Mohammad Hossain- Bangladesh
The India-Bangladesh defence pact which the Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is set to sign soon, during her four-day visit to India starting from April 07, 017 is symptomatic of the tense diplomacy currently in practice in the Indian subcontinent region.
The pact, a comprehensive 25 year India-Bangladesh defence agreement to transform bilateral relations into a strategic relationship, is being aggressively pushed forward by Indian diplomats and the Indian media against the backdrop of an increasingly imminent standoff between rising powers India and China in terms of geopolitical influence in the region. As Indian media and politicians have made clear, the pact is a response triggered by the growing Bangladesh-China camaraderie, evident in the recent $38 billion dollar Chinese investment move in Bangladesh, followed by the acquisition of a pair of Chinese Ming-class Type 035B diesel electric submarines by the Bangladesh navy, a move contentiously labelled by Indian analysts as ‘an act of provocation’ towards India.
According to the deal, India is to provide a $500 million line credit package (LoC) for the Bangladesh Armed forces to purchase Indian made armaments. Moreover, there are clauses for military cooperation, joint training initiatives and exchanges, defence industry and research cooperation, exchange of defence information, in a defence cooperation framework which includes a set of 10 Memorandums of Understanding (MoU’s).
While it is clear that both India and China vie for influence in the region, the respective approaches of the two nations towards Bangladesh in specific, and the region at large, spell a world of difference. The Chinese approach in fuelled largely by economic interests, and its investment diplomacy in Bangladesh is but a small fraction of Chinese President Xi Jiping’s larger, much grander initiative to promote and implement China’s Silk road economic belt under its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative — a trade and infrastructure network for connecting at least 60 Asian countries with Europe and Africa along the ancient Silk Road routes. Indian interests in Bangladesh, and much of its neighbouring countries, is much more strategic and geopolitical, and is related towards establishing a hegemonic relationship, as evident in its history of foreign policy and diplomacy related Nepal, Bhutan and in the case of Sikkim. India is also constrained by its lack of economic incentives in its relationship with its neighbours, as Modi’s rather ambitious ‘Make in India’ policy - whereby under the line of credit a minimum of 75 percent of goods and services needs to be of Indian origin and must be procured from India, has shown. While advantageous to the Indian economy, the recipient nations have usually had to be content with inferior quality of goods and services as compared to say, Chinese goods and services, which are often better in quality and cheap at the same time. This has been strictly true in the case of the arms industry, as Chinese armaments are competitive in terms of quality and affordable as opposed to that of India, which itself is a more of an armaments importing nation, as opposed to China being a rising armaments exporting nation.
In the meantime, the reaction from within Bangladesh has been mixed, with overwhelming public opinion against any defence pact with India, as opposed to the Awami League government decision to continue negotiations in favour of a defence pact, courtesy of Sheikh Hasina’s cornerstone foreign policy of appeasement towards Indian demands. The Bangladeshi government, some of the supportive Bangladeshi media such as BDnews24, the Indian politicians and the Indian media have been working overwhelmingly from their respective places towards realization of a defence pact to work jointly on combating a rising perceived regional threat of Islamist terrorism, and joining together to combat external aggressions at the present and in the future. The pro camp also sees the defence pact as another step towards strengthening of existing bilateral cooperation between the two nations present since the 1971 independence war of Bangladesh, as many of the proposed conditions of the defence pact are already being practised on a limited scale, such as joint exercises, and joint security operations and intelligence information exchange operations between relevant authorities in the two countries.
The defence pact, however, is being touted by many as being against the interests of sovereignty of Bangladesh and that it could spur anti-government activities; major secular media establishments, think tanks, political opposition parties and army personnel have worded their opposition to it. Experts contend that Bangladesh needs to focus on much more important issues such as negotiating long overdue river-sharing treaties and work towards ending border killings of Bangladeshi nationals at the hands of Indian Border Security forces. Opponents of the defence pact point out that given Bangladesh’s own relative success at keeping peace within its borders, coupled with the inferior quality and low supply ability of Indian armaments, such a deal would instead hinder Bangladeshi national interests and serve to limit its arsenal and defence capabilities under the watchful eyes of an intrusive big-brotherly neighbour. Moreover, there is huge disparity in the military capacity and budget allocations of the two nations, and they hold rather different military doctrines, that of India being expansionist and that of Bangladesh being largely defensive. Furthermore, given Indian policy of supplying armaments to neighbourly Myanmar, and abstaining from any mediatory role in recent crises emanating from unwarranted Myanmar army aggression against Bangladeshi border forces, alongside the condescending role of Indian authorities to issues raised by Bangladeshi authorities such as the river sharing treaties and border killings, opponents of the treaty have indeed much to be worried about. Taking note of the above, the anti-defence pact camp advocates an open independent approach in this regard, free from unnecessary bindings to a certain interest group.
In conclusion, perhaps a most important question at this critical juncture would be to soul-searchingly ask why Bangladesh needs to defend itself, and from whom? Proponents of the defence deal would say that since Bangladesh is surrounded by a friendly India on three sides, with the best interests of Bangladesh at heart, it need not ask any further questions on a 25 year-long proposed binding mutual defence pact with India. Opponents, taking serious note of this very fact and of India’s condescending and overbearing track record, however, would clearly beg to differ. They have asked the government to come clear of its dubious attitude and avoid such a deal at all costs, and work instead on more pressing bilateral issues for the interests of the general people in Bangladesh.
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