15.09.2022 Author: Vladimir Terehov

On the Visit of Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to India


The visit of Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to India from September 5 to 8 this year represents a notable development in the game being played by both local and global actors in the Indo-Pacific region. The latter undoubtedly already include India.

As for Bangladesh, its place in the said game needs some comment. Bangladesh can be categorized among other “local” players of “third” importance. These include Malaysia, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and the Indian Ocean island states. All of them are gradually being drawn into the struggle that is unfolding here between the leading regional and world powers. At the same time, each of the “third-ranking” players has a certain (of course, not very large, but still) margin of maneuver in the field of tensions created by the first ones. The said maneuvering is carried out with varying degrees of effectiveness.

The NEO had earlier discussed a bizarre incident in May 2021, which was sparked off by some misinformation about the alleged intention of the Bangladeshi leadership to join the Quad, which includes India in addition to the US, Japan and Australia. Beijing, which is generally negative on this configuration, felt that in the balancing act between India and the PRC, Dhaka clearly “swung” in the direction of the former.

In India, for its part, the news of the ceremony on June 25 this year, in the presence of Sheikh Hasina, to mark the completion of the largest road-rail bridge over the Padma River, nearly ten kilometers long and costing about $4 billion, was met with a mixed reaction. Designed in the US, it has been under construction since 2014 by a Chinese bridge-building company and looks no less grandiose today than the famous Crimean bridge in Russia.

It should be noted that the Padma Bridge was originally (about ten years ago) considered in the PRC as an important element of one of the branches of the global Belt and Road Initiative project. This branch (Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar, BCIM) was to connect the southwestern Chinese provinces with the Bay of Bengal by a network of transport and industrial facilities. The terminus of the BCIM Corridor was to be one of India’s largest port cities, Kolkata.

However, for a number of reasons, one of the most important being India’s wariness of BRI in general, only the Padma Bridge project has so far been realized out of the whole “Corridor” mentioned. This, by the way, will help India dramatically expand its transport and communication links with Bangladesh.

It should also be noted that the West did not miss a chance to once again throw shade at BRI by repeatedly raising the topic of the “debt holes” in which all of China’s partners in this global project allegedly find themselves. This was followed by reactions from the Ministry of Finance of Bangladesh and China’s Global Times.

It is worth recalling the exceptional role played by India (and by the USSR, which was then almost allied with it) in the independence of Bangladesh in 1971. This still continues to be an important motivation for the friendly (in general and with few exceptions) bilateral relations between India and Bangladesh.

This, in turn, is helped by the trusting nature of the relationship between the current leaders of the two countries. Recently, Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Sheikh Hasina have been trying to exchange official visits on a regular basis (at least once a year). The exception was the “COVID” 2020.

But Modi’s trip to Dhaka the following March took on special significance as it was on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of independence proclaimed by the then leader of Bangladesh, Mujibur Rahman, i.e. Sheikh Hasina’s father. He and his three sons were assassinated in 1975 in a coup arranged not without “external help”.

Once again, it is worth noting the seemingly paradoxical fact that most Muslim countries maintain positive relations with “pagan” India. While the former often do not, to put it mildly, get on very well with each other. For instance, Bangladesh still does not even have diplomatic relations with Pakistan, which it was part of until 1971.

This does not mean that the factor of inter-religious differences is completely absent from Indo-Bangladeshi relations. On the contrary, for reasons previously discussed in the NEO, it is beginning to show itself in the current year and, naturally, in a negative way. So far in both countries the factor in question has been kept under control.

In this connection, Sheikh Hasina’s statement last fall about “certain circles” that intend to introduce inter-communal divisions and “tarnish the image of Bangladesh” seems noteworthy. India, in turn, tries to keep particularly radical Hindu movements within some bounds.

In the author’s view, the very factor of inter-religious relations, always present to some extent throughout the South Asian sub-region, has begun to aggravate both within India itself and in its relations with its neighbors following a series of internal action plans carried out by its leadership in the second half of 2019. These actions concerned the administrative status of the present “Indian part” of the former Principality of Kashmir as well as the legal aspects of the situation of migrants who at different times had come from the territories of India’s neighbors.

The now ubiquitous issue of migratory flows is also present in this highly populated sub-region, which consists of countries with rather arbitrarily drawn borders. Weapons and drugs often “migrate” with migrants.

Perhaps the world’s best-known migrants are the Rohingya, who migrated almost entirely (i.e. about one million) to Bangladesh from neighboring Myanmar in the fall of 2017. Unfortunately, the not infrequent cynical political games around the Rohingya conceal the real problems of both these people and their current host country. Dhaka seeks help in resolving the Rohingya issue, as reflected in the Joint Statement that was adopted at the end of Sheikh Hasina’s mentioned visit.

According to this document, the talks with her counterpart N. Modi covered virtually the entire range of issues normally present in inter-state relations. In particular, several points are devoted to certain aspects of the defense sector, as well as to the situation in the border areas of both countries, where the above mentioned migration issue is mainly manifested.

However, the main focus was made on the very topical issue of cooperation in the implementation of various infrastructure projects, the transfer of electricity and oil, and the regulation of rivers flowing through the territories of the two countries.

It is notable that this document mentions a transport artery project to connect India’s eastern states with Bangladesh, Myanmar and Thailand. New Delhi sees it as competing with China for influence in the region. Apparently (particularly in connection with the completion of the Padma Bridge) Beijing has not abandoned the “BCIM Corridor” project, which, to repeat, is an element of the more general BRI project. The latter, in turn, serves as the PRC’s most important foreign policy tool in the international arena as a whole.

In fact, for the author, the Bangladeshi Prime Minister’s visit to India is interesting primarily in the aspect of its impact on the state of relations between the two Asian giants. Obviously, each has a different view of the most favorable developments in the Indo-Pacific region as a whole and in its individual countries.

It is crucial that such (objective) differences do not lead to an irreversible confrontation in bilateral relations. In this regard, positive signals are coming from recent measures taken by both sides in the area of the serious conflict having erupted two years ago in the highland border region of Ladakh.

Russia should help in any way it can to stimulate a positive development of Chinese-Indian relations.

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.