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Bangladesh: Feel for the Stones When Crossing the River

“Feel for the stones when crossing the river” is an old Chinese strategic saying.  Mao Zedong used this philosophy in his own strategies, and it has been used in his strategic writings.  It is a caution to a commander or even an emperor, that when conducting a military expedition or crafting relationship with another country, every step must be critically considered as one misstep can result in wiping away an entire army and cause immense damage to a kingdom.  A river bed is not necessarily smooth and the ordinary eye cannot see it.  Hence each step must be tested for its firmness.

The Awami League government led by Prime Minster Sk. Hasina, inherited a country a year and half ago which was in tatters in more ways than one.  Terrorism and distorted Islam practioners a.k.a. fundamentalists had taken roots thanks to the BNP – Jamaat-e-Islami (JEI) rule of the previous government.  Unbridled corruption had sucked the country’s vitals.   And its international reputation had plummeted like never before.  The rights of women were put in a grinder, even though the Prime Minister, Begum Khaleda Zia was a woman.

In the course of just 18 months Sk. Hasina has succeeded in turning the country around.  She has laid the course for the millennium development goal, energized the industrial sector, made new structure to augment the power sector, reduced corruption drastically, attacked terrorism and fundamentalism at their roots.  Sk. Hasina’s basic platform was counter-terrorism and development.

Bangladesh observers may ask why did she attach so much attention to counter-terrorism in the beginning when so many other issues were begging attention?  The answer is clear.  Terrorism was not an issue by itself.  It was the spearhead of a much larger political issue which attacked the fundamentals of the country’s history and culture which in turn stratified development.

Sk. Hasina’s foreign policy was meticulously structured, and should be a subject of research by students of international relations and parties of developing countries.  Bangladeshi terrorism had become not only a national issue but a concern for countries even in the developed world.  Under the BNP-JEI government Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism was invited in to serve the politics of the individuals and political parties of the day.  At one point of time in 2004-05 Bangladesh was on an international watch list for countries sponsoring terrorism.

Al Qaida cadres visited Chittagong towards the end of 2006 looking for new bases.  Pakistan’s Laskar-e-Toiba (LET), Harkat-ul-Jehad-al-Islami (HUJI) and Hizbul Mujahidin found abode along with home grown terrorist like Jamiatul Mujahidin Bangladesh (JMB), who targeted not only India but had plans for the west.  At one point of time there were more than 120 such organizations in the country who resided and acted with the blessing of the power that be at the time.

The Awami League led government has succeeded in breaking the backbone of most of these organizations, but complete eradication will take a long time, if ever.  They continue to enjoy the blessings of their earlier mentors who have their people still in the bureaucracy and financial institutions, and will continue to do so.  Funds from abroad is still coming in, despite a lot of efforts.  But the major task has been achieved.

In more regular areas of foreign policy, the Bangladesh government has approached the challenge in development mode and security in more senses than one.  There is a first circle of neighbours.  These include India, Nepal, Bhutan, China and Myanmar.  These immediate and near neighbours, and economy and development have been catch words.  China with its huge economic and political power gets a high slice in the infrastructure, and India has been included in this matrix after a long time.  Bangladesh is not only to take, it has offered to give also. A developed, vibrant and secular Bangladesh will on help boost the development of South Asia.

The Islamic countries have been approached similarly.  Sk. Hasina has not left any untouched either personally or through her emissaries.  Expatriate Bangadeshis in the oil rich countries contribute handsomely to the country’s economy.

Donor countries and international financial organizations have accepted the efficacy of Sk. Hasina’s stewardship and reposed new faith in the country.  This is significant since these rich countries and financial entities can not only provide financial and technological assistance, but also provide prestige with trust.

This far, Prime Minister Sk. Hasina has well negotiated the stones in the river bed.  Given Bangladesh’s important and sensitive geographical position in the Indian Ocean and South Asia, especially India, she may find the stones in the river bed a  little more troublesome.  This relates to balancing relations between India and China, and the political security thinking of each of these two countries.  Yet, Bangladesh has to take decisions in its true national interest and in the interest of the well being of its people.  Bilateral relations are no longer zero-sum games.

During her visit to China in March this year, Sk. Hasina sought Chinese investment, and assistance for building a deep sea port in Sonadia, Cox’s Bazaar, and repair the trade imbalance.  Bangladesh’s trade imbalance with China is far worse than its trade imbalance with India, but the India factor is mentioned much more in Bangladeshi media and by interested political circles.

The Chinese Ambassador in Dhaka, Zhang Xianyi, recently informed the Bangladesh government that Myanmar had agreed in principle to allow this road through its territory.  But no one has asked the question why Myanmar, a close friend of China, declined to agree to this proposal for over seven years?  This had nothing to do with Myanmar’s relationship with Bangladesh.  The answer will be found in Myanmar’s refusal to allow a road-cum-water way from Kunming through Myanmar to the Indian Ocean after years of negotiations, though Yangon or Naypidaw agreed to the China’s oil and gas pipelines from Kunming to Myanmar’s Indian Ocean port.

Being isolated by the west, the Myanmar military junta had no other options for support other than China. It became a captive of Beijing, and had to give China the top consideration in infrastructure, military and international diplomacy like in the United Nations. But Naypidaw is now feeling strangulated and wants to break out of this vice like grip. Dhaka may like to examine the Myanmar example.

Following India’s $ one billion credit to Bangladesh which continues to attract vitriolic attacks from the opposition politicians and media, China offered $ 800 million credit line to Dhaka with interest rate higher than the Indian offer.  But there has been no opposition or even critical examination of the Chinese credit in Bangladesh.

The following may, however, help provide some explanation to Chinese strategy with respect to Dhaka and New Delhi. The China Radio International (CRI), an official mouthpiece of the Chinese government and the Communist Party of China (CPC), had the following to say on the proposed Asian Highway (AH) in its Bengali commentary on September 18, 2010.

Even since the present government (Bangladesh) came to power, India became hyperactive on this matter (AH). Finally, the present Bangladesh Government has successfully determined the routes and India has won the battle. Experts in Bangladesh, however, feel that the decision of the present Bangladesh Government in the matter does not reflect the aspirations of its own people …… the very fundamental purpose of this AH has been lost to “India’s interest”.

The rest of the CRI commentary underscored that both AH routes proposed gives advantage to India, and therefore, India is keen to expedite the construction of AH by providing additional funds to Bangladesh. It does not mention that the proposed AH routes are not solely India’s decision but decision of an international financing agency.

The heart of this commentary is lending full support to the attack by the BNP and JEI on the Awami League and the new India-Bangladesh relations. It must be kept in mind that the Chinese media is official under the Chinese state and CPC constitutions. They reflect, by law, the position of the Chinese government and the Party.

In deduction, the Chinese government has thrown its support behind the BNP-JEI opposition front and reflects their views almost verbatim.

The Awami League and its coalition parties may like to revisit 2004—2005. The Chinese government at that time was very clear that they supported the BNP-JEI combine because if the Awami League came to power China and especially Pakistan would lose influence in Dhaka, and India will gain influence. In substance, Bangladesh had to be nurtured as an anti-India domino in the China-Pak encirclement of India – the “String of Pearls Strategy”. The Chinese strategy is to divide the Bangladeshi people, projecting improvement of relations would be detrimental to Bangladesh’s interest. This commentary is not a one-off view. It is the tip of the iceberg. It conforms to China’s “three warfare” strategy comprising media warfare, psychological warfare and legal warfare. At the moment, it is psychological warfare through media for agents to carry it out at the ground level in Bangladesh.

The Awami League and the freedom fighting parties need to revisit the war of liberation and China’s positioning with Pakistan. China accorded diplomatic recognition to Bangladesh only after the assassination of Banga Bandhu, Sk.  Mujibur Rahman, and Islamabad’s diplomatic recognition of Dhaka. That strategy has not changed even by a millimeter.

Then, of course, Bangladesh cannot reject China, either. These are compulsions of modern geopolitics of the 21st century. At the same time, Dhaka cannot ignore reality. If South Asia goes down, India will hurt, but it will not drown. China and Pakistan will not give a damn if Bangladesh goes down.

Sk. Hasina will have to determine the road ahead and deeply consider certain strategic projects. If you trust, verify first. Feel the stones when crossing the river.

(The writer, Mr Bhaskar Roy, is a China analyst based in New Delhi. Views expressed are his own.

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