Geopolitical challenges facing Bangladesh

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By P.K.Balachandran/Daily News

Colombo, June 25: Geopolitical rivals India and China are competing for the attention of Bangladesh, a populous and economically thriving South Asian country. Bangladesh’s strategic importance arises from the fact that it is hemmed in by regional power India in the west, north and east, the Bay of Bengal in the south, and the resource-rich but troubled Myanmar in the south east.

The conflicting geopolitical goals of India and China in Bangladesh have been posing challenges to the Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. As India and China play a thinly veiled zero sum game over Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina is engaged in getting the best bargain from both without alienating either. So far, Sheikh Hasina appears to be adept at the balancing act.

In the press statement after talks with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Saturday, Sheikh Hasina said: “India is our major neighbor, trusted friend and regional partner. Bangladesh greatly values its relations with India, which were born during our war of liberation in 1971.”

Earlier, speaking to the Dhaka daily Prothom Alo the Bangladesh Foreign Secretary Masud Bin Momen said: “The relationship between Bangladesh and India has a historical context, geographical location. I do not want to compare any other country in terms of relations with India.”

Geography and close economic links forged over decades necessitate maintenance of close relations with India but the need for mega investments and speedy implementation of projects underscores the need to have cordial relations with China too. This calls for deft diplomacy in which Sheikh Hasina appears to be adept. 

Bangladesh is India’s biggest trade partner in South Asia and India is the second biggest trade partner of Bangladesh in Asia. India is Bangladesh’s largest export destination in Asia, with about US$ 2 billion of Bangladeshi exports to India in 2022-23. In 2022-23, the total bilateral trade was US$ 15.9 billion. India has invested over US$ 8 billion in Bangladesh.

China, on the other hand, has been Bangladesh’s largest trading partner for 13 years, with a bilateral goods trade reaching US$ 24 billion in 2023. In terms of investment, China’s FDI stock in Bangladesh had reached U$ 3.2 billion by 2023, making China the second-largest investor in Bangladesh.

It was the need to keep both suitors satisfied that Sheikh Hasina chose to visit New Delhi and Beijing back to back. But by going to India first (on June 21 and 22) she underscored the primacy that her regime has been giving to India, which politically and militarily helped her father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman secure independence for Bangladesh from Pakistan.

But by quickly following her Indian visit with a planned visit to China in July, Hasina demonstrates her eagerness to keep China as a key development partner.

Teesta Development

In a very important development, Indian Prime Minister Modi announced that India and Bangladesh will begin technical-level talks for the renewal of the 1996 Ganga waters treaty, which is critical for Bangladesh’s agriculture. Going further, Modi said that an Indian technical team will visit Bangladesh soon for the conservation and management of the Teesta River. Here there is a going to be a clash with China.

In 2016, China had suggested the Teesta River Management project, entailing an expenditure of US$ 1 billion, to help Bangladesh tackle the water problem created by a series of barrages built on the river in India. Given the security issues arising from China’s proposed involvement in the project, New Delhi in May last year made a counter offer to fund and participate in the project. Modi pushed for it with Sheikh Hasina on Saturday and had apparently secured her nod.

But the Indian offer may put Hasina in a fix. On the one hand, Hasina is pledged to address India’s security concerns, but on the other hand, accepting the Indian offer will put off the Chinese, her other development partner. Thus, Hasina has her task cut out when she meets Xi Jinping in Beijing in July.

At the joint press conference Modi spoke of Indo-Bangla MoUs on digital and energy connectivity, a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA), joint defense production, cooperation in combating terrorism, fundamentalism and measures to tackle killings of alleged infiltrators on the India-Bangladesh border.

Bangladesh to Join IPOI

Modi announced that Bangladesh has decided to join the Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI). The IPOI proposes cooperation in seven sectors: Maritime security; maritime ecology; maritime resources; capacity building and resource sharing; disaster risk reduction and management; science, technology and academic cooperation; trade, connectivity and maritime transport.

It is not known as to how the Chinese will react to Bangladesh’s joining the IPOI, as China considers such Indo-Pacific structures as an Indo-American ploy to contain China .

An MoU was also signed between the Bangladesh Oceanographic Research Institute (BORI) and the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) of India for Joint Research on Oceanography of the Indian Ocean and Capacity Building. An MoU between Defence Services Staff College, Wellington and DSCSC Mirpur Bangladesh for cooperation in strategic and operational studies was also signed. A MoU on Rail Connectivity was signed. Indian National Space Promotion and Authorization Centre (IN-SPACE) and Department of Space, Government of India and the Ministry of Posts, Telecommunication and Information Technology, Government of Bangladesh signed an MOU for collaboration on a Joint Small Satellite Project.

Modi said an e-visa facility will be launched for Bangladeshis visiting India for medical treatment. India will also be opening an assistant high commission in Rangpur for the convenience of the people of the North West region of Bangladesh. MoUs for cooperation in fisheries, disaster management, health and medicine were renewed.

Bangladesh’s Woes

Sheikh Hasina’s visit to India took place at a time when Bangladesh is facing serious economic problems with an alarming decline in foreign currency reserves. Bangladesh has sought a US$5 billion soft-loan from Beijing and it is anticipated that during Sheikh Hasina July 9-12 official visit to China, this might be finalized. But economists are warning that this might eventually place Bangladesh in a debt trap. Political rivals of Sheikh Hasina are saying that the Awami League government’s key ally, Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), have been weakened following the Indian parliamentary elections as the BJP failed to get a simple majority on its own and is dependent on its allies to be in power.   

Then there are 1.20 million Rohingya refugees from Maynmar who could fall prey to international Islamic terrorist propaganda. The opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, Jamaat-e-Islami and other Islamist forces in the country, including Hefazat-e-Islam, could also be influenced by such propaganda.

Hasina herself has warned about a Western attempt to carve out a “Christian state like East Timor” taking parts of Bangladesh, Myanmar and India.

The Western media has been highlighting details of rampant corruption, money laundering and loot of public wealth by a section of the Bangladeshi elite, mostly linked to the ruling Awami League. Media reports quoting the World Bank say that nearly US$ 3.15 billion flows out illicitly from Bangladesh every year through offshore accounts while the country smarts under a foreign exchange shortage.


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