India’s relations with Bangladesh will get a major boost with the visit of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to Goa. Sheikh Hasina is visiting India to attend a summit of the BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) on the sidelines of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) summit to be held in Goa on October 15-16. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Sheikh Hasina are expected to hold a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the dual summits in Goa on October 16.
Sheikh Hasina will be participating in the multilateral forum along with 11 other leaders from BIMSTEC and BRICS countries. Members of BIMSTEC include Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand.
Bonding against Pakistan-backed terror
Showing solidarity to India following the Uri terror attack allegedly backed by Pakistan, Bangladesh declared not to attend the SAARC meeting. All other SAARC countries have joined India in boycotting the SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) summit, which was scheduled to be held in Islamabad.
India’s initiative in bringing all the BIMSTEC members for the summit is a major initiative to sideline Pakistan. Pakistan is accused of exporting terrorism in South Asia. In this effort, Bangladesh is a key supporter. Both India and Bangladesh have been a victim of the Pakistan-backed terrorism. Bangladesh’s relationship with Pakistan is not cordial after it initiated the trial of the criminals of Liberation War of 1971. Pakistan is accused of encouraging terrorism in Bangladesh by support to its indigenous organisations, who are involved in various acts of terror.
In 2015, a Pakistani diplomat had to be recalled after she was seen liaising with Bangladeshi terror groups. Bangladeshi Information Minister had once informed that around 8000 youth of that country have returned home after receiving training in camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan, indicating a deep connection that Pakistan has with the country’s militant organisation. Besides, Bangladesh Home Minister Assaduzzaman Khan has accused Pakistani military intelligence ISI, along with local militant group Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh(JMB) for the July 1 terror incidence where armed militants took seized of a restaurant frequented by foreigners in Dhaka and killed 22 people.
Why Bangladesh matters for India
Bangladesh has become an important partner for India in the South Asia. The country is crucial for strengthening the sub-regional cooperation, a focus of India’s neighbourhood policy after the SAARC’s failure to emerge as a platform for regional cooperation due to the non-committal attitude of Pakistan. Bangladesh is important in the BBIN (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal) sub-regional cooperation and in the BIMSTEC. BBIN sub-regional cooperation was initiated was after Pakistan vetoed the SAARC Motor Vehicle Agreement (MVA) in the 18th SAARC Summit in Kathmandu. Bangladesh hosts the BIMSTEC secretariat.
Bangladesh is also important for India’s Act East Policy. Its geostrategic location makes it an ideal partner to connect India’s north-eastern states with the rest of India and with Southeast Asia. India has been working with Bangladesh to improve connectivity. The two countries have signed a plethora of agreements to bolster infrastructure and connectivity. Recently, the two countries have signed a coastal shipping agreement that established direct shipping links with the two countries. The expectation is India’s north-eastern region will benefit and may be able to enjoy the port facilities in Chittagong and Mongla.
Again, cooperation from Bangladesh is necessary for maintaining peace and stability both inside the country and in the region. Bangladesh played a key role in improving insurgency situation in India as it acted against the insurgent groups who were running their network across the border. Also, the Sheikh Hasina government took action against the Pakistan-based militant groups who were using that country to transit terror to India. With the international groups like Islamic State and Al-Qaida showing interest in the region, the counter-terror cooperation between India and Bangladesh has become more important.
In the past few years, the India-Bangladesh relationship has improved significantly. The two countries have resolved many issues and signed many agreements. The resolution of the land boundary dispute between India and Bangladesh highlights the growth of the relations. The progress in the India-Bangladesh relationship was initiated by the visit of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in January 2010. During her visit, two countries signed a joint communiqué which guides the growth of the relationship. Like past, the expectation will be that two countries make some major announcements. Since she is coming to participate in a multilateral forum, chances for any major earth-shaking announcement might be limited.
Sheikh Hasina will be meeting Mr Modi on the sidelines of the BIMSTEC summit. It is an opportunity for the two leaders to review the developments and focus on areas for furthering the cooperation. For deepening the relationship, the focus should be on improving trade and economic, connectivity and counter-terrorism.
India-Bangladesh economic relations have grown sign steadily in past few years. In 2011, bilateral trade between was $4.3 billion which touched $6.7 billion in 2016. One of the significant aspects is a rise in Bangladesh’s export to India. In 2011, Bangladesh exported goods worth $585 million that has grown to $727million in 2016. The rise in Bangladesh’s export has been possible due to India’s unilateral decision to allow duty-free access of all Bangladesh products (except 25 items mainly narcotic substances). In spite of the rise in Bangladesh’s export the trade is still heavily tilted to India. Bangladesh is demanding better trade facilities to improve its exports to India. The two sides should work on easing trade facilities.
Further, India is eyeing investment in Bangladesh to balance trade. India has already invested $3 billion and another $11 billion are in the pipeline. But the repatriation of assets, banking facilities and bureaucratic delays are some of the issues works which hamper investment in Bangladesh. Tata group’s $3billion investment plan had to be scrapped due to the politics in that country. The Bangladesh government has taken note of these factors and should ensure the safety of Indian assets in that country.
Since Sheikh Hasina’s visit coincided with the visit of Chinese President Xi’s visit to Bangladesh on his way to Goa to attend the BRICS Summit, the country’s relationship with China will be closely watched. China and Bangladesh enjoy a friendly relationship. China is Bangladesh’s biggest trading partner and largest exporter of arms. Again, China is a major development partner for Bangladesh and investing heavily infrastructure development. Deals and loans worth $40 billion were sealed during Mr Xi’s just-concluded visit to Dhaka. Bangladesh sees China as a trusted ally.
There are groups who want to play China as a counterbalance to India and such arguments are obvious to raise concerns in India and make one sceptical about Bangladesh’s intention. It needs to be admitted that there are also groups who believe that Bangladesh should maintain a friendly relationship with both India and China and benefit from the economic progress of the two countries. Prime Minister Shiekh Hasina is seen to maintain a balanced relationship with both India and China. She should keep separate her relationships with India and China from the debate of counter balance.
(The author is a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation. The views expressed in this column are solely those of the author).
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