Forging regional cohesion

August 10, 2020

In a recent diplomatic move, Imran Khan called up Sheikh Hasina, which according to international media was a “rare event” given the always-tense relations between Pakistan and...

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In a recent diplomatic move, Imran Khan called up Sheikh Hasina, which according to international media was a “rare event” given the always-tense relations between Pakistan and Bangladesh.

The bloody separation of what was then East Pakistan left a legacy that is replete with bitterness and acrimony. However, in diplomacy, there are no permanent foes or friends. A single phone call between two premiers could serve as a new beginning for both countries; in this instance, the phone call raised eyebrows in New Delhi.

New Delhi is believed to have backed the struggle of the Bengali people which is why Dhaka has been close to India since its emergence in 1971. Shaikh Hasina Wajid is considered an 'anti-Pakistan' politician. Ties between the two countries further deteriorated when Abdul Quader Molla, a Jamaat-e-Islami leader, was executed for war crimes in Dhaka in 2013. A protest towards the Pakistan High Commission in the Bangladeshi capital incensed Islamabad. The blame game that began with the execution remained unabated until recently. But it seems India's hegemonic approach in the region has made Dhaka soften its hard line towards Islamabad.

Diplomatic relations between New Delhi and Islamabad directly affect bilateral relations with Dhaka. This is why Bangladesh's stance on Jammu and Kashmir has favoured India. Many high-level visits were made between the two countries, signing multiple agreements including enhancing border security and development of infrastructure for trade purposes. However, miscalculations and the belligerent behavior of the Indian administration pushed Dhaka away, which slowly drifted towards China.

Leaving New Delhi behind, Beijing became the biggest trading partner of Bangladesh. During the year 2016 Jiangsu Etern, a Chinese firm, invested $1.1 billion for enhancing the power grid and $3.1 billion by another company to construct a 170-km long railroad in Bangladesh. President Xi Jinping visited Bangladesh in the same year, which marked the first visit by any Chinese head of state in 30 years. During the visit, almost 21 agreements were signed worth $40 billion and another $24 billion was given under aid and loans. Xi also signed Dhaka in the BRI, which isolated India as being the only country in the region left without a part in the BRI.

While China was busy doing diplomacy in Bangladesh, India introduced the citizenship amendment act in 2019, which did not go down well with the power corridors of Dhaka. Sheikh Haseena feared that the act would create a Rohingya-like wave of immigration, which would burden the country unnecessarily. The act also infuriated Bengalis who protested against India for the first time. The following months witnessed cancellation of high-level meetings and visit, but tension between India and Bangladesh worsened apace.

It seems the deteriorating situation between the two secular states has emboldened Pakistan to approach Dhaka. The phone call hit the headlines in India, with some taking exception to the report that the Pakistani prime minister also discussed Kashmir with Hasina. Smaller states are adroit at exploiting tensions between bigger and powerful countries and extracting concessions in some cases from all sides. But Hasina’s cordial talks with Pakistan suggests that Dhaka is fed up with India's hegemonic attitude and appears to be in a mood to explore more avenues in a bid to strike a balance between its ties to New Delhi and other states of the region.

Nepal is another front where India has been losing ground due to border disputes. When India divided Occupied Jammu, Kashmir, and Ladakh, they published a map with Nepali areas marked as Indian territories such as Kalapani. In retaliation, the Nepali government approved a revised map and protested against the Indian actions. They also demanded of the Modi administration to move its troops back from the Lipulekh Pass.

The people of Nepal also joined the protest with slogans such as “Back off India” and marched towards the Indian embassy in Kathmandu. A country that was once heavily influenced by India has now not only endorsed the BRI but also become part of the project. Some in India believe it was Pakistan that persuaded the Himalayan state to be part of the BRI. It may be mentioned that former prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi visited Nepal in 2018, where he motivated the newly elected government of Khadga Prasad Oli to benefit from the BRI.

It seems that the Chinese investment is forging unity between the states of South Asia, leaving India isolated. It would be better if New Delhi also became part of this regional cohesion instead of hobnobbing with extraterritorial powers that have never worked for the development and prosperity of the region.

India's cooperation could turn this area into a hub of trade and commerce, bringing prosperity to the entire region – but for that New Delhi will have to give up its hegemonic approach.

The writer is a Karachi-based freelance journalist.


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