Hasina's India visit is beneficial for regional stability and prosperity, China factor notwithstanding

India was keen to welcome PM Hasina before her China trip to ensure bilateral consensus on sensitive issues. Over the last several years, strategic ties have grown, with cooperation in science and technology, defence and security, energy, trade, commerce, and maritime issues. The goal of the visit was to strengthen these bonds.

Kamal Uddin Mazumder Jul 06, 2024
PM Modi held talks with Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina embarked on a momentous state visit to India June 21-22 marking a significant milestone in the two nations' relationship. This was the first inbound bilateral state visit to India since the formation of the new Indian government after the 18th Lok Sabha elections. The visit aimed to strengthen the already robust ties between the countries and addressed a range of pressing bilateral issues. Given the ongoing need for regional cooperation, this visit held immense importance for both nations.

During her visit, PM Hasina engaged in significant meetings with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. She also met with Indian President Droupadi Murmu and Vice President Jagdeep Dhankhar and received External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar. The timing of these meetings was crucial, as they took place before Prime Minister Hasina's trip to China in July, setting the stage for potential collaborations and agreements.

Several critical topics were on the agenda, with the long-standing Teesta River water-sharing issue taking the forefront. Both countries also desired to extend the Ganges River water-sharing agreement, which was set to expire in 2026. Negotiations had become more complex due to China's interest in supporting the basin development project of the Teesta River which could emerge as a potential source of contention with India. Bangladesh had put off a decision on the project due to India's concerns over China's involvement. Indian Foreign Secretary Vinay Kwatra recently declared that his country was keen to participate in managing the Teesta River basin, which might result in collaborative efforts to dredge the river to increase water flow.

China factor

India was keen to welcome PM Hasina before her China trip to ensure bilateral consensus on sensitive issues. Over the last several years, strategic ties have grown, with cooperation in science and technology, defence and security, energy, trade, commerce, and maritime issues. The goal of the visit was to strengthen these bonds.

During the visit several key initiatives were launched, including the modernization of Bangladesh's armed forces, preservation of Teesta water, and the introduction of e-visas for medical patients. The leaders also addressed cooperation on water resources, security, and the need for disaster management frameworks. The visit resulted in the signing of around 10 MoUs and other significant announcements, highlighting the fruitful outcome of the visit.

The announcements included the appointment of an Assistant High Commissioner of India in Rangpur; the commencement of a 40 million-watt power export from Nepal to Bangladesh via the Indian grid; the formation of a joint technical committee for the Ganga Water Treaty; the training of Bangladeshi police officers; and the launch of new train and bus services between Kolkata and Rajshahi. 

The discussion themes included the early initiation of negotiation for a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA), trade facilitation to promote bilateral commerce, and the development of trade infrastructure and connectivity for roads, trains, aviation, and sea. Bangladesh has offered India two Special Economic Zones (SEZs) at Mongla and Mirsharai. A Joint Technical Committee has been formed to begin discussions on renewing the Ganges Water Sharing Treaty of 1996.

India has a strong and diversified engagement with Bangladesh as part of its "Neighbourhood First" policy. Bangladesh accounts for over one-fourth of New Delhi's commitment under the Line of Credit, making it the country's biggest development partner. India is Bangladesh's second largest commercial partner in Asia, while Bangladesh is India's main trading partner in South Asia.  The aggregate bilateral trade between the two nations is anticipated to be around USD 15.9 billion in 2022-2023, with Bangladesh exporting commodities to India worth approximately USD 2 billion and India sending goods to Bangladesh worth roughly $14 billion.

 Bangladesh's export earnings might increase to $3-5 billion over the next seven to ten years if the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) is signed, according to the final draft report of the joint feasibility study done by Dhaka and Delhi. Experts expect that the announcement of the start of CEPA negotiations, as well as Delhi's approval to allow electricity imports from Nepal into Bangladesh via Indian territory, would be advantageous for both nations and the sub-region. Bilateral trade and investment would increase if Bangladesh participated in regional connectivity projects such as rail links and joined India's Indo-Pacific Vision Initiative.

The signing of the MoU on Bangladesh's desire to import 40MW of power from Nepal via the Indian grid was tremendously promising. Experts see India and Bangladesh's agreement to strengthen rail connections and carry Bangladeshi products back to India on its goods trains as a significant step forward towards regional integration.

 Expansion of defence tiess

Analysts are encouraged by the decision to extend the Ganges Water Sharing Treaty, but they are frustrated that concerns like the Teesta Water Sharing Treaty,  equitable distribution of the six trans-boundary rivers, and the cessation of border killings have not been addressed. The announcement that an Indian technical team would visit Bangladesh to evaluate the Teesta River Comprehensive Management and Restoration Project may heighten tensions between China and India.

 The Indo-Pacific area is home to 60 per cent of the world's population and accounts for two-thirds of global GDP. 90 per cent of India's commerce travels via its waters, while half of all global trade passes through the area. As a consequence, India's Indo-Pacific Vision Initiative will continue to be critical for regional stability in the coming days. PM Modi hailed Bangladesh's decision to join India's Indo-Pacific Vision Initiative as a significant step.

According to media sources, India is expanding defence relations with Bangladesh to counterbalance China. However, Bangladesh intends to join the Indo-Pacific exclusively for economic growth, with no military component. Bangladesh has a wide, multilateral approach to Indo-Pacific issues, encompassing China, Japan, and the United States. Bangladesh's admission into the Indo-Pacific demonstrates its commitment to regional economic cooperation rather than favouring one country over another. Bangladesh's economic interests are paramount since the nation has been pursuing massive development goals under the leadership of Sheikh Hasina for more than a decade.

Fast-increasing connections 

Citing "Bharat-Bangladesh Maitri," India's Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar emphasised the two nations' strong and fast-increasing connections, saying Sheikh Hasina's visit proves the depth of their friendship. As Dhaka and Delhi begin on a new journey, both countries are expected to prepare a future course of action to establish a "Smart Bangladesh" by implementing Vision 2041 and Viksit Bharat by 2047, as Prime Minister Hasina remarked, demonstrating a forward-thinking attitude towards bilateral ties.

Strengthening bilateral ties between Bangladesh and India is critical for regional security, peace, and growth. Strong bilateral ties will foster economic cooperation, increasing trade and investment opportunities that drive reciprocal prosperity. Border security and counterterrorism cooperation may help to establish a safer environment, reduce cross-border tensions, and promote regional unity. Partnerships in energy, technology, and infrastructure may boost connectivity and promote sustainable development. Cultural and educational contacts may help individuals build mutual understanding and relationships.

 India is emerging as one of the world's leading economic powers. China's ascent to prominence in the global power index has confronted India with a number of obstacles, along with a few other regional challenges. A wealthy and secure Bangladesh strengthens India's strategic objectives while promoting regional stability. If Bangladesh and India recognise and address each other's priorities, the whole region benefits. Strong connections between them will be critical for a peaceful and prosperous South Asia, and PM Hasina's recent visit to India must be seen as a significant step in that direction.

(The author is a Dhaka-based security and strategic affairs analyst. Views are personal. He can be reached at kamalmazumderju@gmail.com)

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R S Chakravarti
Mon, 07/15/2024 - 12:00
Sheikh Hasina should allow the opposition leader Khalida Zia to go wherever she wishes to get medical treatment. This would be good for Bangladesh in the long run. It is not good to suppress the opposition. Without real democracy, eventually there will be serious trouble.