Foreign ties

View from Dhaka Tribune: India needs to keep Bangladesh on its side if it hopes to take on China

Bangladesh tends to lean towards India on most issues, but has not been treated the same by Delhi.

Given China’s aggressive and largely successful policy of expanding its sphere of influence among India’s neighbors, Bangladesh’s support for India stands in stark contrast to other countries in the region. Many Indian analysts think that Dhaka continues to maintain a delicate balance between Delhi and Beijing. In fact, it is widely held that Bangladesh tends to lean towards India on most issues because of the two countries’ proximity in geography and mindset, but is disappointed at not being treated the same way by Delhi.

The most glaring and recent example of this is the ongoing Rohingya crisis, which is nearing its sixth month.

These views were expressed during a discussion at the Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi, on January 24. Dr Jonathan DT Ward, one of the leading experts on China, was the keynote speaker at the event.

Ward made an interesting prediction that day: “The 1962 war between China and India was fought on the Himalayan border, mainly in Arunachal. But if there is any future war between these two countries, it will be centred on the sea,” he said. “The China-India tension is gradually shifting towards the maritime domain, especially in the Indian Ocean Region.”

‘String of Pearls’

That China wants to surround India on South by establishing seaports in different countries is nothing new. Geopolitical experts often call it the “String of Pearls”, where the pearls stretch over the Strait of Malacca, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Pakistan, and even the Strait of Hormuz, all the way to Somalia.

Meanwhile, there has already been significant progress towards the establishment of a Chinese economic corridor passing through Pakistan. It will stretch all the way from China to the Gwadar port, situated on the Arabian Sea in the Balochistan province of Pakistan.

Another recent development is that China is likely to set up a military base in Jiwani, 85 km West of the Gwadar port. In that case, this will be the second Chinese military establishment on foreign soil after Djibouti.

It is therefore apparent that Pakistan, in a way, allows China to use its land the way it wants to. It is almost the same when it comes to Sri Lanka, Nepal, the Maldives, and Myanmar. Bangladesh is the only exception to this trend.

Former Indian diplomat Chandrashekhar Dasgupta, also a former ambassador to China, said without hesitation: “The Chinese President Xi Jinping signed a cheque worth almost $26bn when he visited Bangladesh. Even then, it cannot be said that Dhaka has gone into China’s grip.”

He added: “Even after knowing that India cannot compete with China’s capacity for providing aid, the Sheikh Hasina led-government is still clearly leaning towards India.”

Rohingya response

Dasgupta admitted that India failed to fulfill Bangladesh’s expectations regarding the Rohingya crisis. He said: “We [India] have probably put too much importance on Myanmar’s feelings. Maybe India should have accorded a bit more importance to the arguments of the country bearing the burden of thousands of refugees.”

Former Indian foreign secretary and former Indian ambassador to the US, Nirupama Rao Menon, admitted that India does not have same economic prowess to spend money the way China spends, whether as aid or investment, on Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives.

“But money is not everything in diplomacy – there are other means as well, which is called ‘smart diplomacy’,” said Rao, “In my opinion, India has only one way of stopping China’s increasing influence on South Asia – that is by implementing smart diplomacy.”

In private conversations, many Indian diplomats have expressed that it is not evident India has indeed implemented ‘smart diplomacy’ on the Rohingya issue.

But if one looks into China’s activities inside different Saarc countries in the last few months, it should not be difficult to understand why India should put more emphasis on Bangladesh’s India-leaning foreign policies.

It is not an exaggeration to say that China has surrounded India on all sides. China has made strong inroads in neighbouring countries other than Bhutan and Bangladesh, and India needs to address this trend sooner or later.

Retired brigadier Gurmit Kanwaal of the Indian Army now occupies the post of a senior fellow in Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis, a strategic think tank in Delhi. He categorically said: “India has to militarily reach out to countries like Bangladesh, the Maldives, and Nepal – the same way it helped the Afghan army.”

Kanwaal also stressed that India has no other way to fight China’s increasing dominion over the neighbouring countries.

“For some reason, a ‘security vacuum’ has been created in the Indo-Pacific zone. China is trying its best to take advantage of it, and India has no other option but to make a counter-strategy.”

Similar warnings have been issued by Tibet’s exiled Leader (Sikyong), Dr Lobsang Sangay, to India. No other country has borne the brunt of China’s aggressive policy like Tibet has, so it is very important to evaluate the advice of the Tibetan leadership.

In a telephone call from his exiled government’s capital, Dharmashala, Dr Sangay said: “I think India needs to start being careful. China is trying to surround India by creating a circle from Pakistan to Nepal-Bangladesh-Burma (Myanmar)-Sri Lanka, and has succeeded in this to some measure. India has to find a way to get out of this circle.”

The summary of the advice from key observers, diplomatic and political, is that India has to be more responsive, careful, and sympathetic towards its neighbours. And in the centre of all the diplomatic missions should lie Bangladesh – India’s trusted and tested ally.

This article first appeared on Dhaka Tribune.

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