Monday, November 22, 2010

Army chief's India visit may cloud PM's Beijing trip

When Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina left on a four-day visit to China last week to secure Chinese collaboration in certain strategic areas to counterbalance Indian strategic gains in Bangladesh, her chief of army staff was on a visit to India.
The army chief was going round the disputed Leh and Chiachen glaciers on the Chinese border last week to utter dissatisfaction of the Chinese leadership thus giving conflicting signals overshadowing the Prime Minister's visit.

This is also a time Delhi is pressing Bangladesh to buy Indian military hardware including trucks, lorries and such other equipment replacing China as the source of military hardware. Media reports say Delhi is trying to bring an end to Bangladesh defence collaboration with China diverting procurement of military hardware from Hungarian and Ukranian arms manufacturing firms in which India has large stakes.
A section of Bangladesh media had earlier speculated that Sheikh Hasina has also signed a defence agreement with Delhi, in addition to both sides publicly agreeing to share intelligence reports to their mutual benefits. Mounting pressures for buying Bangladesh defence equipment from India-based sources now tend to make such reports credible. Reports also suggested that Delhi wanted Prime Minister Hasina to defer her visit to China at least by six months, the time apparently they dim fit to appraise how far the prospective Sino-Bangla ties may go without jeopardising its strategic interest in Bangladesh.

Sheikh Hasina is quite aware of the security risks to the country's domestic politics in addition to its defence vulnerability from across the border. But she had to agree to all critical concessions to Delhi out of her domestic political compulsions as her secular party politics takes strength from the covert and overt Indian support to beat back the country's nationalist and Islamist political formations opposed to Indian hegemonic policy towards Bangladesh.
But Hasina remained under tremendous pressure and when she left for Beijing last week, the visit of her army chief to India and especially to regions sensitive to China may have undermined the visit being made to restore the lost trust, analysts say.

Hasina is also not very pleased over the stalemate in finalizing the list of duty free projects India agreed to offer Bangladesh reciprocating the big strategic concessions she made to India in January this year. In fact this one and a few other agreements were scheduled to be signed during her last visit to Delhi, but were deferred at the last moment saying more technical appraisals and negotiations needed to work out the deals.
Insiders say the AL government has now become disillusioned with the Indian government's slow moving steps and made her desperate to try and cultivate closer Chinese involvement in some big strategic projects in Bangladesh. Besides, she appears eager to seek closer collaboration from the Chinese Communist Party at the political level as well.

Informed sources claim that India is not agreeable to Chinese participation to power projects in Bangladesh in the light of understanding already worked out which say major power plants in Bangladesh would be set up as joint venture projects of the two countries. So Bangladesh would only seek cooperation in producing solar and wind mill power projects, news reports here said dismissing any chance of Chinese involvement in the country's big power projects.

Even the contact for the Padma bridge project may go to an Indian firm as sources say the government is basically working on a steel frame layout presented by TATA engineers. Likewise, the fate of the country's Ruppur nuclear power project is becoming uncertain because of strategic consideration as to who should get the contact.

Former army chief Gen Mahbubur Rahman recently said former Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia had signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Beijing in 2005 for developing the Ruppur nuclear project for peaceful use to produce electricity. But Sheikh Hasina has recently signed a similar MOU with the Russian to develop the project to produce 1000 MW electricity from it at the end.

Neither India, nor Russia or the US is in favour of putting the project to the Chinese hand. Similarly the USA may not like to see the Russian hand on it either though it would be acceptable if the Indians do it. This is how the third party interest is not only destabilizing this project but also the fate of many such projects, the sources said pointing to how external hegemony is derailing the country from perusing an independent foreign policy and selecting partners for development.

Thus Bangladesh is facing an ever growing paradoxical situation. Analysts say though we have a political, strategic and defence partnership with the Indians, the Delhi backed ruling coalition is not having enough confidence in it for domestic security and peace in the border. So they say, Bangladesh should have a new upgraded benchmark in political relations and strategic collaboration with China, suggesting there should be counterweight to face the Indian hegemony.

Analysts here say it is only China which can provide the resource and security guarantee to the Myanmar regime to help open the region to next door ASEAN nations. It will also work as an alternative to the existing Asian Highway which goes 600 km round through Indian northeast without having any utility value to East bound passengers and cargo from Bangladesh.
A road through Myanmar serves Bangladesh purpose very well but it did not so far materialized because of negative work of the Indian behind the proposal in one hand and failure of Bangladesh government to resolve other issues to make Myanmar agree to build the road.

China may help Bangladesh not only to achieve a breakthrough in eastward connectivity but also in resolving Rohingya issues and maritime problems.
The Prime minister very clearly understands her priorities and she would essentially take the issues with the Chinese leadership. But the question remains how far she would be able to convince the Chinese leadership in one hand to get them involved in Bangladesh's new strategic equations in the light of recent development in the region and take the risks of annoying the Indians on the other.

This is a high level paradox and political observers keep watch on how Sheikh Hasina is going to make her way through it. The opening of the Taiwan Trade office in Dhaka in 2005 carrying out consular services under business cover had annoyed the Beijing authorities at the time driving the hitherto friendly relations between the two countries to an almost breaking point.
The former BNP government finally closed the office taking into cognizance the sensitivities which hurt the Chinese most. Report said Taiwan has again opened an office here in Bangladesh capital this time and carrying out even diplomatic and consular services, though undeclared, under the cover of a business office.

Other agenda of discussion would moreover cover as usual requests for more Chinese development assistance on a list of projects and Dhaka's plea for duty free market access to major Bangladesh exports to the Chinese market. This is particularly important in view of the huge trade gap to the extent of US$ 3.3 billion last year leaving serious constraint on Bangladesh to bring more imports from China to supply its expanding domestic market.

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