The new power play in South Asia

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's upcoming visit to India from April 7 to 10 is turning out to be perhaps her most important bilateral visit to a country that surrounds Bangladesh on three sides, making it the only neighbour in all but physical sense.

It is now known that the Bangladeshi leader turned down India's request for a 25-year defence treaty. In its place, there will now likely be a memorandum of understanding on several related issues, including purchase of equipment and weapons needed for United Nations peacekeeping as well as for disaster response and management. For all these, India appears willing to extend US$500 million (S$700 million) in credit.

Indian leaders, policymakers and even the media agree that Sheikh Hasina's government has gone far beyond the extra mile possible to improve relations.

In The Times of India, former BBC correspondent Subir Bhaumik wrote: "Hasina has been steadfast in her support of the Modi government's 'isolate Pakistan' drive, her government has cracked down hard on north-eastern rebels and Islamist militants, on fake currency rackets and Pakistani agents, to address Indian security concerns.

"She has cleared transit for Indian goods to the north-east through Bangladesh territory and addressed most of India's connectivity concerns seen as crucial to success of India's Look East policy. As Hasina prepares for her Delhi visit, Indian and Bangladeshi officials are trying to finalise a deal to allow Indian use of Chittagong and Mongla ports for accessing the north-east."

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has forged close ties with both India and China. The writer says Bangladesh must not take sides in any India-China rivalry. PHOTO: REUTERS

What Bhaumik did not mention, and one that India truly needs to be grateful to Sheikh Hasina for, is her determined and successful effort at dismantling all the camps of the insurgents from the north-east that the Khaleda Zia government had allowed in a mistaken policy to keep "pressure" on India.

Over time, these insurgents had become a genuine worry as their destructive power rose with sanctuary on Bangladesh's side of the border.

Not to be forgotten is how Sheikh Hasina's government has changed the narrative from "India, the hegemonic oppressor" to "India, the development partner" since she came to power in 2009.

I was part of the entourage to the Indian capital in January 2010, when the Awami League chief risked her political future and took a leap of faith and signed a very comprehensive agreement with India in which, in one go, she responded to most of India's important demands without getting any of Bangladesh's demands met.

Her faith has so far worked only partially in terms of duty-free access for Bangladeshi goods in the Indian market. The story on energy cooperation is also good.

However, the biggest frustration remains in the crucial area of water sharing, especially of the Teesta.

Bangladesh stands greatly disappointed on this score as no tangible progress has been made since the issue was aborted at the very last minute on the eve of then Indian Premier Manmohan Singh's last visit in September 2011.

India's complex and controversial river-linking project hangs on Bangladesh's head as a possible doomsday scenario with unknown implications for its ecology. India appears not to sufficiently appreciate the fact that all of Bangladesh is a delta and it survives only if its rivers do.

All of Sheikh Hasina's efforts now appear to be in jeopardy as India seems to be quite concerned about her China policy, which resulted in the latter's increasing presence not only in Bangladesh's development projects but also in military equipment purchase.

China has been by far the biggest source of defence purchase for Bangladesh for many years, since the coming of the military into power in 1975, reinforced in 2002 when former prime minister Khaleda Zia inked a comprehensive umbrella agreement during her visit to China.

India, of course, has been watching with considerable unease as bilateral cooperation between Bangladesh and China soared.

Indian discomfort experienced a quantum leap when, during Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit, Bangladesh-China cooperation was elevated from "comprehensive partnership cooperation" to "strategic partnership cooperation" and China offered US$24 billion worth of economic and development aid, with another US$13 billion in private sector investment.

What perhaps set the alarm bells ringing loud in New Delhi was the procurement of two refurbished Chinese submarines - which brought about the Indian defence minister's maiden visit and the push for a 25-year defence pact proposing enhanced cooperation between the two militaries and insisting on purchase of defence equipment from India.

In Bangladesh, the usual pattern of politics was to have improved relations with China when Khaleda Zia came to power and a distinct cooling of it when Sheikh Hasina formed the government, accompanied by a pronounced tilt towards India.

Since coming to power in 2009, Sheikh Hasina has changed all that. For the first time, the prime minister, to her considerable credit, was able to forge uniquely close relations with India while making China a major development and investment partner.

So how should India view Bangladesh's rising closeness with China? With suspicion or with maturity? Should India insist on countering the imagined Chinese "influence" - imagined because China has in no way been able to influence Bangladesh's policy of friendship towards India - by forcing a "defence treaty" or "greater defence cooperation" on Bangladesh? Will such enhanced cooperation give India any additional strategic benefit than it already enjoys?

Bangladesh needs India as a close ally and friend. But it also needs China as a significant development partner.

Over the many decades that Sheikh Hasina has been in politics and the several years she has been in power, she has been consistent in her policy of good relations with India. What is new is her success in reaching out to China. Instead of looking at it with suspicion, India should repose trust in Bangladesh as a reliable ally and see her policy towards China as contributing to regional stability and bringing two Asian giants closer.

If there is to be an Asian Century, it will have to be built both by India and China and it has to benefit their smaller neighbours.

Stability is the key to Asia's future and that stability can only be guaranteed by India and China coming closer, which they are doing through bilateral trade aiming to reach US$100 billion in the near future. The idea of an exclusive sphere of influence for each of these Asian giants, with a "No Entry" sign for the other, is an outdated concept and one that is doomed to failure in this digital age.

A new element in the regional equation is the overt hostility of President Donald Trump towards China and his declared policy of confronting the latter in the South China Sea. What likely effect will his policy have on Indian Premier Narendra Modi's resurgent Hindu nationalist government, and especially the hawks in the party?

Will India see President Trump as an opportunity to upstage China in South Asia, especially since China's support for Pakistan remains strong while India's relationship with Pakistan has dipped to its lowest ebb?

Whatever it is, Bangladesh should never allow itself to be drawn into the India-China rivalry. We want India to be our "closest friend" but "not our only friend".

Sheikh Hasina's commitment to good relations with India is beyond question. So why should her reaching out to China be seen with suspicion? She has also reached out to Russia and our ties with this re-emerging superpower, and a significant partner in our Liberation War, are far better than they have ever been since 1971.

As Sheikh Hasina's visit draws closer, India must seriously think about how to forge a new dynamic and win-win relationship with its emerging neighbour in the east.

•This is a series of columns on global affairs written by top editors and columnists from members of the Asia News Network and published in newspapers and websites across the region.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 25, 2017, with the headline 'The new power play in South Asia'. Print Edition | Subscribe