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Millennium Post

Brand bangla gets global

In South Asia, it is not just resource-rich Myanmar that attracts international attention these days. Surprisingly, neighbouring Bangladesh, with its myriad problems, has not done a bad job when it comes to keeping itself in international focus. Contemptuously written off as the ‘world’s basket case’ by Henry Kissinger in the mid seventies, Bangladesh, in recent times, has covered a lot of ground and in the right direction. In the process, it has often overtaken Pakistan, flush with US aid and funds, in human resource development. Of late, it has toppled even India in certain respects of HDI. Even a cursory review of recent trends in India’s East indicate the increasing importance of Bangladesh in the ‘interest map’ of the US, China and Russia, to use the diplomatic catchphrase.

At present, the US has shown an increasing tendency to treat India, Bangladesh and Myanmar as part of one strategic zone. Pakistan is handled differently nowadays, with a lot less bonhomie than before. When American leaders visit the region, they sometimes cover several capitals at one go. As US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton visited Myanmar, Bangladesh and India, in that order, some time ago. The US Under Secretary for Political Affairs and the Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Political and Military Affairs, have also visited Dhaka.

After her sweeping victory in Bangladesh polls in 2009, there was no suggestion that Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, daughter of the late Mujibur Rahman, would join the ranks of Nehru or Indira Gandhi, leaders both revered and held at a distance by the US. But things have changed considerably within three years. As of now, relations between the US and Sheikh Hasina can at best be described as wary, although both sides have taken care not to lose sight of their long-term diplomatic agenda. The West as a whole has been miffed by Hasina’s apparently unrelenting campaign against Nobel winning founder of Microfinance, Mohammed Yunus. On the other hand, with US firms like Chevron and Conoco Philips are active in the energy sector of Bangladesh in a big way; trade and business relations are just fine, although Bangladesh would appreciate more concessions from the US with respect to its main export, garments. The US presence is dominant in the Bangladesh energy sector and likely to grow stronger.

China-Bangladesh relations in contrast, are far more complex. Remarkably, operating from an unfavourable beginning, China has been more successful than either the US or Russia (which stood behind Bangladesh from the start) in terms of diplomacy. Most people recall vividly how the Chinese opposed the struggle for a free Bangladesh, aligning firmly with Pakistan. Even later, it refused to recognise Bangladesh, using its veto power against the fledgling republic in the UN.

What is generally not known is that the Chinese had pressed Pakistan in several messages to settle the problems in its Eastern wing amicably, through negotiations.

Also, belying Pakistani hopes, China did not react militarily as Indian troops moved into East Pakistan. Yet, observers are intrigued by the fact that Pakistan, even at the moment of its bitterest defeat, did not blame the Chinese for their non-intervention. It did criticise and eventually quit, West-backed defence alliances like the SEATO and CENTO.

Similarly, analysts report that in Bangladesh, the media freely criticises countries like the US, Pakistan and India, but never China! Interestingly, the Chinese have not been so forthcoming in meeting Bangladeshi demands for financial aid for non-military purposes. Bangladesh also sees China as its major rival in the international garments trade.

In comparison with the US and China, Russian diplomatic efforts in Bangladesh and adjacent regions have not kept pace. But Bangladesh Foreign Minister Ms Dipu Moni recently described Russia as a ‘Special friend’, during the celebration of 40 years of bilateral relations in Dhaka.

Both sides expect to increase bilateral trade, currently nearly $300 million. [IPA]
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