Saturday, September 10, 2011

Bangladesh Government In Search Of New Allies In Asia

While ruling Bangladesh Awami League in general and the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in particular is greatly unhappy over India's last-minute back out from striking the Teesta and Feni river water sharing treaties, according to The Telegraph, published from Kolkata [India], in an opinion editorial titled 'Large-hearted message from visit' quoted an official of Indian Foreign Ministry, who said, "The Bangladeshis are obviously disappointed. But the delay in the treaty's signing has its positive side. The common Bangladeshi will understand how difficult it has been for India to deliver whatever we did. And the treaty, when it comes about, will taste so much sweeter."

Delhi based commentator N. Chandra Mohan wrote in India's largest English-language daily newspaper The Hindustan Times in an opinion editorial titled 'A river called Teesta': "A river named Teesta scuppered what would have been truly a historic visit by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Bangladesh. The intransigence of Paschimbanga [West Bengal] chief minister Mamata Banerjee in supporting a more equitable sharing of the waters of this river meant that India failed to deliver on a key takeaway for Bangladesh. India, in turn, failed to secure a takeaway in terms of connectivity to its Northeast. India's trade concessions may have salvaged the visit but, overall, both countries have mixed feelings about it."

Hinting India's ambition of emerging as global power, Chandra Mohan wrote, "What is the big picture? Singh's trip was intended to be a game-changer for two related but distinct ideas: the formation of a larger Bay of Bengal grouping, and South Asian integration with a neighbour that would acquire a greater stake in the rise of India as a global power.

"Unless the member countries of the Bay are connected through road, rail, air and shipping services, the former idea fails to take off. The latter requires accepting asymmetrical responsibilities like unilateral trade liberalisation.
"Thanks to the standoff over Teesta, the formation of a Bay of Bengal grouping is blowing in the wind. India won't have better access to the Northeast and to Mongla and Chittagong in Bangladesh.

"Out of 38.9 tonnes of cargo movement, 18 million tonnes could have been diverted if transit through Bangladesh were allowed. This formation cannot come into being unless Bangladesh provides seamless connectivity between India and the Northeast and extends it to Myanmar and the others rimming the Bay of Bengal."

With the huge dismay at visible uncertainty in getting the water treaty signed, Bangladesh government is now getting set to concentrate its attention towards strengthening the bilateral relations with China. With this goal, a Singapore based shipping company is already set to start direct shipping link between Bangladesh and China. The link will cut freight for Bangladeshi traders who import US$7 billion merchandise from the world's second largest economy and help boost export opportunities for local manufacturers seeking new avenues for shipment. China has recent years emerged as the country largest import partner. It accounted for some 21 per cent of the Bangladesh's US$33 billion import trade in the year to June 2011.

Bangladesh's major imports from China include electronics, fabrics, non-cotton yarn and accessories, machinery, chemicals, intermediary raw-material, fertilizers, food grains and fruits. China last year overtook India as the biggest buyer of Bangladeshi raw jute and jute yarn. China also imports leather, dehydrated sea fish and apparel from Bangladesh.

Meanwhile, Chinese government has welcomed the recent initiatives of Dr. Manmohan Singh and Sheikh Hasina in improving bilateral relations. Spokeswoman of Chinese foreign ministry Jiang Wu said, India and Bangladesh are important countries in South Asia and China would like to see countries in South Asia improve their bilateral ties as well as build mutual trust and make joint efforts to maintain peace, stability and development in the region.

China, which is constructing a network of oil pipelines and roads through Myanmar, evinced an interest in extending it to Chittagong to gain access to the platform in the Indian Ocean for energy supplies. Many Indian analysts described China's attempts to develop Chittagong port as well as those situated in Myanmar and Sri Lanka as a long-term strategy to "encircle" India with a "string of pearls," a claim denounced by their Chinese counterparts as "Indian paranoia."

Beijing's welcoming the latest development in bilateral relations between Dhaka and New Delhi is certainly aiming at ultimately getting the much-expected extension of oil pipeline to Chittagong to gain access to the platform in the Indian Ocean for energy supplies. It should be mentioned here that, China has already extended numerous cooperation to Bangladesh in infrastructural development. But, for past few years, such assistances visibly dried-up, as government led by Bangladesh Nationalist Party through initially tried to strengthen Sino-Bangla relations, it ultimately went into cold storage, possibly because of some 'reservations' from the Western nations. There are now indications of re-beginning of such assistances in near future.

China also is a major defense partner of Bangladesh. There is regular exchange of defense delegations between Dhaka and Beijing. Recently, leading Chinese news site CHINADAILY has prominently published an article by one of the officers of Bangladesh Army, which also clearly exhibits the cordiality already existing between Bangladeshi and Chinese armies.

It would be natural to raise question as to why Bangladesh is shifting its attention to China, when it already has best ever relations with India. The answer may be complex enough, but is reasonable as well. Following the recent bitter experience centering Teesta and Feni river water sharing issue, Dhaka is re-assessing and re-shuffling its diplomacy once again by strengthening relations with China and other Asian nations, to play as a 'Strong Tool' while negotiating any issue with India in future. Bangladeshi diplomats are fully aware that, India won't let any of the South Asian nations in particular slip into the Chinese quarters, as Delhi has already become aspirant of emerging as a global power. On the other hand, for policymakers in Dhaka, it would be much easier expanding any degree of relations with Beijing, as there is no anti-Chinese sentiment in Bangladesh, while the anti-Indian sentiment is strong enough.

In addition to boosting relations with China, Bangladesh also is set to further strengthen relations with Japan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, South Korea, DPR Korea, Philippines, Myanmar, Maldives, Nepal, Bhutan, Afghanistan, Cuba, Venezuela, Taiwan, Singapore, CIS countries, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Czech and Slovak Republic, Morocco, Egypt, Turkey and African nations. There is also indication of Dhaka's active consideration of establishing economic relations with Israel by lifting the existing travel ban. Diplomatic analysts believe that, Dhaka's relations with Jerusalem will not only bring tremendous benefit for the country in multiple ways, Israel can also be one of the best allies of Bangladesh in especially bargaining with New Delhi.

BY : Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury.