CHINA is making big strides in relations with the South Asian countries in general and with two that India considered its natural allies for reasons of history and geography, namely Nepal and Bangladesh, in particular. This is happening at a time when India is engaged with China in serious conflict with it along its 4,056km border and losing badly. China is holding the upper hand in the conflict killing 20 Indian soldiers including a colonel and acquiring 60 square kilometres of the Indian territory.
Nepal did a few unbelievable things recently. First, it expressed no condolences on the Indians killed in the border conflict. Second, it approved a controversial map that showed 62 square kilometres of land in the Kalapani region currently under Indian control as its territory. Third, Nepal banned all Indian currencies above Tk 100 as a sign that it had come out of the Indian wings. Finally, these developments occurred in the backdrop of the opening of the railway tunnel from China to Nepal through the Himalayas.
Chinese president Xi Jinping called Sheikh Hasina in May. Soon afterwards, China sent a planeload of assistance including physicians to Bangladesh for the COVID-19 outbreak. These were a prelude to its decision to grant duty-free access to 97 per cent of Bangladesh’s import, an offer that could not have come at a better time for the country with its economy facing the ill effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. These Chinese inroads occurred after New Delhi declined to assist the Awami League in the December 2018 elections as it had done in the January 2014 elections that it had treated as its own. New Delhi believed that left alone, the Awami League would win the 2018 elections anyway and come back to it like business as usual. That did not happen. Dhaka did not go back to New Delhi. Strangely, New Delhi also made no attempt to pull Dhaka towards it.
New Delhi woke up to the drift only after it saw China’s recent strides in South Asia. Subir Bhowmik who does kite-flying on strategic and foreign policy issues for the Indian foreign policy and intelligence establishments wrote such a kite-flying article in Kolkata’s the Telegraph on June 10 titled ‘A crack in the hornet’s nest: Strife within Bangladesh military order’. The article carried a message for the Bangladesh prime minister about rumblings among the army’s top brass with the possibility of a coup to encourage Bangladesh to return to India.
The Indian media that often takes cues from the country’s external affairs ministry on foreign policy issues where national interests are involved is now spreading fear in Bangladesh that it is falling into the Chinese debt trap like Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka was forced to lease its strategic Hambantota deep seaport to China in 2017 that it had financed and constructed after Sri Lanka had failed to run it when the construction was completed in 2010 and, thereafter, it defaulted on loan repayment. The port gave China ‘a strategic foothold along a critical commercial and military waterway.’ China has already given Bangladesh nearly $ 24 billion in loan for some strategic infrastructure projects. The Indian media are suggesting that Bangladesh would default on repayment on these projects and face the same predicament as Sri Lanka.
China is in a hand-in-glove relations with Pakistan. It has close relations with the Maldives and Bhutan that showed no support for India in the Indo-China border conflict. Therefore, the outlook for New Delhi looking at its relations with its South Asian neighbours and their relations with China is bleak. In fact, India’s relations with its South Asian neighbours are on a free fall at present while their own relations with China are on an upward trajectory. The freefall in India’s relations with its South Asian neighbours has come at a time when ironically prime minister Narendra Modi has been pursuing a ‘neighbours first’ policy in his second term; an irony indeed.
It is, thus, time for New Delhi for soul searching. While undertaking such an endeavour, it will find there is a mismatch between India’s desire to become the leader of South Asia and a major world power and its mindset and behaviour towards its neighbours. New Delhi needs to understand that it must first settle its discords with its South Asian neighbours before the rest of the world would accept it as a power on the world stage. New Delhi may blame a neighbour like Pakistan or two and get away with, but the rest of the world would not be convinced that India has had no responsibility for its deplorable relations with all its neighbours.
For instance, India’s neighbours are at a consensus that it did not allow SAARC to grow. It must address the view. Bangladesh’s president Ziaur Rahman floated the idea expecting that it would grow and thrive like the European Union and ASEAN to mutual benefit of its members. All South Asian countries concurred except India. India saw SAARC as a plan by its smaller neighbours to gang up against it. SAARC, in fact, was stillborn primarily because of India.
If India had showed even minimum broadness of the mind of a nation aspiring to become a regional and world power, there was no reason why SAARC would not have become a vibrant regional organisation like ASEAN and with it brought massive economic benefits to its members and the region. Ironically India destroyed SAARC from becoming a South Asian organisation for dealing with China collectively with it on the forefront. That allowed China to deal with South Asian countries bilaterally and extend its influence in these countries to the detriment of India’s interests.
New Delhi, while soul-searching, must also focus on the perception among its smaller neighbours that it does not treat them with respect and that it wants to dominate them instead. India’s handling of relations with Bangladesh is a perfect case in point. A vast majority of Bangladeshis believe that India has made major mistakes in handling its bilateral relations with Bangladesh. One major Indian mistake has been the fact that it did not allow the country to claim credit for its liberation. Instead, it wanted to hold Bangladesh in eternal gratitude for what it did for it in 1971. Many Bangladeshis believe that India does not trust the people of Bangladesh and wants to conduct its relations with the country through the Awami League only.
In soul searching further about its relations with Bangladesh, New Delhi would find that it was a mistake to have taken even the Awami League for granted because it undermined Bangladesh as an independent and sovereign country. The Awami League has now opened its doors to China following the December 2018 elections, belying New Delhi’s confidence that Dhaka would return to its fold after winning it and underlining its mistake. Thus New Delhi watched silently pro-Indian groups protest China’s advances in Bangladesh under ‘Bangladesh-India friendship’ banner with a human chain but without any power to do anything because China has been allowed to make the advances by the Awami League led government and the vast majority of the people of Bangladesh are with the prime minister for allowing China its present role in Bangladesh.
Finally, New Delhi would do itself a world of good and not with just its relations with Bangladesh if it looked at Hindutva. Narendra Modi led the BJP to power in 2014 riding the Hindutva wave that is religious fundamentalism far worse than Islamic fundamentalism because it is expansionist. Hindutva has turned half or perhaps more of India’s 1.3 billion people into rabid and radical religious fundamentalists with a deep hatred for the Muslims. Hindutva has polarised Indian politics and sent its neighbours dangerous signals. And Hindutva has replaced secularism for which India was accepted on the world stage with open arms.
Postscript: India should revisit 1971 when it assisted the Bangladesh liberation war to establish a democratic Bangladesh while soul searching about its present relations with the country. Yet in 2014, it interfered in the Bangladesh elections and helped destroy democracy to help the Awami League return to power to serve, as it believed, its interests. Democracy has since then vanished from Bangladesh with little prospect of returning soon and New Delhi has to watch a few of its supporters’ protest against an AL government without the power to do anything.
M Serajul Islam is a former career ambassador.
Want stories like this in your inbox?
Sign up to exclusive daily email
More Stories from Opinion