Indian Finance Minister Mr. Arun Jetley was on a 3-day official trip to Bangladesh last week. It was the first bilateral visit of a senior Indian Minister to Dhaka in a long time. The delay did not deter the Indian Minister from stating confidently before the media in Dhaka: "We are passing through an era where the Indo-Bangladesh relations are at its very best. And in the spirit and environment that exist between our governments, our people and our prime ministers, we have been able to resolve a lot of issues of the past."
It was apparently a doublespeak. The Minister's statement came in the aftermath of India's perplexing support for the Myanmar military's ruthless action against the Rohingyas that sent 4,50,000 Rohingyas fleeing to Bangladesh. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina called this "genocide", a view shared by many world leaders, including the French President Emmanuel Macron. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein called Myanmar's persecution of the Rohingyas as a "textbook case of ethnic cleansing."
Yet, the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Myanmar and supported its military's brutality that created the latest influx of Rohingya refugees into Bangladesh and sympathy for the four Myanmar soldiers killed by the Arakan Rohingya Solidarity Army (ARSA) on August 25 that led to the latest massacre of the Rohingyas.
THE CHINA FACTOR: While Mr. Jetley was in Dhaka, the Bangladesh Foreign Secretary Shahidul Huq was on a visit to New Delhi from October 04-06 to attend the 2017 India Economic Summit which was hosted by the World Economic Forum. The Indian media used a statement that Mr. Huq had made in the World Economic Forum's meeting in New Delhi on the One Belt One Road initiative (OBOR) of China to flag that serious problems have emerged in Bangladesh-India relations.
India has objected to this initiative in the strongest term possible for several reasons: first, Pakistan is deeply involved in the initiative; second, it runs through the part of Kashmir on the Pakistani side, and finally and most importantly, OBOR's leadership is firmly in China's hands.
The Bangladesh Foreign Secretary explained the reasons why Bangladesh supported China's OBOR initiative to which it was invited to join by the Chinese President Xi Jinping during his state visit to Bangladesh in 2015. It was an explanation that India could not in its right mind oppose. He said in his deliberations: "We cannot be isolated in the name of sovereignty…There are times when you have to put the sovereignty issue behind, in the back seat, to the economic benefits to your people."
The OBOR initiative now includes 60 nations. It "will span 65 countries with 70 per cent of the world's population."
Interestingly, the OBOR initiative is based on the same principle that India had used to successfully sell land transit to Bangladesh. Land transit was a pariah to all governments in Bangladesh including the AL-led government of 1996-2001. New Delhi cleverly substituted land transit and called it regional connectivity and explained to Bangladesh that land connectivity would bring Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and Indian Seven Sisters together, encouraging a floodgate of economic/commercial activities in the region with benefits for all - most of all to Bangladesh that would become the regional connectivity hub. China's OBOR initiative intends for a much larger number of nations the same collective benefits through land connectivity as New Delhi's land connectivity among Bangladesh, the Seven Sisters, Nepal, and Bhutan.
Bangladesh's strong support for OBOR came only a day after the Trump administration came firmly behind India against the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that like OBOR is also a part of China's Belt Road Initiative (BRI). Therefore, Bangladesh Foreign Secretary's statement at the WEF raised many eyebrows in New Delhi. India Today in its report thus stated: "This is in absolute contradiction to India's stand on OBOR which it boycotted on grounds of violating India's territorial integrity as it runs through the disputed territory of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) and because China has not been transparent leading to compromise on sovereignty." The report belied Mr. Jetley's belief about the state of Bangladesh-India relations. In fact, many of the comments of readers on the report described Bangladesh's support for OBOR and China in abusive terms, one reader stating: "Another Chinese colony in the making... Looks like a part of chinks strategy to encircle India."
The Indian media put Bangladesh's strong support for OBOR at the WEF under the microscope because it was unexpected. That further revealed that if anything, Bangladesh-India relations are not the "best ever" at present. The Indian media felt that "Bangladesh is trying to balance ties with India and China keeping its own geopolitical and economic interests in mind."
The Foreign Secretary also stated in New Delhi that the decision to support OBOR was taken with extensive discussion with Bangladesh's civil society that agreed that the economic interests of the people should decide how much sovereignty should figure in taking decisions on joining or not a major initiative such as the OBOR.
The Foreign Secretary made Bangladesh proud by presenting the country's case in such an articulate manner on the decision to join OBOR.
One has to scratch one's head to find when Bangladesh, even when the government was not Awami League-led, had taken a stand on a regional or international issue – as it did on OBOR – which had the possibility of upsetting and angering India. In fact, this writer could not remember of one off the top of his head. Bangladesh's stand on OBOR has also underlined that new strategic alignments are shaping up in the region with India and Japan backed by the United States leading one and China, Russia, Pakistan and other South Asian countries in the other and the OBOR/BRI being a very important element shaping it.
The strategic alignments had been shaping for quite some time but Bangladesh was playing it safe so far. Has Bangladesh now made up its mind that China is on road to not just play a dominant role in the region but also at the global level? And that could have a major impact in Bangladesh's domestic politics with general elections around the corner if New Delhi perceived the reason for Bangladesh supporting OBOR that way. That, in turn, perhaps also persuaded Bangladesh to be careful about the stand of New Delhi on the Rohingya issue. Thus, notwithstanding the fact that New Delhi sided with the Myanmar military on the Rohingya genocide, Bangladesh has not expressed any public disappointment.
Instead, the Bangladesh Foreign Secretary said in his press conference in New Delhi (he also held bilateral meetings in the Indian capital) that Bangladesh and India are working together on the Rohingya issue. He carefully picked on India's strong appeal before the UN Human Rights Commission to create pressure on Myanmar to take the Rohingyas back to explain why Bangladesh appreciated the Indian stand on the Rohingya issue and was working together to resolve it.
The writer is a former Ambassador.
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