Saturday, September 17, 2011

Manmohan’s Dhaka Visit And Chinese Peace Offensive

Within the club of the ruling clique of Bangladesh enjoying delegated power from Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, contrary voices are being heard with regard to the success or failure of the Hasina-Manmohan summit in Dhaka. Some ministers and party stalwarts are expressing deep disappointment with the outcome of the summit, as it fell far short of the trumpeted agenda of agreed ‘historic’ steps. Other ministers and advisers and also some party functionaries along with civil society luminaries are vociferous that the summit remained very much on course despite unforeseen obstacles posed by narrow parochial interests.

In tandem, express high level opinion in India, as reflected in that country’s powerful mass media, is also similarly divided. The vernacular press in Paschimbanga and Assam (not Tripura) are articulately standing by the Chief Minister of Paschimbanga for her “principled dissent and dropping out from the entourage of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. They are eulogising her for her uncompromising stand on perceived compromise of the interests of her electorate, and squarely blaming the Manmohan Singh team in the federal government for “bureaucratic insensitivity” to grass-root concerns of the electorate, albeit of parochial dimensions. But in a democracy, they have to be addressed ahead of any international commitment.

The English language all-India newspapers, on the other hand, moaned the incapacity of the Manmohan Singh team to get around home-grown handicaps and make optimum use of the illusion created over the Dhaka summit to clinch a triumphantly cognizable status for Indian power as the regional hegemon in a fast-changing geo-political matrix. Hours before Dr. Manmohan Singh left Delhi for Dhaka, prominent English language newspaper in India, The Hindu in its editorial entitled ‘Mamata plays spoiler’ wrote: “New Delhi expected that the give on the Teesta would yield connectivity through Bangladesh to the North-East States and beyond, underlined by the inclusion of four Chief Ministers from the region in the delegation to Dhaka. All this is up in the air now. Prime Minister Singh’s visit was billed as one that would ‘craft a new paradigm’ in a complicated bilateral relationship. With the likely signing of a border agreement and an extradition pact, the visit is not a complete write off. But there was a palpable feeling of let-down even before the Prime Minister’s delegation took off from Delhi.”

Geostrategic commentator N. Chandra Mohan wrote in India’s largest English-language daily newspaper The Hindustan Times in an opinion column: “A river named Teesta scuppered what would have been truly a historic visit by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Bangladesh. The intransigence of Paschimbanga 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.”

Harping on India’s emerging role as a 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.

“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 million 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.”

Apart from Indian security concerns, the geopolitical implications, more particularly the China factor, came out more prominently in the commentaries of several influential English-language newspapers. The Times of India simply concluded in an editorial opinion entitled “No paradigm shift in India-Bangladesh ties” after the 30 hour Dhaka visit of the Indian Prime Minister: “It was a summit that yielded much for both Bangladesh and India, but will forever be shadowed by the failure to get a pact on sharing river waters.”

Commenting on Mamata Banerjee’s last-minute back-out from Dr. Singh’s entourage, which resulted in postponing the signing of Teesta Water Sharing Treaty, The Times of India said: “It should have been a real good news visit, and a signal to other neighbours that teaming up with India has real benefits. But India fell short at the last mile, because it could not rise about local politics when the bigger picture needed to be addressed.

“Since the Teesta agreement has been in the making for almost 20 months, Bangladeshis are finding it difficult to swallow Mamata’s line that she was not consulted.”

In another article, giving details on the water sharing issue, The Times of India wrote: “The water resources ministry’s over-emphasis on a natural occurrence seems to have led to the Teesta tangle that found little acceptance in either Kolkata or Dhaka … Bengal was ready to release 25% of the flow at Gazaldoba in Jalpaiguri district, and Bangladesh had said that it wanted 50% of the flow at Dahlia, which is 105km downstream. A senior official in the water resources ministry said, “The flow at Gazaldoba is about 100 cumecs. While that at Dahlia - for most of the seven lean months - is 125 cumecs. Our studies showed that this increase is because of regeneration flows and we tried to tell both the parties that they can have their way because nature will take care of the difference. But it seems their stances are dictated by political compulsions and that’s what precipitated the crisis.”

Kolkata based The Telegraph said, “Greater cooperation with Bangladesh will enable India to maintain better connectivity with the Northeast. Sheer self-interest, often seen as the cornerstone of foreign policy, should have forced India to accord greater priority to its eastern neighbour. Yet for 12 long years, no prime minister of India (officially) visited Bangladesh. The argument that such visits were not made because the regime of Khaleda Zia was perceived in India as a hostile one is somewhat specious since no effort was made to win her over. Mr. Singh may have left his visit too late for his intentions to appear genuine and sincere. He is also severely handicapped by the fact that on the Dhaka stage he is directing Hamlet without Ophelia.” The Telegraph in its editorial entitled ‘The Tunnel Vision’ repeated Dr. Manmohan Singh’s words: “there is a national consensus in India that India must develop the best possible relations with Bangladesh.” The newspaper stressed the importance of a strong “Indo-Bangladesh alliance” that would “give India leverage in its negotiations with Pakistan and China.”

By the above Indian accounts, it is clear that Teesta water sharing bargains were not so complicated but made out to be so as a red herring to press for political, or more appropriately geopolitical bargains including the China factor. The Chinese government, on the other hand, 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, has expressly evinced an interest in extending the network to Chittagong to gain access to the platform in the Indian Ocean for energy supplies. While Indian analysts regarded 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 Chinese counterparts called it “Indian paranoia.”

Interestingly, on the same day when the Indian Prime Minister arrived in Dhaka on 6th September, 2011, the State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China published a WHITE PAPER named “China’s Peaceful Development.” The White Paper said: “China calls on countries in the region to respect each other, increase mutual trust, seek common ground while putting aside differences, safeguard regional peace and stability, and settle disputes including those over territorial claims and maritime rights and interests through dialogue and friendly negotiation. Countries should increase trade and mutually beneficial cooperation, promote regional economic integration, improve the current regional and sub-regional cooperative mechanisms, be open-minded to other proposals for regional cooperation, and welcome countries outside the region to play a constructive role in promoting regional peace and development. China does not seek regional hegemony or sphere of influence, nor does it want to exclude any country from participating in regional cooperation. China’s prosperity, development and long-term stability represent an opportunity rather than a threat to its neighbours. China will uphold the Asian spirit of standing on its own feet, being bold in opening new ground, being open and inclusive and sharing weal and woe. It will remain a good neighbour, friend and partner of other Asian countries.

“Taking the path of peaceful development is a strategic choice made by the Chinese government and people in keeping with the fine tradition of Chinese culture, the development trend of the times and the fundamental interests of China, and it is also a choice which China’s development calls for.”

Although the Hasina-Manmohan summit fell far short of expectorations, in his address in the Dhaka University Senate Hall on September 7, the Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh evinced a similar pacific outlook. Dr. Singh said: “I have often said that the people of South Asia are second to none when it comes to their talent, their enterprise or their ability to cope with adversity. But to realize the potential of the region we have to believe in the power of cooperative effort. We have to learn to trust each other and work with each other in our enlightened self-interest. Bangladesh, an influential member of the Islamic world and the largest troop contributor to United Nations peacekeeping operations, has much to say and contribute in the comity of nations and the affairs of the world.

“It is imperative for India and Bangladesh to find new pathways of cooperation to deal with the common challenges of development. “We seek to build our relations on the basis of equality, mutual benefit and respect for each other.”

The question remains: Will Indian actions match his words?

BY :  Sadeq Khan