India's foreign policy for next 5 years: Expanding bilateral ties with Bangladesh vital for New Delhi's 'Act East' targets

Editor's note: Prime Minister Narendra Modi's tour of the Maldives was his first international visit after having taken oath for the second time. His 2014 swearing-in ceremony featured leaders from SAARC nations as special invitees, while in 2019, it was the BIMSTEC leaders and those from Kyrgyzstan and Mauritius who were in attendance, underlining the importance the prime minister places on international relations. This is the fourth in a series of articles that looks at key foreign policy targets for the Modi government as it looks to the next five years.


No sooner had the list of invitees for Prime Minister Narendra Modi's swearing-in ceremony on 30 May was made public, than two things became fairly apparent:

First, and most obvious, diplomatic overtures aimed at Pakistan seem to be off the table for the near future. While Afghanistan was also left off the invitees' list, not a lot needs to be read into it since bilateral relations remain warm and New Delhi-Kabul cooperation has tended to work better in a bilateral capacity than in a defunct regional grouping like the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC).

Second, and more pertinent, India, it would appear, has hitched its wagon to the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) as far as regional groupings are concerned. And the key piece of that BIMSTEC puzzle, ergo, one of India's key gateways to East Asia is Bangladesh.

 Indias foreign policy for next 5 years: Expanding bilateral ties with Bangladesh vital for New Delhis Act East targets

File image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Bangladesh's prime minister Sheikh Hasina. Reuters

The Ministry of External Affairs website duly notes that Bangladesh is India's largest trade partner in South Asia — with bilateral trade standing at $9.3 billion in 2017-18. The country is also India's largest development partner with New Delhi extending three lines of credit worth a total of $8 billion since 2010. Collaboration in the power sector is another notable aspect of the relationship, with joint ventures in thermal power projects and the fact that Bangladesh imports 1160 MW of power from India annually.

Meanwhile, in the past five years, two thorny issues of a territorial nature were also resolved amicably: In 2014, the United Nations' Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled in favour of Bangladesh in a maritime dispute, awarding Bangladesh around 19,500 square kilometres of the 25,000 or so square kilometre sea area of the Bay of Bengal. And in 2015, the two countries signed the India-Bangladesh Land Boundary Agreement that saw the exchange of 162 enclaves — Bangladesh received 111 of them that make up around 17,000 acres of land, while India received 51, that add up to over 7,000 acres of land.

Alongside these, security cooperation also saw a boost with a series of bilateral agreements relating to such matters as mutual legal assistance, transfer of prisoners, countering terrorism and organised crime, and the circulation of fake currency were inked. It's for good reason then that in May last year in West Bengal's Santiniketan, Modi referred to this as a 'golden chapter' in the history of both countries. In Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's presence, he said, "A golden chapter is being written in the relationship of India and Bangladesh. Complicated issues related to land boundary and coastal boundary, which seemed impossible to solve at one point of time, were finally resolved."

Extending the golden chapter

On Saturday, it was announced that the first set of bilateral discussions between the two countries after Modi returned as prime minister, will be held this week. The biannual dialogue between border guarding forces — one of many bilateral institutional mechanisms between India and Bangladesh — starts on 11 June and will tackle issues like cross-border trafficking and crime that affect both countries.

This is indicative of the sort of broad-based setup between the countries that has been established over the course of almost 50 years since Bangladesh was liberated. It may be recalled that India was the first country to recognise the erstwhile East Pakistan as an independent nation. The impact of these multiple dialogue mechanisms has been thus far to initiate and sustain dialogue and discussions about almost every aspect of the relationship — the fruit of which is the whole host of agreements being signed and movement on the ground (see: LBA, connectivity etc) between the two countries.

The aim for the NDA government over the next five years must be twofold: To take India-Bangladesh relations to the next level and consequently give momentum to India's 'Act East' aspirations. And to ensure that all of the warmth in bilateral ties is retained.

And the first step towards achieving the first target is to resolve the Teesta waters issue. As this article explains, "India's unilateral dam building in the upper reaches of the Teesta combined with climate change effects has adversely affected the river's flow downstream, especially in the dry season, affecting thousands of farmers, fishermen and boatmen in both countries. Bangladesh, the downstream riparian, has demanded a fair share of the Teesta waters in the dry season and minimum guaranteed flows throughout the year in the form of a treaty signed and ratified by both countries."

Having shown the willingness to sort out territorial disagreements and a commitment to uphold the agreements, the Modi government can kickstart the second chapter of foreign policy under its watch by fast-tracking the route to a resolution to this riparian disagreement. Bangladesh — under Hasina's Awami League governments since 2009 — has always been receptive to India's concerns, seen most clearly in the crackdown on anti-India terror groups within its borders shortly after taking office. In 2010, then finance minister Pranab Mukherjee had remarked, "If you deliver on terror, India will deliver on every other promise." Nearly 10 years on, settling the Teesta issue once and for all would be a good start.

India's connectivity with Bangladesh is all-encompassing and the two countries are far better connected than India and any other neighbour. Spanning the terrains of rail, road, waterways, sea and air (for people and goods), Bangladesh is the ideal neighbour with which to explore connectivity into East Asia. Both proposed corridors to East Asia — the more-or-less mothballed Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar (BCIM) Economic Corridor and the relatively less inert Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal Initiative — include Bangladesh for obvious geographic reasons. Getting Bangladesh on board to help move at least one of these corridors along at a faster tick will be a great way to expand the bilateral.

Now, onto the pricklier topic of the second target: Retaining India-Bangladesh warmth.


The biggest threat to ties between New Delhi and Dhaka isn't Beijing. Bangladesh has thus far managed an admirable balance between India and China, without giving either country the cold shoulder. Further, while the Bangladeshi port of Chittagong features prominently in China's Maritime Silk Route, for now, Dhaka is unlikely to do a flip-flop with New Delhi and throw its doors open to Beijing. An aversion to falling into a deep sinkhole of debt may have a key role to play in that. Instead, the greater risk comes from a stagnation — followed by a gradual deterioration — of relations stemming from India's unwillingness to reciprocate Bangladesh's apparent willingness to address New Delhi's concerns or its domestic policies that end up hurting Bangladeshi interests.

For starters, India's unwillingness to either condemn Myanmar or pressure it to repatriate Rohingya refugees has not been received all that well in Bangladesh. By abstaining from voting on a UN resolution — sponsored by Bangladesh and the EU — that would take Naypyitaw to task for human rights violations, New Delhi signalled its unwillingness to get involved in what it viewed — rightly or wrongly — as a bilateral disagreement between two sovereign nations. Considering Myanmar is another gateway to East Asia (see: Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project, as well as the aforementioned BCIM), India has at this point chosen not to risk overtly upsetting either of these two partners. (Note: It's worth noting that India hasn't left Bangladesh completely out to dry in this matter, with New Delhi providing assistance to Dhaka in the form of Operation Insaniyat to help manage the refugee situation.)

Along with the refusal to condemn Myanmay, New Delhi's reluctance or inability to set in motion a meaningful negotiation to expedite a resolution to the Teesta waters issue leaves you — in terms of perceptions, at least — with the makings of a regional hegemon that takes what it wants and gives only whatever and whenever it feels like. For now, Hasina has expressed that she's willing to be patient and wait for a deal to be cracked eventually, but patience like the seat of a pair of trousers tends to wear thin after a while. Of India's neighbours and not including Bhutan, only Bangladesh under the Awami League has managed to live in relative harmony with 'Big Brother' India, without any major hiccups in the relationship. But that does not mean this important partnership can be taken for granted.

Internally, Assam's National Register of Citizens (NRC) has already exacerbated anti-Bangladeshi immigrant sentiment in the state and the divisive NRC found mention in BJP campaigns during the recently-concluded Lok Sabha election. In West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee's own opposition to sharing Teesta water is well-documented. Given the extremely strained relations between the BJP-ruled Centre and Mamata's ruling Trinamool Congress in Bengal, there is a chance the latter may throw a spanner in the works of India-Bangladesh relations to kill two birds with one stone, for want of a better metaphor.

Over the next five years, it is expected that there will be initiatives and opportunities to broaden and widen India-Bangladesh relations, and while it is important for the Modi government to make the most of those, it is of equal — if not greater importance — not to let regional hegemony or internal politics sour New Delhi's strongest partnership in the region at present.


Part I: India's foreign policy targets with respect to Pakistan

Part II: India's foreign policy targets with respect to Pakistan's obstructionist role in Central Asia

Part III: Chumming up to US sure is beneficial for New Delhi but it can't ignore robustness of ties with Russia

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Updated Date: Jun 11, 2019 17:41:07 IST