Bangladesh: A Pawn or Strategic Player?

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Written by Angel Sharma

The new trajectory of India-Bangladesh relations has the potential to disrupt China’s influence in South Asia, while increasing regional insecurity. Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s visit to New Delhi in April of 2017 resulted in 22 signed agreements with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, including a premier defense cooperation pact and a cooperation on civil nuclear programs totaling $10 billion. Most importantly, India signed a $4.5 billion line of credit to Bangladesh for economic assistance and development projects, which signals a commitment to long-term development between the two neighboring countries. Though a strengthened India-Bangladesh partnership could be mutually beneficial, other regional actors, as well as bilateral issues between India and Bangladesh, could derail the cooperation.

India’s decision to extend a strategic partnership to Bangladesh was a calculated step of asserting regional dominance. This was aimed at China, which is heavily promoting the “One Belt, One Road” initiative by pumping foreign assistance into developing South Asian countries.  Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Dhaka in October, which resulted in the signing of27 development agreements amounting to $25 billion, propelled India’s sense of urgency to sign similar agreements with Bangladesh.  China’s assistance to Pakistan under the same initiative amounts to $46 billion, further putting pressure on India to safeguard its influence in the region.

Additionally, Bangladesh appears a strategic choice for India’s investment in South Asia aimed at countering Chinese influence. India-Pakistan relations remain tense due to border scuffles between the two militaries, which led to India’s recent surgical strike in Pakistan to combat terrorism. Moreover, historical animosity and distrust between India and Pakistan prevent India from investing in its neighbor to the west. Bangladesh, on the other hand, is a much safer investment. In addition to providing economic, military, and nuclear assistance to Bangladesh, India will also support education initiatives, natural gas access, and the establishment of transportation links to ease the transfer of goods, which will increase Bangladesh’s reliance on Indian development assistance.

Conversely, Bangladesh has capitalized on India’s efforts to establish regional influence not only by attracting increased foreign investment but also by exploiting its relationship with India as an intimidation technique against Pakistan.  Though India and Pakistan easily have the most contentious relationship in South Asia, animosity between Pakistan and Bangladesh is not far behind.

Bangladesh was formerly a part of Pakistan. However, a separatist movement sparked by government-sponsored genocide created a new state after a very bloody conflict in 1971. Pakistan has yet to address the human rights violations it perpetuated in Bangladesh and has been unwilling to concede to Dhaka’s demand for an apology and financial reparations. The continued effects of strained bilateral ties were demonstrated in December 2015 when Bangladesh expelled a Pakistani diplomat from Dhaka on charges of alleged terrorist financing.  Pakistan retaliated a month later by deporting Bangladesh’s Political Counselor for similar reasons. Furthermore, Bangladesh is able to leverage investment from China and India to manipulate regional and sub-regional politics in favor of its own interests. This impetus could lead to growing hostility between the two major global players in Asia.

Meanwhile, before India and Bangladesh celebrate their new partnership, they must also address bilateral concerns that could hinder the terms of their agreements, such as the Teesta River dispute and illegal immigration from Bangladesh. The Teesta River originates in India and flows into Bangladesh. India currently claims 55 percent of the river’s water, but Bangladesh has been trying to negotiate a higher percentage for itself since 1983. Following Hasina’s visit, Delhi said it is pursuing a resolution to this issue by working with the West Bengal state government and Bangladesh. A compromise regarding the water distribution would greatly facilitate future cooperation.

Immigration is another point of frustration. Over 15 million illegal Bangladeshi immigrants reside in India due to the porous border between the two countries. India has experienced significant economic and security challenges due to the influx of Bangladeshi immigrants. In addition to increasing competition for jobs among the Indian population, Bangladeshi immigrants have fueled an insurgency in many North East Indian states. In order for future cooperation in the development sector to be successful, this critical issue will need to be addressed.

India’s engagement in the development of Bangladesh’s economy and assistance within a variety of other sectors, aimed at countering China’s growing influence in the region, could bring a new set of challenges. India and China are at odds on several regional issues including border disputes, claims to the South China Sea, and the legitimacy of a free Tibet. Consequently, Bangladesh could become a battleground for regional powers competition and aggression. Furthermore, a strengthened partnership between India and Bangladesh could threaten Pakistani security. While substantial challenges may prevent India and Bangladesh from fulfilling these commitments, the international community should remain wary of heightened regional insecurity as a result of these maneuvers.

About the author: Angel Sharma is the South Asia Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP). She works in the international development sector focusing on the rule of law and human rights at an international NGO. Angel received her MA in International Security from American University in 2016. The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of any of the organizations with which the author is affiliated.

Photo: by Anthony Capon, Atsuro Tsutsumi and Syed Emdadul Haque is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.