Exclusive Interview with Farooq Sobhan

‘India needs to be sensitive about Bangladesh’s public opinion’

Mizanur Rahman Khan | Update:

Farooq SobhanFormer foreign secretary Farooq Sobhan has emphasised the importance of upholding Bangladesh’s national interests and showing sensitivity about public opinion before signing any defence deal between Bangladesh and India. Acknowledging India’s concern over Bangladesh’s defence cooperation with China, he suggested that Bangladesh could rather take a ‘lead role’ in promoting trilateral cooperation.

In an exclusive interview with Prothom Alo, the former diplomat also advocated maintaining better relations with Myanmar for improving the country’s regional connectivity, especially to China and ASEAN countries. In this context, he felt, Bangladesh has realistic chance of having good relations with both India and China.

Speaking in detail about reported defence deal with India and other issues, Farooq Sobhan observed that there is a strong feeling in Bangladesh about maintaining sovereignty. “We need to be careful about public opinion, about sensitivities in different quarters within the country and we need above all to ensure that our national interests are upheld,” he added.

Farooq SobhanThe full text of his interview is given below:

Mr. Farooq Sobhan was born on 17 September 1940. During his long diplomatic career he held various posts in Islamabad, Cairo and Paris during erstwhile Pakistan period, and subsequently as a member of the Bangladesh Foreign Service in Dhaka, Belgrade and Moscow. While posted as ambassador, deputy permanent representative of Bangladesh at the UN in New York, he was elected chairman of the Group of 77 at the UN for the period 1982-83. He also served as chairman of the UN Commission on Trans National Corporations from 1991-92.

Mr. Sobhan later served as ambassador/high commissioner in Malaysia, China and India. He served as foreign secretary of Bangladesh from March 1992 until September 1997. He served as special envoy of prime minister Sheikh Hasina from 1997-1999 with the rank and status of a state minister; during this period he visited more than 40 countries.

In 2003, he was appointed a visiting professor at the Elliot School of International Relations, George Washington University in the US. Since 1 October, 2000, he has headed the Bangladesh Enterprise Institute (BEI), an independent think-tank, as its president and CEO.

Prothom Alo (PA): Why is a defence deal with India so necessary?

Farooq Sobhan (FS): We need to know what would be the nature of the deal. What we know is some defence cooperation is already taking place. We are already doing joint exercises, exchanging high-level visits and participating in each other’s training programmes. We understand that India would like to offer us a line of credit under which we can buy defence equipment from India. I see no harm in concluding an agreement which encompasses the ongoing cooperation. I understand that an MoU may be signed, but I am unaware of any details.

PA: Is it the first time Bangladesh has been approached to sign such a deal?

FS: The reality is that after coming to power in 2009, the Awami League-led government gave special importance to strengthening security cooperation between the two countries. Today this cooperation is very strong, effective and successful. So there is a view, especially on the Indian side, that if we can cooperate very closely with each other on security issues, this can also be extended to defence cooperation. The big issue is, do we need to do it within the framework of a non-binding MoU or should it be something more substantive in nature? It is possible that India believes that if Bangladesh can have very strong defence cooperation with China, it can have similar cooperation with India. When president Xi Jinping came to Dhaka, we elevated Sino-Bangladesh relations to a 'strategic partnership'. So perhaps India may feel that they too should elevate Indo-Bangladesh relations to a new level and that defence cooperation should constitute a key feature of this elevated relationship.

From Bangladesh's point of view, it is clear that we would like to have very good relations with both China and India. We do not see our relations with these two Asian giants as a zero sum game. We feel we can have equally good relations with both the countries. It would be a measure of the success of our diplomacy if we can work not only closely together with both India and China, but if we can also bring the two of them together to sit at the same table with Bangladesh. The focus of such a trilateral meeting would be to strengthen our cooperation in the areas of business, trade and investment. I am suggesting the possibility of Bangladesh taking a lead role in promoting trilateral cooperation. China, for two decades, has been advocating the BCIM (Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar) corridor. Bangladesh has supported this initiative from its inception.

PA: The government led by Manmohan Singh welcomed the BCIM corridor subject to some reservations, but the Modi government has rejected the idea.

FS: India may have reservations today about BCIM, but at the same time the Modi government is moving forward rapidly with their own trade and investment cooperation with China. So if Sino-Indian trade and investment is moving forward and if India is also promoting greater connectivity within BBIN, then perhaps we can link BBIN to BCIM. Bangladesh can try and integrate these different initiatives.

It was Mr. Modi who took the initiative to invite the heads of the seven member states of BIMSTEC to the BRICS summit in Goa last year. If our prime minister can build trust between Bangladesh and India on the one side and Bangladesh and China on the other, the logical next step will be for Bangladesh to bring both China and India together to discuss implementing infrastructure projects focused on promoting connectivity in Bangladesh and the region.

PA: The proposal for a defence agreement has been put forward shortly after the purchase of two submarines from China and appears to have prompted the visit of the Indian defence minister, Manohar Parikkar to Dhaka. Does this complicate matters for Bangladesh, given the rivalry between India and China?

FS: Yes, there is at one level of cooperation between India and China, but at another level there is a certain degree of rivalry. However, the big question is, can we find a way of giving greater emphasis to building on the opportunities available to the three countries, Bangladesh, China and India, in the areas of trade, business and investment cooperation?  The key to promoting this trilateral cooperation will be if both China and India can make a significant contribution to the development of our infrastructure. If Bangladesh is to position itself as a regional hub then it cannot do it without modernising and totally revamping its infrastructures. If we need to invest a hundred billion dollars in improving our infrastructures and if we need to improve our connectivity in the region as a whole, the key to that has to be our ability to create a platform or framework within which Bangladesh, India and China can work together. Our diplomacy has to be effective enough to see that our relationship with both remains constructive and serves the interests not of any other country, but the interests of Bangladesh.

PA: In an article by C Raja Mohan, he cited a report carried by the Chinese newspaper Global Times, which warned India not to interfere in the internal affairs of its neighbours. What is your response to this?

FS: I read Raja Mohan's article. He is a very old and close friend and I’ve had many conversations with him. Yes, there is currently a lot of concern regarding the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean, and the rivalry and competition between India and China in this particular area, is on the rise. So for Bangladesh, the big challenge is how to overcome the suspicions and reservations that might exist on the part of India and other countries.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for us at the moment is the issue of our relations with Myanmar in particular. How do we resolve the Rohingya issue? It is very important that both China and India play a constructive role in helping us resolve this problem, otherwise the persecution of the Rohingyas will not only pose a serious humanitarian problem, but could also pose a serious security threat not only to Bangladesh but to the region, in particular our immediate neighbours. And very importantly, this would impede the whole process of connectivity. For Bangladesh, connectivity to the member states of ASEAN and to China has to be through Myanmar. There is no way we can have that connectivity, unless there can be a relationship of mutual trust and cooperation between Bangladesh and Myanmar. If we are to build a highway through the Rakhine province from Teknaf to Rangoon and then beyond to China and to the ASEAN countries, we will need a solid relationship with Myanmar based on mutual trust. It is also important for our diplomacy to see that both India and China play a helpful role. There is also need to look at a very important issue and problem for Bangladesh, the issue of water and the sharing of the waters of our joint rivers.

PA: How can we reassure the Indians that the ‘strategic partnership’ with China is not directed against them?

FS: Our overall relationship with China is based on mutual interest and mutual benefits of both countries. That relationship is in no way directed at India or any other country, which is why I believe that India, China and Bangladesh should be working together. I see this as something which will contribute significantly to the growth and development of Bangladesh. It will be a challenge for our diplomacy to be able to structure such a relationship. This is the area in which we need to move rather than to be seen as a kind of a bone of contention between China and India. Unless we promote constructive engagement with both China and India, we will inevitably become a source of competition and rivalry between the two. Each will compete with the other to see who can come closer to Bangladesh. We need to be careful to avoid putting ourselves in that position.

PA: Are there any examples of regional neighbours like Nepal or Sri Lanka playing a balanced role with both India and China?

FS: Without reflecting in any way on the position of either Nepal or Sri Lanka, in my opinion Bangladesh should not be compared to Nepal or Sri Lanka. They have their own priorities, Bangladesh has its own. We are, after all, a country of 160 million. We aspire to be a middle income country in the next few years, we are seeing ourselves as a major player on the global scene, so if we have that aspiration, then it is important for us to work closely with both China and India and not be seen as belonging to one camp or the other

PA: Can it be argued that India is using Bangladesh’s purchase of submarines to pressurise Bangladesh into signing a defence agreement?

FS: I want to recall a piece of history, in 1972, shortly after our liberation war was over, we signed a 25-year Friendship Treaty with India, that treaty expired in March 1997. I was then the foreign secretary, Sheikh Hasina was the prime minister, I think it was accepted by both India and Bangladesh that this treaty did not serve any useful purpose. We were friendly countries, we did not need a treaty to emphasise that and therefore neither India nor Bangladesh or their respective governments made any move to renew or extend that treaty. I think that was a very statesmen-like approach that took into consideration public opinion and public sentiments. On this occasion too we need to be sensitive to public opinion,  how do the people of Bangladesh see the relationship, is it, as it should be, one of equal partners? I think as a country which fought for its independence, there is a strong sense of patriotism and feeling in Bangladesh about maintaining our sovereignty and independence.

PA: How do you see the perception that the proposed deal has no necessity at all?

FS:  Of course there are some people who argue that a defence agreement is not necessary since we already have ongoing defence cooperation. Others ask whether such an agreement will serve any purpose. They ask, will it not adversely impact public opinion in the country at a time when the Teesta agreement still remains to be signed?  Others argue from the point of view of the government that if it creates a better understanding and addresses some concerns that might exist in India and there will be a proportionate response from India, so signing an MoU should not cause anxiety but be seen as a step forward in the relationship. What is important is to ensure that our relationship with India as equal partners also helps our efforts to promote trilateral cooperation between China, India and Bangladesh.

We have very strong defence cooperation with China, but it is no secret that the Indians have felt that if we can have such a strong cooperation with China, why can't we increase our cooperation at the same time with India. They see this as a kind of missing link in the relationship between India and Bangladesh. So if this is something which helps in overcoming India's reservations about our relationship with China, if it helps us to work more closely with both China and India at the same time, then I see no harm in this arrangement. But we need to be careful about public opinion, about sensitivities in different quarters within the country and we need above all to ensure that our national interests are upheld.

 PA: You visited the BJP think tank, Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF) in Delhi last month. Do you think Indian security specialists are in a consensus that the deal will best serve the interests of India?

FS: I would say yes, a large number of the people I met and spoke to including General Vij, the former Indian army chief, who is the head of VIF, as well as Dr. Arvind Gupta, the deputy national security adviser, felt that we needed to expand and strengthen the defence cooperation between our two countries. They wanted to see some visible increase or improvement in the cooperation, given what was happening in the area of Sino-Bangladesh relations. The submarine issue was mentioned and we explained that Bangladesh is keen to develop, expand and modernise its defence forces. But this is very much to serve our own interests. Bangladesh has built up a good reputation internationally for the very significant contribution we have made for the past three decades to the UN peacekeeping operations. As a country of 160 million, we want a modern defence force, so it is obvious that as a friendly neighbour of India, Bangladesh does not pose any threat to India's security. We need to build trust and confidence in all areas of our cooperation since our cooperation with India on security related issues is excellent. The Indians feel that we also need to upgrade our relations in the defence sector. At the same time, I think India needs to be sensitive about public opinion in Bangladesh. It needs to understand that Bangladesh too has its priorities. We are still waiting for the signing of the Teesta water-sharing agreement. We have other issues with India but I’m the first to say that let us focus on areas of convergence rather than areas of divergence.

PA: What are their views regarding the Teesta agreement?

FS: They are saying that they are keen to conclude the Teesta water sharing agreement but since water is a state subject, they need to have concurrence of the West Bengal government to any agreement and that they are doing their best to try and get the chief minister of West Bengal to agree to the Teesta water sharing agreement.

PA: What about the China's One Belt, One Road or OBOR initiative?

FS: They were very careful about their comments on OBOR.

PA: Have they rejected the idea?

FS: I don’t think they have rejected it, but they were not particularly enthusiastic about it. We pointed to the fact that their own cooperation with China was moving forward at a very rapid pace. We stressed that Bangladesh would like to have close relations with both China as well as India and we feel that it is in the best interests of Bangladesh to move forward in developing its relations with both countries in all areas.

PA:  Did they express any concern or reservations about Bangladesh's 'strategic partnership' with China?

FS: Some may have voiced concern, while others understood our position. This is an area where Bangladesh, through our diplomacy and foreign relations, needs to do much more work in India. Let me elaborate on this point because I think it is of critical importance. At the moment Indo-Bangladesh relations, at the government-to-government level, and I would stress in particular between the two prime ministers, can be described as excellent. But in my view, the relationship is not understood so clearly at the level of public opinion. There is a mismatch between the view at the government-to-government level or the prime minister-to-prime minister level, and the public perception of Indo-Bangladesh relations.

I'd like to make a second point which I think is very important and that is, there is not, in my view, sufficient understanding or clarity in India about Bangladesh as it is today. Many Indians still see Bangladesh as it was in 1972 or '73. They have not realised how much progress and development has taken place in Bangladesh. They are not aware of the significant contribution that Bangladesh is making to the Indian economy. They are not aware of the fact that billions of dollars are being earned every year by India from Bangladesh. Nearly 22 to 25 billion dollars are being earned by Indians through trade, through remittances of Indians working in Bangladesh, through services. So we are in the general scheme of things, a very major player in terms of our contribution to India.

PA: What is your view about Donald Trump and his foreign policy regarding our region?

 FS : We have to wait and see. I think the Trump administration is still trying to sort out its positions on different issues. We know that from the Indian side there was a lot of initial enthusiasm, hope and expectations about strengthening their cooperation with Mr. Trump and his administration. There was also initially a lot of talk about a serious strain, possibly even open confrontation between the US and China and that this could also have a major impact on India's relations with both countries. It would be a case of the US and India against China. But during the ten weeks or so of the Trump administration, it will be a brave person who can predict what will be the main thrust of US foreign policy towards China, India and we should add to this list Russia, the EU and NATO. During the recent visit of Secretary of State Tillerson to China, some reports suggest that there was very little hint of the US wishing to challenge or confront China globally. It would appear that the US feels it needs China's help to deal with North Korea. Let us now wait and see what happens following President Xi Jinping's visit to the US in a few days time. Similarly, we are yet to see any serious movement in Indo-US relations. On the contrary, the hate attacks in the US on some Americans of Indian origin, the possible repercussions of action against illegal Indian immigrants in the US, the curtailment of H1 visas and possible measures by the US that could hurt Indian business interests, suggests that the euphoria about US-Indian relations being taken to a new level, was perhaps a bit premature.

PA: The proposal for a defence agreement with India has been put forward at a time when we see the emergence of a new alignment in the region comprising China-Russia -Pakistan.  Is there any connection between the two?

FS: Some experts speak of two possible alignments in South Asia. The emerging alignment of Russia, China and Pakistan on the one hand, and the consolidation of relations between India, Japan and the US on the other, would confront this new alignment. It can be argued that Bangladesh, strictly speaking, belongs to neither of these two groupings. In fact, in the eyes of Sheikh Hasina, our four closest friends today are India, China, Japan and Russia, and so we straddle both camps.  We want to make sure that we do not get entangled or mired in any competition or rivalry between these two groupings. Our objective should be to focus on our own growth and development and to coexist with the maximum number of countries. We need to recall that the central feature of Bangabandhu's foreign policy was "friendship with all and malice towards none".  We also need to remember that our two largest and most important markets for our RMG exports happen to be the US and Europe. Bangladesh also has a sizeable community in the US, Canada, UK and throughout Europe. We need to leverage our diaspora. We also need to maintain good relations with Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, the ASEAN countries and the Republic of Korea. All these countries and groupings are important for Bangladesh for multiple reasons.

PA: Many see a proactive defence diplomacy on the part of both China and India. The Chinese Defence Chief visited Sri Lanka and Nepal last week, while the Indian army chief visited Dhaka this week. What should be Bangladesh's position in response to these new initiatives?

FS:  I follow the international media very closely and have seen several articles in the Indian media. The media sometimes says different things for different reasons.  We should not completely rely on speculation or kite flying in the media. As earlier mentioned we should focus on our own interests and avoid taking sides.

PA: But as an old China hand, how do you see the comments made in the Chinese Global Times, that usually reflects the official position. that ‘China will fight back’?

FS: We know that there are some issues on which China and India disagree. We know there are competing interests. There is visible rivalry between them in the Indian Ocean. India is also sensitive about Chinese influence in South Asia, in particular it is especially sensitive about Nepal and Sri Lanka, because these are two countries where traditionally India has exercised a certain degree of influence and leverage. I do not think Bangladesh falls into the same category. I think Bangladesh has the capacity to have constructive relations with both China and India without necessarily making either country feel that it is leaning too heavily in favour of one and therefore is aligned against the other country. We should of course ensure this through our diplomacy.

PA: You can justify the necessity of a defence agreement, but necessity does not validate urgency. Would it be prudent to sign the deal next week or to try to tag it with other priorities?

FS: I should not comment on this. It is for the prime minister to decide. She has the benefit of having all the facts at her disposal. It is her decision regarding what should be the correct timing or the nature of the urgency, the pressures and counter pressures and above all in what way she can balance our relations with India and China. It is my view that Bangladesh, the government and the prime minister, want a very strong and wide ranging relationship with both China and India. It is therefore for the prime minister to decide how she should proceed so as to ensure that Bangladesh not only successfully balance its relations between China and India but can build this relationship into a constructive engagement with both countries, leading eventually to our being able to bring both these countries to join hands with Bangladesh to promote trade, investment and connectivity in Bangladesh and the region.

PA: How do you see the Indian President's invitation to Mamata to join the dinner to be hosted in honour of Sheikh Hasina?

FS: We know President Pranab has an old relationship with Ms. Mamata Banerjee. We have to wait and see whether she shows up in Delhi and if she does, whether the Indian President or Mr. Modi can persuade Ms. Banerjee to show flexibility on the issue of the Teesta agreement and the Ganges Barrage project. India needs to understand very clearly the sensitivity and deep emotions surrounding not only the Teesta but any issue relating to water and the rivers that we share with India. I am sure India is aware of these sentiments and India also appreciates its impact on public opinion in Bangladesh.

PA: There is a widespread perception in Bangladesh that we have done everything to meet India's various demands but India has not reciprocated. Is the Indian intelligentsia aware of Bangladesh's concern? Or do they think that Bangladesh should do more?

FS: There is a need for effective communications between the government and the public in both the countries and by that I mean that people need to understand what is happening, why it is happening, what is its significance. I feel that Bangladesh's needs, its thinking and its concerns, are not properly understood in India.

PA: Did you meet only VIF, the BJP think tank?

FS: We also had a dialogue over two days with one of India's largest think tanks, the Observer Research Foundation. Our dialogue with both ORF and VIF was attended by a wide cross-section of eminent personalities, as well as a number of serving officials.  I also met the heads of four other think tanks in Delhi, IDSA, Carnegie India, DPG and the India Foundation. I also met many old friends, some in the government, while others who were now retired but had served in senior positions in the government in the past. I also met a number of leading businessmen. We also had meetings with Dr. Arvind Gupta, Deputy National Security Adviser and members of the National Security Council secretariat.

PA: Do you think the Congress oriented think tanks have the same mindset as VIF?

FA: What I can say is that minus a few people, there isn't an appreciation in Delhi of how Bangladesh has grown, developed and changed and that we are now well placed to be a major player in the region and beyond. This is neither appreciated nor is it understood. There also appears to be very little understanding in Delhi about the concerns that a lot of people in Bangladesh have about the nature of our relations; that many people believe we have given much more than we have received. But in response I would like to say look at what is happening in the area of energy cooperation between our countries and also point to the fact that cooperation within BBIN is now moving forward. I also believe the two big game changers in Indo-Bangladesh relations, could be Indian private sector investments in Bangladesh and the removal of all NTBs, so that Bangladesh exports can freely enter the Indian market. If for example we can attract 10 -12 billion Indian FDI in the next four years into Bangladesh and can take our exports to India from the current 600 million dollars to 6 billion dollars, we would have the private sector on both sides at the forefront in promoting Indo-Bangladesh relations. One of the big challenges for both our countries is the ability to translate decisions into action on the ground. India has given us two lines of credit, one billion dollars in 2010, 2 billion dollars in 2015 and on the occasion of our prime minister's forthcoming visit it has been mentioned that a credit agreement for 5 billion dollars will be signed. 

PA: Many think that Sheikh Hasina expressed her dissatisfaction towards Delhi by mentioning in some of her recent speeches that RAW was responsible for her losing the elections in 2001. Do you agree that she has reason to be frustrated with India or RAW? If so, why?

FS: I don't think it will be right for me to comment on this. I think honourable prime minister has her reasons for saying what she said. I think she is the best person who can answer this question, it would not be right for me to speculate on why she said it or what her reasons were for saying it.

PA: Was this issue raised during your visit to India?

FS: No this issue was not raised.

PA: Was this discussed in any private conversation?

FS: It may have been mentioned, various things were mentioned but I think she is the best person to answer this question.

PA: Many also believe that Delhi is taking advantage of the domestic situation in our country? Would you agree?

FS: I will answer by saying I hope not. I believe that India has a very mature diplomacy and they would realise that exerting pressure directly or indirectly on a country like Bangladesh could be counterproductive. This should be a part of our diplomacy to make India understand that if they want to further strengthen relations and take the relationship forward with Bangladesh, they need to be able  to understand what it is that people feel in Bangladesh both inside and outside the government and to be very aware of our sensitivities. This is a challenge on both sides. I'd like to conclude by saying in my view the India-Bangladesh relationship is obviously of critical and vital importance. It is a relationship which I think has grown and offers enormous potential for further growth but it is also at the same time a relationship which is very complex. We have a lot of issues and problems and many of these have a major impact on influencing public opinion on both sides. So it requires very careful handling; it requires mature leadership on both sides and we need to see mechanisms in place so that we can handle this relationship in the way that it deserves to be handled. I want to conclude by saying something I said many years ago when I was in the government and I say it from having served as High Commissioner in Delhi and then as Foreign Secretary, Sheikh Hasina has been prime minister now for 13 years plus. During this entire period she has made only two official bilateral visits to Delhi, one was in December 1996, when we signed the Ganges water agreement, and then in January 2010. Now she is going to be visiting Delhi after more than seven years. During the same period there have been only two bilateral visits at the level of prime minister from the Indian side. Mr. Modi visited Dhaka in May 2015 almost two years ago, while Dr. Manmohan Singh visited Dhaka in September 2011. This works out to just one exchange of visits at the level of prime ministers every five years. In my view the prime ministers of India and Bangladesh should meet once every three months to review the implementation of agreements and take stock of bilateral relations. We need the two prime ministers to take a direct personal interest in monitoring Indo-Bangladesh relations; it is only with this kind of personal commitment that we can realise the full potential of Indo-Bangladesh relations.

PA: Will the proposed MoU on defence cooperation upset China?

FS: I can't answer that question because firstly I don't know if an MoU will be signed. If an MoU is signed, I don't know what the MoU will contain. And thirdly I cannot say if China will be upset or not. My sense in talking to the Chinese is that they have a very pragmatic and mature understanding of our relations with India. My understanding is that the Chinese welcome very close relations between Bangladesh and India. China believes the stronger the ties are between Bangladesh and India, the greater the likelihood of India responding positively to any initiative that Bangladesh may take in bringing India and China closer together or in response to any proposal for trilateral cooperation involving all three countries.


* A Bangla version of this interview will be available in the Prothom Alo Bangla print edition on Wednesday (5 April).

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