Amid the Cold War, Bangladesh came into existence as result of 1971 India-Pakistan war. Along with the domestic factors, external players contributed to dis-integrate Pakistan as Soviet Union supported India with full strength while United State kept with Pakistan half-heartedly. Since India supported the independence, pro India lobbies gradually intruded in each and every aspect of Bangladesh life from media to films, from television to academia and anti Indian forces were termed as anti independence forces.
Bangladesh’s location made it a seat of contention among all major powers. With the Soviet Union fall, India, U.S. and China became main players in Bangladesh. Geographical inconveniences and USSR’s determined role to mutilate an important US ally proved to be most instrumental in shaping the results of war. But besides geography and cold war, none can deny many Bengalis dreamt of independent Bangladesh. They dreamt of a nation based on linguistic ethnicity but in sharp contrast to the dream, Bangladesh is gradually falling into India’s periphery.
China’s influence grew among businessmen and army of Bangladesh. This is because Chinese growing economy gives ample opportunity to Bangla businessmen. Chinese high quality defence equipments also attracted Bangladesh Army. While India seeks to reduce military clamour of any of its neighbours to maintain its domination in South Asia, China tries to bolster the defence of all weaker South Asian countries. There is also a substantial influence of the Bangladeshi emigrants living in Western countries mainly UK and U.S. while Bangladesh was maintaining balance between these three forces up to 2008.
2008: Balance shifted in favour of India
The victory of Awami League in the year 2008 election sealed the fate in favour of New Delhi. Firstly, in the name of BDR mutiny in Pilkhana, China trained 57 BDR officers got killed in 2009. Secondly, Awami government cracked down upon United Liberation Front of Ahom (ULFA). The ULFA was fighting against Indian state for independent Assam from bases in Bangladesh. Awami’s crack down upon the ULFA was a great diplomatic victory for India. It finally meant Bangladesh will no longer tolerate any movement against Indian state. That was a big blow to all North-East ethnicity based movement.
Thirdly, Awami government clearly denied Chittagong port to China and instead offered it to India. China would have invested in Chittagong port while India was allowed to use it for meagre fees. Lastly, different anti India opposition leaders were sentenced to death in the name of judgment for atrocities during 1971 war. No international organisation supported this move but Awami went ahead with the help of India. In 2013, Awami government tried to replace China from Bangladesh’s arms market by signing MoUs with Russia on defence equipments.
India in return supported Awami to conduct a hoax election without the guidance of any neutral body. Thus most important opposition BNP did not participate in the election. This election was never endorsed by the U.S. government. But still Awami could ignore U.S. simply because the later was interested in limiting influence of China too. So Awami’s anti China position keeps USA-India-Awami together.
After 2014 Hoax Election
Under the Awami League since 2014, Dhaka has moved even closer to New Delhi. In 2016, Bangladesh allowed India to build a mega coal plant in the ecologically sensitive Sundarbans mangrove forest – a move that activists say could devastate the region. In 2015, Dhaka granted Delhi transit rights, allowing India’s mainland to access the North East via routes that had been shut when Bengal was partitioned in 1947. Today, Bangladesh is India’s largest trading partner in South Asia, with almost the entire volume of trade being composed of Indian exports – making the relationship rather beneficial for Delhi. Let us look into the recently signed defence deal between India and Bangladesh.
Indo-Bangladesh Defence Deal
The Bangladesh Navy has been trying to acquire submarines over the past decade. It negotiated with Italy and Germany for refurbished submarines however the negotiations did not yield any positive results for Dhaka. Bangladesh asked the Indians if they could provide any submarines. But Indian Navy was unable to do so. Then India was perplexed by the announcement of a strategic partnership between Bangladesh and China during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Bangladesh in October 2016.
India’s desperation became fully apparent after the Bangladesh Navy received its first two submarines from China purchased for only $203 million November last year. The refurbished submarines incurred a mega shockwave in New Delhi, which has always been arrogantly vocal against neighbouring countries who are trying to improve their defence capabilities. They view the submarines will help China to gain influence in South Asia and track movements in the Bay of Bengal.
After the submarines arrived in Dhaka late last year India dispatched its Defence Minister Manohar Gopalkrishna Prabhu Parrikar on a two day state level visit on 30, November 2016. He pressurized Dhaka in to signing a 25-year long term defence agreement with India. The Bangladesh Armed Forces did not find such an agreement needed at all. India then sought to a plan to sign a non-binding, ambiguous defence deal covering training and technical cooperation. There is also a $500 million Letter of Credit by India to the Bangladesh Armed Forces for purchasing military-equipment which is a way to dislodge China from the position of largest exporter of defence equipments to Bangladesh Army. This must be kept in mind that Bangladesh Army already had a defence pact with Russia. Russia can be used to displace China and the later cannot do much about it since Russia is its important ally on many international issues like South China Sea, Syria, UNSC, etc.
The defence deal was harshly criticised in Bangladeshi society, media and political establishments as an anti-Bangladesh pact. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced on 8 April 2017 that the Indian credit for Bangladesh’s Armed Forces would be “guided by Bangladesh’s needs and priorities”. Point is if Delhi can command Dhaka to sign a deal it can determine the later’s needs and priorities as well. Bangladesh’s Foreign Secretary Shahidul Haque confirmed that Bangladesh was not bound to buy any military hardware exclusively from India under the deal. Point is even if Indian equipments are not bought, Chinese equipments can be avoided at large diminishing China’s role in Bangladesh’s arms market.
Chinese government will definitely be uneasy with Dhaka signing the defence pact with New Delhi. They do not even know the particulars of the deal like most Bangladeshis or Indians. China will be fearful of any drastic change in Dhaka’s position and its impact on China’s regional influence. Before the deal, Bangladesh was thought to close to finalise a deal to purchase more guided missile frigates from China. It is now working with China for building 3,000-ton frigates indigenously for the first time in addition to low-altitude air defence systems that are to be made at the Bangladesh Ordnance Factories (BOF). Such measures are beyond the technical capacity of India, but Russians can be used to displace China.
Change in Strategy Needed
Bengal delta is traditionally geo-political competitor of Hindi heartland and West India. Moreover, Bengal is Geo-economically in win-win relation with China. But Bengal is too fragmented to deal with New Delhi at present. Present Bangladesh is a shadow when compared to historical Bengal both in power and size. It can never help or inspire any freedom struggle of any linguistic ethnicity. It has to end up as a pawn of Indian state.
A noteworthy point is Bangladesh is a fast growing economy and has current account surplus due to huge export earnings from its garments industry. Thus unlike Sri Lanka which is in debt crisis, China will fail to gain influence in Bangladesh by using money power only. Bangladesh does not have that much need of Chinese money right now. Instead, it is easily moulded by Indian culture and network. Western networks are anti-China as well. Hence, creating networks and other soft powers is very essential in the “Great Game of Bangladesh” (a term coined by Robert Kaplan).
DISCLAIMER:The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy and position of Regional Rapport.