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The new power play in South Asia

Sheikh Hasina’s good relations with India and her attempt to reach out to China should not be viewed with suspicion.

SHEIKH Hasina Wazed’s upcoming visit to India du­ring April 7-10 is turning out to be perhaps her most important bilateral visit to a country that surrounds Bangladesh from three sides.

The Bangladeshi leader turned down the Indian request for a 25-year defence treaty. In its place there will now likely be a memorandum of understanding on several related issues including purchase of equipment and weapons needed for United Nations peacekeeping, disaster response and management, etc. India appears willing to extend US$500mil (RM2.2bil) in credit.

Indian leaders, policymakers and even the media agree that Sheikh Hasina’s government has gone far beyond the extra mile possible to improve Bangladesh-India relations.

In The Times of India, Subir Bhaumik wrote, “Hasina has been steadfast in her support of Modi government’s ‘isolate Pakistan’ drive, her government has cracked down hard on northeastern rebels and Islamist militants, on fake currency rackets and Pakistani agents to address Indian security concerns. She has cleared transit for Indian goods to the Northeast through Bangladesh territory and addressed most of India’s connectivity concerns seen as crucial to success of India’s Look East policy.

As Hasina prepares for her Delhi visit, Indian and Bangladeshi officials are trying to finalise a deal to allow Indian use of Chittagong and Mongla ports for accessing the northeast.”

What Bhaumik did not mention, and what India truly needs to be grateful for, is her determined and successful effort to dismantle all the camps of the insurgents from the Northeast that Khaleda Zia’s Government had allowed in a mistaken policy to keep “pressure” on India.

Over time these insurgents had become a genuine worry as their destructive power rose with sanctuary on Bangladesh’s side of the border.

Not to be forgotten is how Sheikh Hasina’s government has changed the narrative from “India, the hegemonic oppressor” to “India, the development partner” ever since she came to power in 2009. In January 2010, the Awami League chief risked her political future and signed a very comprehensive agreement with India in which she responded to most of India’s important demands without getting any of Bangladesh’s demands met. Her faith has so far worked only partially in terms of duty free access of Bangladeshi goods to the Indian market, a major demand from our side.

The story on energy cooperation is also good.

However, the biggest frustration remains in the crucial area of water sharing, especially of the Teesta River. No tangible progress has been made since it was aborted at the very last minute on the eve of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s last visit in September, 2011.

India’s complex and controversial river-linking project hangs on Bangladesh’s head as a possible doomsday scenario with unknown implications for our ecology.

All Sheikh Hasina’s efforts appear to be now in jeopardy as India seems to be quite concerned about her China policy, which resulted in the latter’s increasing presence not only in Bangladesh’s development projects but also in the sensitive area of military equipment purchase.

China has been by far the biggest source of defence purchases for Bangladesh for many years, ever since the coming of military in power in 1975 , reinforced in 2002 when former prime minister Khaleda Zia inked a comprehensive umbrella agreement during her visit to China.

Indian discomfort experienced a quantum leap when, during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit, Bangladesh-China cooperation was elevated from “comprehensive partnership cooperation” to “strategic partnership cooperation” and China offered US$24bil (RM105.8bil) worth of economic and development aid with another US$13bil (RM57.3bil) in private sector investment.

The present prime minister, to her considerable credit, has been able to forge uniquely close relations with India while simultaneously making China a major development and investment partner.

So how should India view Bangladesh’s ri­­sing closeness with China? Should India insist on countering the imagined Chinese “influence” – imagined because China has in no way been able to influence our policy of friendship towards India – by forcing a “defence treaty” or “greater defence cooperation” on Bangladesh?

Bangladesh needs India as a close ally and friend. But it also needs China as a significant development partner. It is unrealistic on India’s part to expect any government in Bangladesh not to try to reach out to China while pursuing a very close relationship with India.

Over the many decades that Sheikh Hasina has been in politics and the several years she has been in power, she has been consistent in her policy of good relations with India.

What is new is her success in reaching out to China. Instead of looking at it with suspicion India should place its trust in Bangladesh as a reliable ally and see her policy towards China as contributing to regional stability and bringing two Asian giants closer.

If there is to be an Asian century it will have to be built both by India and China, and it has to benefit their smaller neighbours.

Stability is the key to Asia’s future and that stability can only be guaranteed by India and China coming closer, which they are doing through bilateral trade aiming to reach US$100bil (RM440.9bil) in the near future and billions of dollars investment in each other’s countries. The idea of an exclusive sphere of influence of each of these Asian Giants with a “No Entry” sign for the other is an outdated concept and one that is doomed to failure in this digital age.

Bangladesh should never allow itself to be drawn into the India-China rivalry. We want India to be our “closest friend” but not “our only friend”.

As Sheikh Hasina’s visit comes closer, India must seriously think about how to forge a new, dynamic and win-win relationship with its emerging neighbour in the East.

Mahfuz Anam is Editor and Publisher of The Daily Star, Bangladesh. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.

ANN Asian Editors Circle