Several MoUs in the defence sector were signed during prime minister Sheikh Hasina’s recent India trip. Prothom Alo talked on the issue to security experts and one of them is president of Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies (BIPSS) retired major general ANM Muniruzzaman.
By Mizanur Rahman Khan
Prothom Alo (PA): Has here been any visible reaction from China regarding the MoUs signed with India?
ANM Muniruzzaman (ANMM): The details of the MoUs are not known and China’s reaction is not clear so far. But their government or semi-government mouthpiece has said that China will not tolerate any move of India to curb China’s influence in South Asia.
PA: In 1996 when Sheikh Hasina’s government was about to sign the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with the US, India protested. Then again, the US reacted against Bangladesh purchasing MIG-29 fighter jets from Russia. This time the US is silent.
ANMM: The US is going through critical times, but they will block anything that goes against their interests in this region.
PA: Many are of the opinion that for long there has been defence cooperation with India in the form of joint exercises and training, but now this has been formalised in writing. An agreement has been signed between the defence colleges of the two countries.
ANMM: The MoUs which have been signed have a regional security dimension. This may have a far-reaching impact on China-Bangladesh relations. NDC and the Defence Staff College have student exchanges with at least 10 countries, so it is unclear why there had to be a separate agreement with India. Outside influence on our military mindset will not be in our national interests.
PA: If Bangladesh can have military and ‘strategic partnership’ with China, then why not with India?
ANMM: There are basic differences between China-Bangladesh military cooperation and India-Bangladesh military cooperation. Indian security experts foresee a possible conflict with China in Arunachal Pradesh. They feel it will be extremely difficult for India to succeed in such a conflict without the geographical cooperation of Bangladesh. One of the main motives of the MoUs could be to involve Bangladesh in the advent of any such conflict. So such an agreement is not at all conducive to Bangladesh’s national interests. On the contrary, it is a risk.
PA: China has unequivocally stated that it will never accept Arunachal as a part of India. Despite this bone of contention, the two countries are progressively increasing trade and commerce with each other.
ANMM: This is the national policy of China. They have said that even if such conflict remains unresolved, this will not obstruct bilateral relations.
PA: Do you think China will adopt an anti-Bangladesh stance because of the latter’s defence deals with India?
ANMM: Perhaps not. It has important trade, commerce and other interests in Bangladesh. And more particularly, Bangladesh has important partnership in implementing China’s One Road One Belt scheme. But that does not mean other negative manifestations can be ruled out altogether.
PA: Can Bangladesh not gain from military cooperation with India?
ANMM: No. This is a matter of much concern. Such agreements between a small neighbour and big neighbour simply shrink or harm ‘maneouvring space’. It may be difficult for a small country like Bangladesh to tackle such a situation. National interests may be compromised. We should not get into any such military relations with India.
PA: Then why with China?
ANMM: India surround Bangladesh on three sides and that is why the equations are very different than with any other country.
PA: Is there any way to avoid the possible negative impact of the defence MoUs signed with India?
ANMM: Bangladesh must certainly maintain its strategic autonomy.
PA: What benefits can Bangladesh avail from the US$ 500 million loan agreement?
ANMM: I do not know what sort of Indian equipment will be brought under this agreement. India is an arms importing country. They have not been able to build up any repute regarding the quality of their weapons.
PA: India recently also signed a US$500 million loan agreement with Vietnam. Are there any similarities or differences with this and the one signed with Bangladesh?
ANMM: There really is no scope to compare Vietnam and Bangladesh in this regard. Ground reality is that there is hostility between Vietnam and China in the South China Sea. So India has signed a deal with a country that has challenged China’s authority. It is quite the opposite in the case of Bangladesh. After all, when China’s defence delegation came to Dhaka, Bangladesh assured them of support for their policy regarding South China Sea.
PA: Thank you
ANMM: Thank you