India must rethink Bangladesh strategy instead of worrying about Dhaka-Beijing closeness

With Bangladesh celebrating its Independence on Friday, India’s role in the 1971 liberation war is being emphasised both in Dhaka, Delhi and Kolkata. Ever since Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina came to power in 2008, relations between the two neighbours are on a high. However, some blips have occurred in recent times which if not repaired in time, do not bode well for the future.

 India must rethink Bangladesh strategy instead of worrying about Dhaka-Beijing closeness

A file image of Sheikh Hasina with Narendra Modi. PTI

Hasina is coming to India in February to renew India-Bangladesh ties. But with the Teesta Waters Agreement showing no signs of being signed in a hurry, there is disappointment in Bangladesh. Modi’s visit to Dhaka in 2015 generated much goodwill. The prime minister’s speech where he said air and water did not belong to any nation, but was the property of all humanity.

The Bangladeshis were bowled over by Modi and believed he would be in a position to deliver on the Teesta agreement. However, chances are now dim with West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee unlikely to come on board.

However, the Teesta is not the only issue that is bugging Dhaka. Bangladesh just cannot understand the noise in India over its recent purchase of two submarines from China at a reportedly very competitive price of $24 billion. The deal was inked in 2013, but New Delhi’s hackles were raised when the first submarine was delivered last month. This, coupled with the fact that President Xi Jinping, during his visit to Dhaka in October, extended a $24 billion loan to Bangladesh. All of this aligns with New Delhi’s concerns about Beijing spreading its wings across India’s neighbourhood and its fears of encirclement by its powerful Asian rival.

For Bangladesh, India’s fears are completely unjustified

"Yes, we have friendly relations with China, but our ties with India are at another level. We can never forget India’s contribution to the Liberation War. So the concern here is baffling," said a senior Bangladeshi official, contacted by phone from Delhi. He spoke on condition of anonymity.

Like their counterparts in West Bengal, Bangladeshis are fiercely independent. They value their freedom and sovereignty earned with blood, sweat and tears and the loss of thousands of lives. They
acknowledge and are grateful to Indira Gandhi and India. But it is a sensitive nation and savours its freedom of choice. So, if Dhaka wants to have good relations with Beijing, it should not make Delhi jittery. After all, nations choose what is best for their respective national interests, and a good deal is a good deal whether for individuals or nations.

The current Awami League government is India-friendly, but that did not prevent Hasina from ordering the submarines from China.

Bangladesh wants to shore up its defence capabilities to secure its maritime boundaries and its special economic zone. Dhaka is doing this for self-defence and not to threaten any other country. As Bangladeshi officials never tire of pointing out, these submarines will never be used against India, so where’s the threat?

New Delhi is certainly not afraid of Bangladesh attacking India, but it is concerned about Beijing’s growing clout in India’s neghbourhood. China has always been an all-weather friend to Pakistan and is investing $46 billion for Xi’s pet 'One-Belt One-Road' project. Despite a change in government, Sri Lanka too has agreed to allow the Chinese to build a port city in Colombo. China is also active in the Maldives and Nepal.

Considering that the proposal to build a deep sea port in Sonadia, near Cox’s Bazar in Chittagong is not going through and Dhaka will have a global tender for a consortium to take on the
project, India should be reassured. Somehow, suspicion and concern remain. New Delhi was looking at Chinese moves in buiding the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka, Gwadar in Pakistan and Sonadia in Bangladesh. The feeling of encirclement was complete.

But Dhaka has assured Delhi about Sonadia. It is also a true that Hambantota was first offered to India, but no one was willing to take up the port project.

India needs an alternative vision for the region

It is a fact that China is moving quickly in the neigbourhood. China’s way of working, for a variety of reasons is certainly more efficient than India’s slow progress on projects. So all countries that seek to upgrade their infrastructure will welcome Chinese investments. As Srinath Raghvan, an independent analyst who follows Bangladesh closely, put it: "China’s maritime and one road one belt policy is hard to resist. India does not have an alternative to offer on the table. Bimstec (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) is a slow starter."

China delivers, India scrambles and takes time for everything. In such a case, naturally, India’s neighbours go with China.

"India has not been able to give an alternative vision that is as appealing. So, there is resentment in Delhi and attempts to browbeat the smaller neighbours, but this can boomerang,’’ said Raghavan. He acknowledged that China is moving in fast in the periphery. It is time for India to rethink its strategy.

Updated Date: Dec 16, 2016 16:03:57 IST