From Ashis Biswas
KOLKATA: A present cosmetic pattern seems to have dominated most Indo-Bangla dealings in recent years, with rhetoric prevailing over substance. There are the never-ending complaints about trade imbalance, illegal infiltration and water sharing, usually resulting in some concession from India. There is the mandatory mention of the “shared cultural values” and the importance of Tagore, capped by the ritual announcement that the ”talks have been positive and productive.”
India’s generous write-off of $20 million out of its $1 billion loan to Bangladesh, announced by Union Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee in Dhaka a few days ago, did not generate much response from Bangladesh media. However, Dhaka’s obsession over Ms Mamata Banerjee’s refusal to meet Bangladeshi demands for Teesta waters continues unabated. .
There are also bilateral plans for India to assist Bangladesh build and upgrade its rail and road infrastructure, as well as meeting its rising power demands.. These schemes, in various stages of implementation, involve the expenditure of thousands of crores of rupees. This would not have been possible under the BNP-regime headed by Ms Khaleda Zia, who saw Indian conspiracies behind every setback, more imagined than real.
Still, India’s much-mentioned “Look East “approach, a positive change from the days of a Kashmir-obsessed diplomacy, is not really bringing in any dividends—yet.
Ironically, international perception about the two countries may be similar in some respects. Over the years, poor as it is, Bangladesh has become a well armed country. Unfortunately, that is just how many countries in the world also perceive India as — with this difference, India with its size and economic potential, can make a global impact, unlike its smaller neighbour.
Bangladesh spends big bucks these days in the process of arming itself. Its money goes to China and Russia mainly and partly to France, US and other countries. India might not exist!
Militarily, Bangladesh fears India, which surrounds it on three sides and to a lesser extent,Myanmar, also known for its strong army. Post Mujibur Rahman, who never tolerated a strong anti Indian political stance, Bangladeshi rulers have shown an opportunistic tendency to sup with the devil, if necessary, to continue with their India-bashing. They saw nothing wrong in cultivating the favours of China.
Under Zia, who fell to forces he himself unleashed, Bangladesh had no qualms from distancing itself from its two firmest international backers, India and the Soviet Union. Pro Pak and China forces, linked by their anti India and anti Russia outlook, assumed ascendancy in Dhaka. From brigade to division level, Bangladeshi soldiers underwent Chinese weapons and arms training. As China increased its strategic presence in Bangladesh, after Myanmar, Dhaka acquired Chinese tanks, and frigates. China assisted the country in crucial road link projects connecting Bangladesh with Myanmar and Kunming. General Ershad also visited China in 1987, as did Khaleda Zia later as Prime Minister. Bangladesh developed the BD-08 automatic rifle, really a local version of the Chinese type 81weapon. At Chittagongport, China helped install anti ship missiles (range 120 kilometres) and supplied Dhaka other missiles and fighter jets as well. In return, the Chinese installed flight monitoring equipment in Bangladesh airstrips, which helped them track closely any northbound takeoff activity from the neighbouring West Bengal and other states!
From China, at a cost of $162 million Bangladesh is acquiring 44 battle tanks and upgrading 200 older tanks. Ten Yak 130 military aircraft, which help train fighter aircrafts, will be available soon. At Saradia, close to the Cox’s Bazar area, the Chinese are helping build a deep sea port, along with an advanced air base that has become operational.
Under the Sheikh Hasina-led Awami league, the identity of the arms supplier has changed. While the Chinese were active selling their arms and setting up strategic Defence ties with Dhaka, Russia under Boris Yeltsin was not in a position to assert itself in South Asia region. With Vladimir Putin taking over, a resurgent Russia is playing a more active role. An arms purchase deal amounting over $1 billion is close to being signed between Bangladesh and Russia. In the short term, Russia will be selling advanced arms worth $850 million to Bangladesh immediately, the amount representing 4% of the smaller country’s annual budget.
Mr. Saiful Haque, Bangladesh’s ambassador to Russia told Dhaka-based media that the deal should be fully worked out within the next two months. Haque, who also played an active role in lining major technical and financial help from Russian giant firm Gazprom for major energy exploration projects in and off Bangladesh, praised Russia’s role as a truly “trusted ally”. Apart from helping India and Bangladesh during the liberation war, defying the might of the USA, China and the West, Russia had used its veto powers in the UNSC four times between 1971 and 1972!
Haque is hopeful of a credit line to be worked out between the two countries. Along with advanced jet fighters, Bangladesh will also receive an advanced radar system from Russia. There are also plans to strengthen and increase the fire power of Bangladesh border troops, who are involved in occasional skirmishes with their Indian and Burmese counterparts.
Russia is elated over winning a major slice of the Bangladeshi arms market, a sizable one by South Asia standards and expect to corner between 30/35% of its aggregate requirements. Growing Defence co-operation with Bangladesh also ensures an effective access to Russia to the energy-rich Indian Ocean region, matching the Chinese in geo-strategic ability. In addition to the Gazprom’s own ambitious programmes for exploration and drilling work in the Bay of Bengal during the next two years, Russia’s physical presence will son become a way of life in Bangladesh. For the long term again, circles in Bangladesh are suggesting that the smaller country make good its energy shortfall by importing gas and oil from Russia in the years ahead. In the short term, Russia is building a nuclear plant in Bangladesh at a cost of $2 billion, which will see the commercial production of 1000 megawatts of power from 2014.
Given this backdrop of major economic and Defence trends in the region, in India’s own backyard so to speak, it seems that the ”Look East” policy has come too late. Already India has been overtaken by major events in the East. Present economic collaboration projects have been possible again, only because the Awami league is ruling Bangladesh. It can be questioned where they come too late to matter. It remains a wonder as to why Indian policymakers did not react to these developments in the manner befitting an aspiring regional world power. The national obsession with Pakistan, together with a lack of interest in the Eastern and NE states on part of Delhi-based policymakers, can explain India’s inertia partially. It has been forgotten that the British too, had conquered India after securing a firm foothold in the East!
As in neighbouring Myanmar, India is thoroughly outflanked by China and others in Bangladesh. This surely marks an abject failure of India’s foreign policy, and negates all its gains as the only country in the world which directly assisted Bangladesh to come into existence. Amazingly, the once highly hostile and hated Chinese have achieved a near miracle in the region through their successful, effective diplomacy. (IPA Service)