South Asia | India and Bangladesh: Doing deals to ward off the dragon

India and Bangladesh: Doing deals to ward off the dragon

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Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is scheduled to visit India on Friday to sign cooperative agreements covering defense, counter-terrorism, space, infrastructure building, trade, and connectivity, but the deals — about 30 in all — may not be enough to counter China’s mounting influence in Bangladesh.

For a start, a comprehensive, 25-year framework agreement in defense cooperation that India proposed and which would have included training, the sale of military hardware, even coordination of military operations against common threats, is off the table because it enjoys little support in Bangladesh.

Instead, India and Bangladesh are expected to ink a less formal Memorandum of Understanding, which will not have a time-frame. How effective this watered-down defense cooperation deal will be in countering Chinese influence remains to be seen.

China’s influence began badly, but improved

Although China’s relations with Bangladesh started off on a negative note — China opposed Bangladesh’s (then East Pakistan) separation from Pakistan in 1971 — ties have improved remarkably since then. In 2002, the two countries signed a defense cooperation agreement under which Beijing has sold Bangladesh military hardware worth millions of dollars. It has resulted in Beijing becoming Bangladesh’s top military supplier and Bangladesh emerging as China’s second largest market for weapons. About 82% of Bangladesh’s military purchases between 2009 and 2013 were from China.

Sino-Bangladeshi military cooperation has always evoked unease in India. It deepened last October when Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Dhaka, and bilateral ties were elevated to a strategic partnership. Twenty-seven deals worth US$25 billion were finalized during Xi’s visit. But it was China’s sale of two submarines to Bangladesh at a cost of US$203 million that set off alarm bells in New Delhi.

A few weeks later, India’s defense minister Manohar Parrikar headed to Dhaka, where he presented the Hasina government with the idea of a comprehensive defense agreement with Bangladesh. Dhaka’s rejection of the idea was a setback for India.

Beijing and Delhi have competed fiercely for infrastructure projects in Bangladesh. China has invested millions upgrading ports, building bridges and roads and setting up special economic zones. Last year, it suffered setbacks when the Hasina government scrapped a Chinese project to fund and build a deep-sea port at Sonadia. A massive power project in Khulna district went to India.

China has strong economic and defense relationships with all of India’s neighbors, excluding Bhutan. It has built and modernized ports in these countries and is even operating some of them. India fears that this could culminate in the Chinese Navy gaining access to these ports and thus to the Indian Ocean. It is for this reason that China’s growing economic and military collaboration with Bangladesh and the provision of submarines, in particular, has triggered alarm bells in India.

Teesta River deal would boost public goodwill

India will have to do more to build relations with Bangladesh. Many in Dhaka feel that the Hasina government, which is generally viewed as pro-India, has given India much more than it has got in return. Hasina has worked closely with India in fighting anti-India terrorism and cooperated with Delhi in its efforts to isolate Pakistan in the region.

But India has not yet signed an agreement with Dhaka on sharing water from the Teesta River. The Teesta is vital to Bangladesh’s agriculture sector, especially from December to March when water levels fall sharply. An agreement was supposed to be signed in 2011 but domestic politics in India have prevented this from happening.

An agreement on the Teesta will be the focus of the Bangladeshi delegation during talks this week in Delhi. Hasina will be keen to get an agreement. However, the deal, which would enhance support for India among the Bangladeshi people and be hard for China to counter, is unlikely to be signed during Hasina’s visit.

Sudha Ramachandran
Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bengaluru, India who writes on South Asian political and security issues.
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