, I maintain that it remains to be seen what and how Modi’s India will eventually react against Bangladesh’s transparent move to so openly challenge that she is in the ‘Indian sphere of influence’.
What is striking, from a Nepali perspective, is that while Bangladesh has moved. or is moving away, from India’s suffocating embrace, while rapidly expanding ties with China – with which she shares no common border and with whom her relations are not of historical vintage – Prachanda’s Nepal is lurching forward in the opposite direction!
Though it remains to be seen if Hasina’s Chinese gamble pays off, for the present one can usefully mull over whether India has indeed ‘lost’ Bangladesh to China!
Has India ‘lost’ Bangladesh to China?
By MR Josse