When Bangladesh purchased submarines from China, several Indian security analysts questioned the need for such a purchase. There was no official expression of concern, but the discomfort was palpable. In fact, the visit of India’s defence minister followed by its army chief was seen as a reaction to this.
Then our prime minister visited India and defence-related MoUs were signed. There’s been no reaction from China so far, but also may very well question the necessity of such defence cooperation with India. Experts on foreign affairs would say that China does not react in haste. However, times have changed and it now makes no bones about its reactions.
While India has issued no official reaction to the submarine purchase, its security analysts have made a noise. China, on the other hand, has been quite vocal. Global Times, which is considered to be the mouthpiece of the Chinese government and its ruling party, has quite sternly cautioned India against interfering in its neighbours’ internal affairs.
China also strongly reacted when Dalai Lama, Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, visited India’s Arunachal Pradesh. They consider this their territory and refer to it as ‘South Tibet’. Global Times wrote: “With a GDP several times higher than that of India, military capabilities that can reach the Indian Ocean and having good relations with India's peripheral nations, coupled with the fact that India's turbulent northern state borders China, if China engages in a geopolitical game with India, will Beijing lose to New Delhi?” (Editorial: India’s use of Dalai Lama card tactless, Global Times 6/4/2017)
China’s president Xi Jinping has given his people a vision of China as a superpower. Its foreign exchange reserves have exceeded $4 trillion. Manufacture and exports are the mainstay of it economy. At this juncture of its economic growth, China realises it can no longer rely on exports alone. The Chinese are now investing overseas. They have made large-scale investments in Africa. They have also stepped up economic cooperation and investments in South America and the Caribbeans. It is making strong economic investments in South Asia too. After Sri Lanka and Nepal, China has turned towards Bangladesh. And when it comes to investment, it means ensuring trade interests and political influence. China’s new standing has changed the region’s old geo-political equations.
With China’s focus now on this region, India’s previous strategy with its neighbours as a regional power will no longer do the trick. India wants to up its status from a regional power to a superpower and so is concerned over China’s large-scale investments in the region. India’s psyche is confronted with a sense of insecurity. Bangladesh’s procurement of arms from China is nothing new, but India’s reaction to the purchase of submarines displays a fresh anxiety. The competition and rivalry between India and China in this region, particularly over the Bay of Bengal and the India Ocean, is taking on new dimensions.
When the visit of China’s president Xi Jinping to Bangladesh was announced in October last year, speculations abound that he would be bringing with him significantly large economic cooperation and investments. The New Delhi-based strategic security analyst Bhaskar Roy wrote at the time that China was now Bangladesh’s largest investor, involved in large infrastructure projects. He pointed out that Bangladesh’s armed forces were equipped with Chinese arms, which China supplied at low cost for the sake of friendship. China’s changed dynamics were an impetus for India to rethink its own strategy in the region.
Prior to Xi Jinping’s Bangladesh visit, Jayanta Ray, author of India Bangladesh Relations: Current Perspectives, wrote in the South Asian Morning Post: “India cannot match the scale of Chinese funding in South Asia even if we wanted to. That worries Delhi but neighbours like Bangladesh cannot be prevented from looking for development funds from China, as they want to grow fast.” (South Asian Morning Post 13/10/2016)
The competition between China and India can create conducive circumstances for Bangladesh. It is not a matter of using the ‘China card’ with India, or the ‘India card’ with China, but simply using the emerging dynamics to ensure its own interests and rightful dues and also ensuring its development through economic cooperation.
The question is, however, are we capable of using the situation to our own advantage? What have these changed geopolitical circumstances given Bangladesh?
Bangladesh has always lagged behind in its dealings with India. Prior to the recent India visit of the prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, Indian journalist and political analyst Jaideep Mazumdar wrote: “Hasina has done more than her share to help India: granting transit rights at extremely concessional rates for transporting goods to the landlocked northeast India, denying insurgents of the northeast India safe havens in her country and even arresting them and handing them over to Indian agencies. She has done all these, and more, braving scathing criticism at home from the opposition and powerful anti-India Islamist groups that she has compromised Bangladesh’s interests.” (04/04/2017)
Jaideep Mazumdar’s observations indicate just how far we lag behind in our dealings with India. Despite so much given from our side, India still has refused to share Teesta’s water and is unilaterally going ahead with its river interlinking project. Bangladesh’s rights to the rivers as a downstream country are being totally ignored. Ironically, China is treating India the same way about sharing river water as India treats Bangladesh. The same India which is depriving Bangladesh of Teesta’s waters is worried about receiving less water from the river Brahmaputra. China is constructing a large dam on Brahmaputra in Tibet for power production and irrigation. Irrigation means that water will be withdrawn and so India is opposed to this project, apprehending a scarcity of water. If India thinks its position with Bangladesh on Teesta and the other shared rivers is logical, then how does it justify its opposition to China’s Brahmaputra projects?
It is clear that we have not been able to exploit the emerging reality of South Asia to our own advantage. India does not have the capacity of China to exert its influence in the region economically, and analyst Jayanta Roy points to Delhi’s concerns in this regard. It can be said in response to his contentions that the waters of Teesta and other shared rivers is more important to us that any financial assistance India may offer to counter the $20 billion in Chinese credit. Importantly, this is not a matter of doing us a favour. This is our rightful due. India may not be able to match China in economic competition, but it can at least take its relations with Bangladesh to greater heights by giving us our rightful dues. If India does not understand the new geopolitical reality of the region, or does not want to understand it, it is Bangladesh’s responsibility to make it understand.
This new reality is indubitably a challenge for Bangladesh. India and China will come up with all sorts of proposals for cooperation, but will also come up with various pressures. We recall how all was set for the signing of the Sonadia deep-sea port agreement during prime minister Sheikh Hasina’s China visit, but it fell through at the last moment. Apparently Bangladesh dropped the deal at the behest of India and the United States.
Juggling our interests in the complex matrix of the Indo-China power play is a complicated matter. Bangladesh must protect its own interests while dealing the strategies of superpower China and the aspiring superpower India. Given the changing dynamics of the region, Bangladesh must be aware that it can no longer adhere to its old diplomatic equations in its relations with India and China.
*AKM Zakaria is a journalist and can be contacted at <firstname.lastname@example.org>
*The article, originally published in Prothom Alo Bangla print edition, has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir.