Bangladesh is India’s gateway into its eastern neighbourhood. It’s also China’s gateway to the Indian Ocean region

by Seshadri Chari

One day before West Bengal goes for the first phase of its assembly election, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be in Dhaka to take part in the birth centenary celebrations of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Modi may even open his speech with a few words in Bengali for the benefit of West Bengal, raising his opponents’ heckles to no end. The liberation of Bangladesh that took place in 1971 has had very little to do with elections in India. But then, the close links between Delhi, Dhaka and Kolkata cannot be wished away.

The recently inaugurated Maitri Bridge that will connect the northeast to Bangladeshi ports shows that India and Bangladesh have been able to resolve a number of vexed issues in the last few years, especially after 2014. For the Modi government, Dhaka is now at the heart of India’s ‘neighbourhood first’ scheme. The visit of Prime Minister Modi to Dhaka in 2015 paved the way for a longer and closer strategic partnership between the two countries. That visit was memorable for one more reason. Just a year into his prime ministership, it was a tough test for Modi to convince West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee to be in Dhaka for the signing of the Land Boundary Agreement. The Assam unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was just as opposed to the exchange of enclaves as was then Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi of the Congress.

Modi’s second visit to Bangladesh, his first foreign visit after the coronavirus pandemic lockdown, assumes great diplomatic significance at a time when China has made strategic inroads into India’s immediate and distant neighbourhood. While Bangladesh has been able to do business with India, it is also an important participant in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which seeks to cement the ties between the two countries through economic cooperation. Needless to say, the BRI is more than an economic programme. It is part of China’s larger hegemonic ambition to widen its footprints all over the region, the Indian Ocean and the Indo-Pacific.

The China Thorn Today

It is the challenge of an extremely ambitious China that New Delhi is facing today while dealing with Bangladesh and other countries in India’s East and extended neighbourhood in the Indo-Pacific. In fact, Bangladesh becomes the gateway for India’s engagement with the countries in the Bay of Bengal region and eastwards. In this context, the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) with its headquarters in Dhaka assumes far greater importance than any other regional organisation. It is unfortunate that even after almost 25 years of its formation, BIMSTEC has not achieved the desired milestones. Former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao’s Look East policy was tweaked to make it look and work better by Narendra Modi. Since then, the Look East-Act East policy has gained momentum. But it will be even more productive if the projects and plans under the policy and BIMSTEC are integrated and implemented on time.

Although Bangladesh opened up its economy in 1982, nearly 10 years before India, the trade deficit between the two countries remains disadvantageous to Bangladesh. Modi’s visit should lay the ground rules for better trade terms and greater cooperation in as many regional and international forums as possible, such as SAARC, IOR-ARC, SAPTA, GSTP and BIMSTEC.

Besides, there are a number of unresolved issues between the two capitals, the most important one being the Teesta river dispute, which cannot be resolved amicably without the support and cooperation of the West Bengal government. Will a change in the Bengal government facilitate better relations between Kolkata and Delhi, and between Dhaka and New Delhi?

Why China Didn’t Rise Against India

History has always supported a closer India-Bangladesh tie.

India was the first country to recognise Bangladesh — rather Bangladesh as a free country is unthinkable without India’s support. During the run-up to the 1971 war that ended in the partial annulment of the tragic Partition of 1947, the US government was totally in support of the regime in Islamabad. The heinous crimes, genocide and atrocities of monstrous proportions did not move the White House to change its policy towards Pakistan. The US threatened to move its Seventh Fleet closer to the Chittagong port and block the passage of the Indian Navy, which was providing support to the ground forces and Mukti Bahini.

The US also tried to enlist Beijing’s support to Pakistan by suggesting that China open a third front against India. But China did not favour a direct confrontation with India. Its strategy must have hinged on two factors. Any involvement of China would have resulted in the Soviet Union throwing its weight behind India, thus totally blocking China from future forays into the Indian Ocean region. Another factor could be Beijing’s assessment of ground realities at the time, which indicated a definite win for India and Bangladesh. Twenty years after 1971, the mighty Soviet Union disintegrated leaving both entry points into the Indian Ocean — Gwadar in Pakistan and Chittagong in Bangladesh — free for China to operate.

In the last few decades, China has grown much more ambitious and has eyed a much larger role in India’s immediate neighbourhood. PM Modi’s upcoming trip to Dhaka should help bolster India’s Look East policy and extend a friendlier hand to Bangladesh.