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Brothers in arms

Brothers in arms

Last week, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley was in Dhaka, on a three-day visit to sign a $4.5 billion letter of credit to Bangladesh. The decision in this regard was announced last April during Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's Delhi visit. India's aid package to Bangladesh has increased steadily. This is the third LoC India has signed with Bangladesh. The first one was for $862 million, while the second one was for $2 billion. The latest deal is more than double the size of the second. Indian assistance has been primarily for the development of Bangladesh's infrastructure sector.

India's increasing economic and military cooperation with Bangladesh has to be seen in the larger context of India's determined bid to counter China's growing influence in the countries of South Asia, in an attempt to increase its own footprint. The shadow of Beijing looms large over every neighbour of India, irrespective of whether it is Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Nepal, or Bangladesh.
For decades, Chinese aid has gone heavily into developing infrastructural projects in Bangladesh. Six bridges have been built with Chinese help. The rail-cum-road bridge over Padma River is being built with Chinese assistance. As is the Barakpuria coal mine and power generation unit. China is also currently engaged in improving the mobile network facilities in Bangladesh.
India, therefore, has to initiate special efforts to cooperate more energetically in developing Bangladesh's economy, which is now going through a critical period of transition, from a predominantly agricultural to an industrial economy. Some private companies of India have shown interest in building the deep-sea port at Sonadia (which the Chinese wanted to do). India is also taking part in increasing coal-based power generation in Bangladesh, where natural gas and diesel oil now account for the largest percentage of power generation. Long distance transmission lines are also being set up with Indian assistance.
India's priority now is to deepen defence cooperation with Bangladesh, in view of the security environment in the region, with the Chinese resorting to open muscle-flexing, as was seen in Doklam. At present, China supplies almost 90 per cent of military hardware to Bangladesh's defence forces. It is Bangladesh's single biggest source of small arms and heavy weapons. Last year, Bangladesh acquired two submarines from China, setting alarm bells ringing all over the North and South Blocks.
The pro-Chinese lobby is quite strong in Bangladesh. Many military officials, both serving and retired, are opposed to Bangladesh entering into a defence pact with India. They claim that India being the world's biggest arms importer provides no reason for Bangladesh to buy arms from India. They also question the quality of the weaponry manufactured by India. This lobby pushes the line that deepening defence ties with India will not only alienate and antagonise China but may also end in Bangladesh becoming solely dependent on India. Apparently, this lobby has no problem if Bangladesh becomes dependent on China.
So, India has to be wary in each step taken in Bangladesh, carrying not only the Government of Sheikh Hasina but also the people of Bangladesh with it. Any faux pas, diplomatic or otherwise, on India's part, will not only play into the hands of the anti-India lobby but also go against the Government of Sheikh Hasina. Politics in Bangladesh is very fluid. Both Pakistan and China will try to establish obstacles to prevent closer India-Bangladesh ties.
China is one of the biggest trading partners of Bangladesh. And the trade is almost entirely one-sided. In 2014, Bangladeshi exports to China were valued at $74.6 million, while its imports from China were to the tune of $7.75 billion. By now, China's economic diplomacy is quite clear: to allure neighbours with liberal loans, which are eventually hard to repay along with interest. They are thus, caught in a debt-trap.
To give one example, a Chinese company provided loans to Sri Lanka to build Hambantota port. Unable to repay the loan, Sri Lanka had to sell 80 per cent equity of the project to the Chinese company, which then became the owners. Even in Pakistan, there is considerable opposition from the people to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). They fear that eventually, Pakistan will become a colony of China.
India can help Bangladesh in many fields, of which power generation is one. The demand for power is rising rapidly and the supply is inadequate. About one-fifth of the population of Bangladesh has no access to power. The forecast for power demand is estimated to rise to 19 GWe by 2021, to 34 GWe by 2020 and to 39 GWe in 2030. Bangladesh now wants to switch over to nuclear power generation. It plans to have two large Russian nuclear power reactors, the first one by 2023.
China was also interested in helping Bangladesh with technology to develop nuclear power but ultimately lost out to Russia. India, with its long experience in nuclear power generation, can help Bangladesh in this respect. Other fields can also be explored.
From the point of view of history, culture, and language, India and Bangladesh have more in common than any of their neighbours. Cementing their fraternal relationship will be mutually beneficial. It is for the statesmen of the two countries to evolve imaginative policies, sensitive to each other's needs, interests and sentiments, to ascend that relationship to newer heights.
(The views expressed are strictly personal.)

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