On the eve of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s visit to India in April, it seems that Bangladesh may be on the cusp of joining the big leagues in the international arena as the country ponders arms deals with India and China.
The two world superpowers have long been competing for superiority in the Asian region, with coastal Bangladesh potentially a key factor in determining who rules the South Asian seas.
Both India and China have been embroiled in an international game of one-upmanship as each tries to woo the small nation adjacent to the Bay of Bengal.
Tug of war
The latest instalment of the trans-national tug of war began in earnest after China delivered two submarines to Bangladesh on November 14, the first such naval craft in the latter nation’s arsenal. This would set the precedent for subsequent efforts to sway Bangladesh towards either of the nations, as arms would be the gift of choice.
India immediately launched a response in rushing Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar to Bangladesh just two days later, in the highest profile defence delegation to the country in 45 years. The chief objective of the meeting was to ensure long term cooperation between the nations in matters of defence.
The groundwork for cooperation with China had, however, been laid even earlier, with Chinese President Xi’s visit in October, when 27 deals were signed amounting to some $25 billion. Along with the repeated postponement of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s visit to India, this has caused Indian authorities to feel some concern. That both the Indian and Bangladesh governments had stated prior commitments were behind the postponements seems to not have eased the issue.
While India may be unable to match China’s economic muscle, they are willing to sweeten the deal further. According to a report in the South China Morning Post, India is now willing to offer Bangladesh a $500 million line of credit for the purchase of military hardware. This, in combination with the superior geographical proximity of the neighbouring country, may make the deal more favourable than a potentially more lucrative deal with China.
Bangladesh, though, still holds some reservations with India, preferring a looser MoU rather than a permanent deal. Firstly, this revolves around the quality of the military equipment in question. India is itself one of the largest importers of arms in the world, which raises questions on the quality of their domestically produced hardware. This does not compare favourably to China’s reputation for creating cheap and easy to use equipment.
Furthermore, and perhaps more poignantly, issues on water-sharing between Bangladesh and India have long been an obstacle for discussions between the two countries, with projects like the Farakka Barrage denying flow of water into Bangladesh.
“Bangladesh is still predominantly an agricultural country. For us, river water is a crucial issue,” said Shamsul Arefin, the head of the think tank Bangladesh Peace Research Institute, to the South China Morning Post. “Hasina needs to show some positive takeaways from her Delhi visit such as [an agreement on] water sharing. She has addressed the entire range of India’s security and connectivity concerns, like pushing out Indian rebels and allowing the transit of goods to India’s troubled northeastern region. It is payback time for India.”
Regardless of whether any deals are actually ever agreed with either country, this tug of war between two giants of the world stage over Bangladesh suggests that the days of being just an observer may be coming to an end for the country. With a booming economy, a significant trade surplus and World Bank having dropped its corruption law suit, Bangladesh may just be ready to sit at the adult table.
This article first appeared on Dhaka Tribune.