Bangladesh is at risk of becoming a party to a new cold war unless the country maintains a neutral position keeping strategic affairs and national interests in consideration amid the growing rivalries of India, United States and Japan with China, foreign policy and defence strategists said.
There are some risks of becoming part of a new cold war if Bangladesh participates actively in the disputes — be that regional or global, former foreign secretary Md Touhid Hossain told New Age on September 26, speaking on India’s plan to engage Japan in taking joint projects in Bangladesh and Myanmar.
Indian minister of external affairs S Jaishankar said that India and Japan are looking at the possibility of cooperating on projects in Bangladesh and Myanmar as part of their efforts to work together in third countries, according to Hindustan Times.
The India-Japan Act East Forum, which focuses on specific projects in India’s north-eastern region, also has a larger significance for connectivity with Bangladesh and Myanmar, he said during a virtual event in New Delhi on September 16. ‘We have done a little bit of that in Sri Lanka and I think today we are trying to see whether we can cooperate and coordinate more closely in Bangladesh and Myanmar,’ the Indian minister said.
Jaishankar’s remarks assume significance against the backdrop of the efforts by several countries — India, Australia, Japan and the United States — to forge new partnerships with countries on the rims of the Indian and Pacific oceans styled as Indo-Pacific Strategy in the face of China’s ‘growing activities’ across the regions, according to Hindustan Times.
‘Bangladesh has so far maintained neutrality in the China-India faceoff,’ said Touhid Hossain.
Expressing his doubts about whether the Myanmar authorities would engage in projects brokered by India with funds from Japan, he said, ‘Why would Myanmar engage in India-Japan joint initiatives when it is unilaterally attracting huge direct investment and funds from Japan?’
Touhid believes that the joint offer from India and Japan might provide Myanmar scopes for pursuing a hard bargain with China that might go against Bangladesh’s interests.
‘China is dependent on Myanmar for directly accessing the Bay of Bengal in the shortest possible way for energy imports and other reasons,’ he explained.
Describing Bangladesh as a ‘peripheral player,’ he said, ‘It was important to remain alert of which parties the government would support according to its strategy.’
The US defence secretary Mark Esper on September 11 spoke with Bangladesh prime minister Sheikh Hasina over phone and discussed ‘a free and open Indo-Pacific that ensures the sovereignty of all nations, besides some specific bilateral defence priorities including maritime and regional security,’ according to a press release of the US Department of Defence.
Bangladesh Institute of Peace & Security Studies president ANM Muniruzzaman believes that the India-Japan plan for jointly engaging in Bangladesh and Myanmar ‘is a part of a broader move to activate the Indo-Pacific Strategy’ of the four countries, which is called the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or the Quad and is led by the United States and also involved Australia.
Bangladesh could think of engaging in the IPS if it was a benign development programme, he told New Age on September 26, emphasising the importance of a deeper consideration to assess whether the IPS was floated to exclude China.
‘Bangladesh should pursue an equidistant policy on the matter as we should not do things that may disturb our relations with China, a strategic partner,’ said Muniruzzaman, a retired major general of the Bangladesh Army.
Bangladesh needs to be extra careful as it is also a participant of the Belt and Road Initiative, he added.
Mentioning the recent faceoff in Ladakh border, he said Bangladesh should see and assess things through critical lenses as Sino-India rivalry has reached at a high point now in four decades.
He also pointed out that Bangladesh need to keep an eye on the eastern border of Bangladesh where Myanmar mobilised troops with heavy weapons. ‘Situation along the Myanmar border has become rather fluid,’ the defence strategist added.
‘It is quiet usual that both India and the USA would try to engage Bangladesh in the IPS,’ security analyst M Sakhawat Hussain told New Age on September 23.
Sakhawat, a retired brigadier general of Bangladesh Army, also believes that the Indian idea for engaging Japan in projects in Bangladesh and Myanmar carries significance in the contexts of recent conflicts between China and India, tension in South China Sea and engagement of India and Japan in the IPS as part of their evident efforts to contain China, the economic giant.
Bangladesh has been trying to remain neutral in China-India feud although China has huge engagements in terms of development assistance and trade, while the Indian government has become active in eliminating Chinese influence in countries encircling India — Bhutan, Bangladesh, Maldives, Myanmar, Nepal and Sri Lanka, he said.
‘No country comes forward without their own strategic and economic interests,’ he said, adding that India, Japan, the US and China could not resolve the Rohingya crisis for Bangladesh by ensuring repatriation of the 1.1 million displaced members of the community back to their homeland in Rakhine of Myanmar.
Wrong moves sometimes jeopardise strategic relations between countries, experts said.
On Joining Indo-Pacific Strategy, foreign minister AK Abdul Momen said Bangladesh will effectively engage in any future Indo-Pacific Alliance if it is found to be purely economic in nature.
Bangladesh has already joined China’s BRI, he said.
The Indian and Japanese authorities are yet to send any specific proposal on joint projects to the Bangladesh government, diplomatic sources confirmed.
The Ganges Barrage project was abandoned allegedly under pressure from India, a more than strategic partner, said several serving senior diplomats, arguing that the government hardly keeps scopes for negotiating things as ‘most decisions come from the political high-ups’.
A senior Bangladesh ambassador said, ‘The government should not lease out Bangladesh’s bilateral relations with Japan to India.’
UN secretary general Antonio Guterres on September 21, called for a halt to conflicts and focus on common problems like the coronavirus pandemic. ‘We must do everything to avoid a new cold war,’ he said opening UN General Assembly general debate marking the organisation’s 75th anniversary, according to Deutsche Welle.
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