Bangladesh is discussing an almost $1 billion loan from China for a comprehensive management and restoration project on the Teesta river. The project is aimed at managing the river basin efficiently, controlling floods, and tackling the water crisis in summers.
India and Bangladesh have been engaged in a long-standing dispute over water-sharing in the Teesta. More importantly, Bangladesh’s discussions with China come at a time when India is particularly wary about China following the standoff in Ladakh.
How has the Teesta dispute progressed?
The two countries were on the verge of signing a water-sharing pact in September 2011, when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was going to visit Bangladesh. But, West Bengal Chief minister Mamata Banerjee objected to it, and the deal was scuttled.
After Narendra Modi came to power in 2014, he visited Dhaka in June 2015 — accompanied by Mamata Banerjee — and told Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina that he was confident they could reach a “fair solution” on the Teesta through cooperation between central and state governments.
Five years later, the Teesta issue remains unresolved.
How has India’s relationship with Bangladesh played out over the years?
New Delhi has had a robust relationship with Dhaka, carefully cultivated since 2008, especially with the Sheikh Hasina government at the helm.
India has benefited from its security ties with Bangladesh, whose crackdown against anti-India outfits has helped the Indian government maintain peace in the eastern and Northeast states.
Bangladesh has benefited from its economic and development partnership. Bangladesh is India’s biggest trade partner in South Asia. Bilateral trade has grown steadily over the last decade: India’s exports to Bangladesh in 2018-19 stood at $9.21 billion, and imports from Bangladesh at $1.04 billion.
India also grants 15 to 20 lakh visas every year to Bangladesh nationals for medical treatment, tourism, work, and just entertainment. A weekend shopping trip to India by Bangladesh’ elite is quite common — when the film Bahubali was released, a group of Bangladesh nationals came to India in chartered flights to watch it in Kolkata.
For India, Bangladesh has been a key partner in the neighbourhood first policy — and possibly the success story in bilateral ties among its neighbours.
However, there have been recent irritants in the relationship.
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What are these irritants?
These include the proposed countrywide National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) passed in December last year. Bangladesh had cancelled visits by ministers, and Hasina has expressed reservations about CAA. She had said that while the CAA and the proposed nationwide NRC are “internal matters” of India, the CAA move was “not necessary”.
Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla, who has served as India’s envoy in Dhaka, flew to Dhaka in early March to assuage such concerns. Amid discussions between Bangladesh and China, Shringla went to Bangladesh this week, too. He was the first visitor Hasina has met since the Covid-19 pandemic began.
How have relations between Bangladesh and China been developing?
“China is the biggest trading partner of Bangladesh and is the foremost source of imports. In 2019, the trade between the two countries was $18 billion and the imports from China commanded the lion’s share. The trade is heavily in favour of China,” said Joyeeta Bhattacharjee, Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, a New Delhi-based think tank.
Recently, China declared zero duty on 97% of imports from Bangladesh. The concession flowed from China’s duty-free, quota-free programme for the Least Developed Countries. This move has been widely welcomed in Bangladesh, with the expectation that Bangladesh exports to China will increase.
India too has provided developmental assistance worth $10 billion, making Bangladesh the largest recipient of India’s total of $30 billion aid globally. China has promised around $30 billion worth of financial assistance to Bangladesh.
Additionally, Bangladesh’s strong defence ties with China make the situation complicated. China is the biggest arms supplier to Bangladesh and it has been a legacy issue — after the liberation, officers of Pakistan Army — who were well-versed with Chinese arms — joined Bangladesh Army and that’s how they preferred Chinese weapons As a result, Bangladesh forces are equipped with Chinese arms including tanks, missile launchers, fighter aircraft and several weapons systems. Recently, Bangladesh purchased two Ming class submarines from China.
In the wake of the Ladakh standoff, India has become more sensitive to Chinese defence inroads into Bangladesh.
How has India been engaging with Bangladesh post CAA?
Over the last five months, India and Bangladesh have cooperated on pandemic-related moves. Hasina supported Modi’s call for a regional emergency fund for fighting Covid-19 and declared a contribution of $1.5 million in March 2020. India has also provided medical aid to Bangladesh.
The two countries have also cooperated in railways, with India giving 10 locomotives to Bangladesh. The first trial run for trans-shipment of Indian cargo through Bangladesh to Northeast states under a pact on the use of Chittagong and Mongla ports took place in July.
However, in recent weeks, Pakistan PM Imran Khan’s call to Hasina raised eyebrows in Delhi. While Islamabad portrayed it as a conversation on Kashmir, Dhaka said it was about cooperating to deal with Covid-19.
How has India sought to address China’s latest move?
During Shringla’s recent meeting with Hasina, “security-related issues of mutual interest” were discussed. The visit tried to address issues on areas that have emerged as potential irritants in the relationship.
Bangladesh expressed “deep concern” at the rise in killings at the Indo-Bangladesh border by “BSF or Indian nationals” during the first half of this year, and the Indian side assured that the BSF authorities have been sensitised of the matter and it will be discussed in detail at the DG-level talks between Border Guards Bangladesh and BSF to be hosted by Dhaka next month.
Among other issues:
* The two sides agreed that Implementation of projects should be done in a timely manner, and that greater attention is required to development projects in Bangladesh under the Indian Lines of Credit.
* Bangladesh sought return of the Tablighi Jamaat members impacted by the lockdown in India, and also early release of the 25 Bangladeshi fishermen in custody in Assam. India assured Bangladesh that its nationals would be able to return soon.
* Bangladesh requested for urgent reopening of visa issuance from the Indian High Commission in Dhaka, particularly since many Bangladeshi patients need to visit India.
* India was also requested to reopen travel through Benapole-Petrapole land port which has been halted by the West Bengal government in the wake of the pandemic.
* Bangladesh told Shringla that it is ready to collaborate in the development of a Covid-19 vaccine, including its trial, and looks forward to early, affordable availability of the vaccine when ready.
What is the way ahead?
While the Teesta project is important and urgent from India’s point of view, it will be difficult to address it before the West Bengal elections due next year. What Delhi can do is to address other issues of concern, which too are challenging.
Now, the test will be if India can implement all its assurances in a time-bound manner.
Or else, the latent anti-India sentiment in Bangladesh — which has been revived after India’s CAA -NRC push — threatens to damage Dhaka-New Delhi ties.