Sandwiched between two huge powers – India and China – Bangladesh has little option but to do a strategic tightrope walk in its external relations. While India is trying to flex its economic and political power beyond the confines of South Asia, China is bent upon becoming a global economic and military power. As they expand their influence, overlap of their strategic spaces becomes inevitable. This is already evident from the increasing Chinese foot print in South Asia prompting India and the U.S. to seek greater strategic convergence between the two countries. This makes the tight rope walk of Bangladesh a little more precarious, as it is located in the sensitive underbelly of India’s troubled northeast region.
Bangladesh with high population density and steady economic growth offers an expanding market for both countries. While India’s geographic contiguity, shared histories and systemic similarities with Bangladesh confer certain advantages, China’s bigger economic clout, larger variety of products and increasing global influence have their own attraction for Bangladesh. China has also the indirect advantage of being preferred by the strong anti-India element embedded within the body politics of Bangladesh that germinated when it was a part of Pakistan.
For long, Bangladesh has considered itself strategically vulnerable to India because the giant neighbour occupies most of the land border. In a way this uneasiness is reciprocal because Indian strategists always talk of Bangladesh’s physical domination of ‘chicken’s neck’- India’s narrow and tenuous land corridor linking its troubled North-eastern region. Thus in India’s strategic horizon, Bangladesh on its own merit, occupies an important place. Strategic importance of Bangladesh increased further after India embarked upon ‘Look East policy’ to expand its economic and strategic linkages with the ASEAN region and beyond.
Bangladesh has a host of problems with India. This is rooted in mutual suspicion between the two countries for historical reasons and India’s geographically unequal size as an economic and military power. This had stymied the relations between the two nations from evolving a win-win equation. They could not be resolved due to latent fear of Indian domination in Bangladesh’s policy making abetted by India’s patronising attitude and partisan support to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his Awami League party in early years of independence.
Bangladesh’s relations with India took a nosedive after Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was assassinated and a military regime led by Major General Zia ur Rahman took over power in 1975. Zia had his own grouse against India; he accused India of harbouring pro-Mujib extremists’ anti-government activities on its soil as a retaliatory exercise for elimination of Mujib. Elements of Left wing extremists hiding in Indian side of the border were also suspected to carry out hit and run strikes in Bangladesh.
Prior to Bangladesh independence, Pakistan had used its eastern limb to needle India by offering sanctuaries to Naga and Mizo insurgents for their operations against Indian state. Bangladesh gained some notoriety for continuing the Pakistani practice of harbouring insurgent groups from India’s northeast to carry out their nefarious activities with the tacit support of the anti Indian lobby in government.
Till recently the United Liberation Force of Assam (ULFA) and Manipuri insurgent groups found refuge in Bangladesh under the patronage of national intelligence agencies. This became a major cause of concern for India after the notorious terrorist group Harkat ul Jihad I Islami/Bangladesh (HUJI-B) that had connections with Pakistani Jihadi groups, found foothold to launch its forays in India. The West shared Indian concerns as HUJI-B’s presence had its connotations on the U.S. initiated “global war on terror” after 9/11 terror strike.
The polity in Bangladesh is broadly divided in their attitude to India as a regional power and close neighbour. The Awami League that rallied the people during the freedom struggle is perceived as a pro-Indian party. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) founded by General Zia is the other major contender for power. It has on its side the support of anti-Indian elements including obscurantist Islamic parties like Jamaat e Islami. The BNP in collusion with right wing Islamic parties has used the anti-Indian sentiment to rally support at hustings. With political power changing hands between coalitions, India-Bangladesh relations failed to make any headway. Military regimes that came to power in between also had no inclination to improve relations with India.
So the victory of Sheikh Hasina Wajed, leader of the Awami League with a huge majority in the election held in 2008 signals greater cooperation between India and Bangladesh . Considered close to India, Sheikh Hasina has taken a number of initiatives to remove a few long standing irritants in the relationship between the two countries. These are curbing the right wing Jihadi extremist activity and arrest/eviction of Indian insurgent group elements operating from Bangladesh. But this is only a small beginning. There are many more issues to be covered.
Significantly she visited India in January 2010 before visiting China in March 2010. In New Delhi, she signed three agreements with India relating to curbing of trans-border terrorist and criminal activity. Similar initiatives have been taken to institutionalise resolution of boundary disputes and the long standing maritime boundary issue between the two countries. A few other initiatives regarding trade imbalance, connectivity, communication, transit of Indian goods through inland river waters of Bangladesh and development of Mongla and Chittagong ports have been taken up. India has extended $ one billion line of credit to a range of projects mainly relating improving railway infrastructure.
Bangladesh Prime Minister’s visit to China after visiting New Delhi is typical of the country’s desire to balance the relationship with the two giant neighbours. China-Bangladesh relations started off on the wrong foot as China was firmly aligned with Pakistan during the Bangladesh war of independence in 1971. In fact, even after Bangladesh became independent, China opposed the admission of Bangladesh in the UN.
However, China mended its relations in 1975 and post-Mujib regimes had been actively cultivating China for strategic reasons as well as for trade and economic assistance. Heads of successive Bangladesh governments have been visiting China since 1977. With India’s role remaining an incendiary element in Bangladesh politics, China has found it easier to build a cosy relation with Bangladesh. Chinese assistance is primarily in the sectors of infrastructure development, telecommunications, and energy. In fact, China had emerged as the largest provider of military hardware to the Bangladesh armed forces. China has assisted in the construction of six major bridges in Bangladesh and China has agreed to assist in construction of a seventh bridge also. Prospects of building the eighth bridge was also agreed during the recent visit of Bangladesh Prime Minister.
Apart from agreements extending economic assistance and facilitating free trade and assistance for infrastructure projects, there were other developments; Sheikh Hasina had made two proposals during her visit to Kunming in Yunnan. These could make Indian strategic planners sit up. Chinese are said to have agreed to consider her plea for assistance to build a road link from Chittagong to Kunming in Yunnan via Gumdum in Myanmar. (She is said to have discussed with the Mayor of Kunming, the possibility of building a rail link to Chittagong also).
This had been a long standing Bangladesh proposal; in fact Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia during her visit to Myanmar had signed an agreement for a road from Chittagong to Gumdum on July 27, 2004 after two year long wait. It was to facilitate Bangladesh’s access to the Asian Highway on to East Asia. At that time Bangladesh had indicated its interest in developing the road-link system connecting Chittagong port with Kunming.
Apparently Myanmar was lukewarm to the proposal and no worthwhile progress has been made. Bangladesh-Myanmar relations last year took a downslide after a stand off over Myanmar’s offshore prospecting for natural gas in the disputed maritime region claimed by both countries. In view of this, implementation of the project may not come through immediately.
Notwithstanding this, it is an important indicator. China has increased its stakes in Myanmar to gain direct access to Indian Ocean by passing South China Sea and Malacca Strait. The proposed Bangladesh road link also would by pass Malacca Strait and provide a direct access to South Asia from Yunnan enhancing China’s strategic options in Indian Ocean Region.
Similarly, Begum Hasina is said to have sought China’s help to further develop the Chittagong port and develop a deep sea port at Sonadia Island. Even if China’s objective is commercial its involvement in developing Chittagong port could be useful in gaining a foothold. China has already developed ports in Gawadar in Pakistan, and Hambantota in Sri Lanka; if Chittagong is taken up, it could provide yet another maritime infrastructure that could come in handy for China to fulfil its Blue Water ambitions in Indian Ocean Region. Thus Bangladesh has the potential become an important strategic staging post for China in South Asia.
Sheikh Hasina is also reported to have requested the Chinese government to provide two frigates with three helicopters under long-term loan assistance. This perfectly balances increasing cooperation between the Indian and Bangladesh armed forces. Most of the other issues and agreements were follow-up of those taken up during the earlier visits of Bangladesh heads of state.
There should be no illusion that regardless of their political affiliation, governments in Bangladesh would always balance their relationship with India using China as the counterpoise. Apart from strategic compulsions, political parties there have to contend with historical baggage on both sides of the border that colour their perceptions as well as the political influence of anti-India elements in electoral politics. At the same time, caught between the two big economic powers it is but natural for Bangladesh to try and gain the maximum from both of them. This is what Sheikh Hasina is doing – walking a tightrope while trying to ease Bangladesh relations with India.
(The writer,Col. R Hariharan, is a retired Military Intelligence officer.He is associated with the South Asia Analysis Group, and the Chennai Centre for China Studies. E-mail:email@example.com Website: www.colhariharan.org)