New Delhi: Bangladesh prime minister Sheikh Hasina is all set to visit New Delhi in April. The latest development comes days after India’s foreign secretary S Jaishankar met the Awami League leader in Dhaka on 23 February. However,the meeting was supposed to take place in December 2016, but had to be postponed.
While Jaishankar has said that the meeting will focus on “issues of connectivity and development initiatives”, the real reason may well be to do with defence and security.
According to a report India is expected to offer Bangladesh a defence pact comprising the sale of military hardware and a credit line of over $500 million for military purchases.
The credit line offered by India will be the highest if the pact is signed by both countries.
According to reports in the Indian media, the growing closeness between Bangladesh and China will encourage India to seal a defence deal with Dhaka. It is to be noted that from 2009 onwards, Beijing has been Bangladesh’s biggest arms supplier, accounting for over 80 percent of the total arms delivered to the country in that period.
As recently as in November 2016, Dhaka had purchased two submarines from China which raised many eyebrows in New Delhi.
As per sources many Bangladeshi military officials are not keen on purchasing Indian military equipment, which are themselves imported from other nations.
Hasina has been considered a pro-India leader compared to her arch-rival and former prime minister Khaleda Zia, who has been controversial due to the support she enjoys among the Islamic hardliners.
Nevertheless, Dhaka’s hobnobbing with Beijing ever since her return to power in 2009 has worried New Delhi.
Take for example, when Xi Jinping pledged to invest $24 billion in Bangladesh, India expressed concerns of a growing Chinese influence in the country. Notably, India too had promised to invest in Bangladesh, but the quantum of investment was around 12 times lower — $2 billion.
Bangladesh has been a key part of China’s ‘String of Pearls’ strategy, a purported plan to dominate the Indian Ocean by strategically placing its military installations across the countries that straddle the ocean.
China’s plan of developing the Chittagong port can be viewed through the prism of this strategy. The port handles over 90 percent of Bangladesh’s cargo and is an economic lifeline for the country.
However, in a geopolitical boost to India, Bangladesh allowed India to utilise the port after Prime Minister Narendra Modi held bilateral talks with his counterpart Hasina in June 2015.
In a setback to China, the Hasina government also scrapped the Sonadia port plan — one of the four projects in the country.
However, despite the two Pyrrhic victories, another major deal has been a bone of contention between the two countries. The Teesta deal has been lingering on ever since Modi stormed to power in 2014.
As noted in the Hindustan Times report, water being a state subject in India, the deal is opposed by West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee. Dhaka, on its part, is also complaining of less water being released by India.
On one issue however, India and Bangladesh seem to be on the same page — terrorism. Dhaka has been facing an resurgence in Islamist terror in Hasina’s regime. Bangladesh has accused Pakistan of being a major instigator of trouble in the country. So it came as no surprise that Dhaka was among the countries to pull out of the 2016 Saarc Summit condemning Islamabad.
Immediately after the Uri attack on 19 September, Bangladesh sided with India while slamming Pakistan. In a bid to curb growing terrorism in their backyard, India and Bangladesh had also mooted a joint regional anti-terror meeting, national daily noted.
However, only the April meeting between Modi and Hasina will tell us whether India will be able to wean Bangladesh away from the perceived Chinese economic and military influence and maintain its strong ties with its traditional ally.