The recent whirlwind tour of Bangladesh by Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla, convinced a section of the media in both the countries that New Delhi is worried for the wider presence of China in the neighbourhood.
India and China seemingly have been in a race for quite some time to win confidence of the economically emerging Bangladesh, which has undertaken a number of infrastructural mega projects under its communications, agricultural and energy sectors with the assistance of the friendly countries and the development partners
Besides, the Covid-19 pandemic has brought a new dimension to global diplomacy and politics as the vaccine has become essential. As India is a major vaccine producer, like China it is obvious that it would try to explore markets through diplomacy in Bangladesh.
Meanwhile, China which is currently building several mega projects in Bangladesh on contracts has already made a stride into the country for the phase-3 trial of Covid-19 vaccine produced by a Chinese company. Bangladesh Medical Research Council has already approved the Chinese move, but the government is yet to give a final decision, as it is weighing such offers from some other countries.
As part of the race Harsh Vardhan Shringla made a quick tour in Bangladesh on August 18 and 19 last without prior announcement. The visit was aimed at boosting relations with the neighbouring Bangladesh as China has drawn the country much closer, according to the Indian media.
However, the media, except those who work as the government mouthpiece, in both the countries, tried to project the visit of Shringla as an Indian effort to push Bangladesh to come out of the growing Chinese influence on important sectors. Most Indian media blamed New Delhi for its ill treatments of Bangladesh, which ultimately tilted towards China over the last few years.
In Bangladesh the media put the Shringla visit as an outcome of a deep rift emerged between the two countries as Bangladesh did not condemn Chinese alleged deadly aggression in Ladakh recently. The media also mentioned that India was worried after Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan discussed Kashmir issues with Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in a telephone
While handling the issues the media in both the countries might have forgotten to bring references of Bangladesh Liberation War 1971. Bangladesh became independent on December 16 after Pakistani occupational forces formally surrendered to a joint command of Bangladesh and India. China was among a couple of super power that opposed Bangladesh’s independence.
Now it is obviously quite difficult for Bangladesh to supersede blood relations with economic relations, the terms upheld by the country in terms of the relations with India and China respectively.
Bangladesh and India often reiterated that their relation was time tested and achieved through spilling of blood on the battle ground. Despite several contentions, Bangladesh often expresses gratitude to India for helping in the liberation war and also for hosting some 10 million Bangladeshi refugees in 1971.
However, China like some other countries later came forward to help Bangladesh as it started putting efforts for economic and infrastructural development. Chinese assistance increased manifold over the last 10 years.
Though Shringla described the latest Bangladesh visit highly successful, a section of media in both the countries believe the visit ended in total frustration for India. Bangladesh uttered good words, but made no commitments on proposed cooperation on developing the Covid-19 vaccine.
As the visit was made without prior consultation with Bangladesh, it was rated as unofficial and accordingly no Bangladesh officials were at the airport to receive such a high-profile guest, who with his special aircraft landed in Kurmitola airport instead of Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport.
It was also difficult for the Bangladesh Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) to arrange an appointment with Prime Minister. Ultimately a time was fixed, but it was rescheduled at least twice and at last Shringla could meet the Prime Minister in the evenings at her official residence Ganabhabhan on the first day of his tour. For the appointment, he had to wait at his suite at Pan Pacific Sonargaon Dhaka for hours. Some diplomats said it was frustrating experience for Shringla-a seasoned diplomat, who successfully concealed his reactions with smiles.
During his courtesy call on Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Shringla conveyed a message of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to her. She received the message and inquired about the Premier’s health and the latest situation of the pandemic in India. Most of the time Hasina listened to Shringla without saying anything decisive, according to sources at the PMO.
On the second and the final day of his visit Shringla taking to the media later reiterated that India would continue to be with Bangladesh and take forward the relations.
During the bilateral discussion on the following day, Bangladesh did not take up the pending issue on sharing the Teesta River water and other pertinent matters including Indian citizenship issues.
Diplomatic circles said avoiding such issues Bangladesh side hinted that Bangladesh retains no more confidence of getting any sort of help from Indian government for solving the pending issues.
Though Bangladesh thinks that the India’s National Register of Citizenship (NRC) and the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) are India’s internal issues, it doesn’t totally support those because NRC might compel many to cross over to Bangladesh and CAA might entice minorities to leave Bangladesh to attain Indian citizenship in the long run.
However, experts believe as the economic conditions and living standard in Bangladesh are far better than most regions of India no one will like to migrate to India for better living.
During the bilateral talks Bangladesh’s Foreign Secretary Masud Bin Momen also let his Indian counterpart to know that Bangladesh would explore all the avenues to get quick access to Covid-19 vaccine and choose one which will be safer and useful for Bangladesh.
It means Bangladesh will not solely wait for Indian vaccine and will opt for the vaccine originated in any other country and produced with the cooperation of Bangladesh. There are other countries including China, Russia, the USA, and the UK near to the invention of the vaccine. Among them, China has openly asked Bangladesh to cooperate.
It has also sent a clear message to Indian government that Bangladesh will move forward on its own as India missed to reciprocate Bangladesh’s all-out cooperation in recent years. After Sheikh Hasina returned to power in 2009, she evicted Indian insurgents from Bangladesh resulting in peace in Assam.
Bangladesh also gave transit facilities to India time to time to carry emergency supplies and equipment to Tripura through Ashuganj river port. Recently Bangladesh allowed India to use its ports for transshipment of goods to its landlocked northeast. A trial run of transshipment of Indian goods to Agartala in Tripura State through Chittagong port was conducted recently.
Shringla rushed to Bangladesh when China was about to provide nearly $1 billion assistance to Bangladesh for an irrigation project on the Teesta. After failing to strike a deal Teesta water sharing with India, Bangladesh as a matter of survival, mooted the irrigation “Teesta River Comprehensive Management and Restoration Project,” to store water for irrigation in winter, when West Bengal diverts the water flow.
Bangladesh and India failed to sign the Teesta water-sharing agreement due to West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s last-minute opposition during the then Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Dhaka in 2011. Even today, the issue remains unresolved and India continues to assure of striking the deal.
Analysts said Beijing-Dhaka ties have strengthened in recent years as China invested in various infrastructure projects in Bangladesh, which has concerned India.
Recently, China declared duty free access for 97 per cent of exports from Bangladesh. China also sent a medical team to Bangladesh for dealing the raging Covid-19 pandemic. China is now the biggest trade partner of Bangladesh. The bilateral trade between Bangladesh and China, which amounted to $12.4 billion in 2017-2018, is expected to reach $18 billion mark by 2021, according to economists.
On the other hand Bangladesh’s exports to India crossed $ 1.0 billion mark in the last calendar year (2019). Bangladesh has emerged as major trading partner of India with bilateral trade exceeding $10 billion annually.
India has been falling behind of China in the race and to overcome the lagging’s India should further change its attitude towards Bangladesh and solve all the contentious issues at least to reciprocate what Bangladesh has done for India over the last 10 years.
Nizam Ahmed, Business Editor – The Daily Observer