Bangladesh has acquired a new importance in India’s foreign policy in the context of China’s determined efforts at spreading its influence in India’s neighbourhood. The recent acquisition of two Chinese submarines by Bangladesh made the expected impact in South Block.
It was a significant development for India, underlined by the fact that for the first time in 45 years since Bangladesh’s Independence, India sent its Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar to Dhaka in late November for discussion on a broad range of subject relating to defence. That New Delhi attached considerable importance to the visit is borne out by the fact that Parrikar was accompanied by the vice-chiefs of the Indian army, navy and air force and the chief of the Indian Coastal Guard. Parrikar also visited the Bangladesh Military Academy in Chittagong.
It was in September 2011 when the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Dhaka that for the first time the question of India supplying military hardware to Bangladesh first came up. Though details were not made public, it was stated that India was willing to supply spares and undertake armoured corps’ equipment. The change in Indian attitude on military cooperation with Bangladesh came ostensibly because the armed forces of Bangladesh were significantly dependent on China for its defence supplies. The Bangladesh army is equipped with Chinese tanks while its navy has Chinese frigates and missile boats. Even the air force flies Chinese fighter jets. By 2006, China admitted in a report to the United Nations that Bangladesh was emerging as a ‘major buyer’ of Chinese arms. By then China had sold 65 large-calibre artillery systems, 114 missiles and 16 combat aircraft to Bangladesh besides quantities of small arms, from pistols and sub-machine guns to 82 mm mortars. In 2008, China helped build an anti-ship missile launching pad in Chittagong.
These developments should have made New Delhi sit up and take a critical look at the emerging scenario in India’s immediate neighbourhood, but somehow the UPA Government did not attach much importance to increasing Sino-Bangladesh defence cooperation. It is the recent acquisition of the Chinese subs that suddenly made India’s defence establishment sit up and take note of the deepening and widening Indo-Bangladesh defence cooperation.
Apart from defence, another major field where India and Bangladesh need to cooperate is against terrorism. Certain recent developments in India’s neighbourhood have given it an urgency. Last July when Bangladesh Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan visited New Delhi, he had a detailed discussion with his Indian counterpart Rajnath Singh on the whole gamut of issues relating to mutual security, from the need to operationalise immediately the Agreement on Combating Terrorism to Preventing Illicit Drug Trafficking between the two countries to signing a Repatriation Treaty to expedite repatriation of each other’s nationals. Repeated terror attacks in both countries, originating from the same source, gave an added importance to coordinate efforts against terrorists. Unfortunately, yet another dimension has been added to the terrorist problem.
Late last month, representatives of Russia, China and Pakistan met in Moscow and decided to join hands to explore possibilities of taking the Afghan Taliban on board as a counterweight to the ISIS. Afghanistan made known its displeasure with the move in no uncertain terms, but Kabul’s objections were ignored. Moreover, the tri-nation conference was held keeping India out. India’s stakes and interests in a stable Afghanistan were also ignored. India failed to influence Russia despite India’s traditional friendship with that country and despite the fact that recently, New Delhi had signed a huge $10 billion contract with Moscow for buying military hardware.
The move to woo the Afghan Taliban as against the ISIS smacked of the old theory of differentiating between ‘good terrorists’ and ‘bad terrorists’. The emerging axis has immediate security implications for India. A formal understanding with Taliban will help Pakistan get the strategic depth it has all along been trying to secure in Afghanistan and further weaken Ashraf Ghani’s Government whose writ, in any case, does not run much beyond Kabul. With less security threat from its western border, Pakistan will be able to move more troops to the east.
The US peeved with Moscow’s Ukraine policy, had imposed economic sanctions on Russia, pushing it closer to China. This is a development that goes against India’s interests. Now, with Russia cooperating with Pakistan and China in winning over the Taliban, the scenario that is unfolding cannot but worry India significantly. China has stood by Pakistan in refusing to allow the Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Masood Azhar being listed a terrorist by the UN. In Pakistan’s defence establishment there are elements strongly sympathetic to Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism. The possibility of such elements dumping the Afghan Taliban and striking a deal with the ISIS whenever they find it convenient cannot be ruled out.
If terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan become stronger, they will pose a greater security threat not only to India but also to Bangladesh. Bangladesh has already been the victim of several terror attacks which have taken an enormous toll of lives. The threat has to be met unitedly by both countries. It is time to think whether an institutional framework should be put in place for better India-Bangladesh coordination in combating terrorism.
(The views are personal.)