With a new cold war unfolding between US and China, Dhaka is almost inviting Beijing on the Eastern flank of India in an election year. It seems to be making a dangerous diplomatic investment.
Long ago, this writer met NDA-I’s defence minister George Fernandes at the Kolkata Airport. Fernandes frankly said, “More than Pakistan, China happens to be India’s enemy. Pakistan gifted a part of PoK [Pakistan-occupied Kashmir] to keep Beijing on its side.” Things haven’t changed much as Beijing makes inroads into Bangladesh with a development package and, of course, debt. The endeavor is part of the Chinese strategy of encircling India.
Should this occurrence set India on a high military alert? Several Dhaka-based liberals whom this writer met feel that Bangladesh in an election year must “abide by the conventional diplomatic line—remain India-friendly both militarily and otherwise.”
But Beijing isn’t the same when it backed Pakistan 47 years ago during the War of Liberation and vetoed Dhaka’s entry into the UN till 1975. It’s a new China which, despite being a communist nation, adopted the capitalist path and mixed its aggression with developmental funds and packages for underdeveloped nations in South Asia. And Dhaka isn’t the old friend which could always promise friendship to India and India alone.
Thus China making inroads is a serious development. It can be gauged from the fact that Beijing’s investment package is $1 billion more in Bangladesh than in Pakistan. In 2017-18, it was $12.9 billion for its most favored nation Pakistan, while for Bangladesh it was $13.87 billion. And it includes not only investment in infrastructure; there are also defence ties. From the Indian point of view, the Chinese presence in Bangladesh is disquieting.
Incidentally, barring Bhutan none of the South Asian neighbors of India spoke against China during the 73-day Dokhlam standoff, not even Bangladesh though it explained away hinting during this period that it got a little unsettled but nothing which could hurt its interests with China.
It needs to be mentioned here that quite a few political parties, even in Mahajot led by Prime Minister Shiekh Hasina’s Awami League, feel that she should have stuck to the “uniform diplomatic line with New Delhi, instead of trying for Beijing’s pat walking into a huge debt trap.” However, the Awami League does not bother what the allies are saying.
Interestingly, the major opposition party, BNP, and its leader Khaleda Zia, now in jail but fighting election, are also reticent over the issue. In fact, she didn’t even bother to air her opinion on Chinese presence.
So, the Awami League and its leader, despite dissent from the allies, are expected to go ahead with the new diplomatic investment with China.
Some American newspapers also viewed this as an outcome of “coercive bilateral policies being pursued by India.” They say that India should have allowed its Asian neighbors its lands for use as trade corridors which would not have left China’s strategic aggression-and-investment move so successful.
Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, and other nations should have been allowed territorial facilities to carry on trade with others, something that India has not done so far liberally. Nobody knows if Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made any amends to the old policy.
China entered Bangladesh at a very critical point, with the fundamentalist Jamaat still kicking and active with Pakistani links, another dangerous point for New Delhi. The pro-Pakistan and anti-1971 Liberation War Jamaat is still a force to reckon with. It is the BNP’s electoral alley.
But the BNP’s rival, Awami League, is no paragon of secularism. Hasina announced that there would be Saudi funding for more masjids. Liberals believe a huge share of the funding would go into the coffer of Jamaat. “They [Jamaat] run a major banking operation in Bangladesh,” quipped a Dhaka-based liberal politician. “For what we need more masjids? We need to channel funds for more socio-economic development and more financial discipline to check inflation.”
Democracy anyway is not something that either the Awami League or the BNP cherish. Freedom of expression is getting eroded by the day. Blogger after blogger is getting slaughtered for writing anti-establishment stories. The police are ineffectual, while Hasina is silent.
Then there are about nine lakh Rohinghyas who are not going back to Myanmar despite Chinese intervention. They are a burden to a poor country like Bangladesh—and a big liability to the incumbent government in an election year. Especially as unemployment is a big problem.
Against this backdrop, Hasina’s new diplomatic initiative is worrisome for India. Of course, Dhaka is trying to address New Delhi’s concerns, especially about the Hindu minority. The minorities in Bangladesh have grown to 10 per cent over the years. Hasina promised Dhakeswari Temple lands to its trust this Durga Puja—a promise Mujib had made to Hindus before and also immediately after the Liberation.
In a nutshell, diplomatic and political developments in our eastern neighbor don’t augur well for us. New Delhi has to be extremely cautious and reasonably proactive to ensure that Bangladesh doesn’t become a thorn in its flesh.