Dhaka, March 5 (Dhaka Tribune): In the run up to Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s visit to India in April, the country is pondering arms deals with both India and China.
The two world superpowers have long been competing for superiority in the Asian region, with coastal Bangladesh a key factor in determining who rules the South Asian seas.
As such, both India and China are in an international game of one-upmanship, as each tries to woo the small nation in the Bay of Bengal.
The latest installment of the transnational tug of war began in earnest after China delivered two submarines to Bangladesh on November 14, the first such naval craft in the nation’s arsenal.
India immediately responded by rushing in Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar to Bangladesh just two days later, in the highest profile defense delegation to visit the country in 45 years. The chief objective of the meeting was to ensure long term cooperation between the nations in matters of defense.
The groundwork for cooperation with China had, however, been laid even earlier with Chinese President Xi’s visit in October, when 27 deals were signed amounting to some $25 billion. Along with the repeated postponement of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s visit to India, this has caused Indian authorities to feel concerned. Both the Indian and Bangladesh governments had that stated prior commitments were behind the postponements. But this has not eased relations.
While India may be unable to match China’s economic muscle, it is willing to offer Bangladesh a $500 million line of credit for the purchase of military hardware.
This, in combination with the superior geographical position of the neighboring country may make the deal more favorable than a potentially more lucrative deal with China.
Bangladesh, though, still has some reservations about India, preferring a looser MoU rather than a permanent deal. Firstly, this revolves around the quality of the military equipment in question. India is itself one of the largest importers of arms in the world, which raises questions on the quality of their domestically produced hardware. This does not compare favorably to China’s reputation for creating cheap and easy to use equipment.
Furthermore, and perhaps more poignantly, issues on water-sharing between Bangladesh and India have long been an obstacle for discussions between the two countries, with projects like the Farakka Barrage denying flow of water into Bangladesh.
“Bangladesh is still predominantly an agricultural country. For us, river water is a crucial issue,” said Shamsul Arefin, the head of Dhaka-based think tank Bangladesh Peace Research Institute to the South China Morning Post.
“Hasina needs to show some positive takeaways from her Delhi visit such as [an agreement on] water sharing. She has addressed the entire range of India’s security and connectivity concerns, like pushing out Indian rebels and allowing the transit of goods to India’s troubled northeastern region. It is payback time for India,” Arefin said.
Regardless of whether any deals are actually agreed with either country, the tug of war between two giants of the world stage over Bangladesh suggests that the days of being just an observer may be coming to an end for the country.
With a booming economy, a significant trade surplus and World Bank having dropped its corruption law suit, Bangladesh may just be ready to sit at the adult table.
(The featured image at the top shows Chinese and Bangladeshi officers receiving the two submarines given by China to Bangladesh)