Sunday, January 31, 2010

Bangladesh's Big Brothers


As regional and international relations take on a fresh perspective in the global scenario, where does Bangladesh stand?

In the present day matrix of global interactions, interdependence is the name of the game. All too often, though, the “inter” part of interdependence is obfuscated and the “dependence” part comes to the forefront. This is a cause of concern for the people of developing nations who find themselves caught up in the whirlpool of international political networking, and Bangladesh is no exception.

Make or break
Bangladesh is perched at a critical juncture of its existence, where fitting into the global jigsaw is as important as its hold on ‘sovereignty’. Given its strategic location on the Bay of Bengal and its proximity to both India and China, along with significant presence of mineral resources both on and off shore, Bangladesh is certainly not just an overpopulated poverty-ridden third world country. In recent years it has shown potential for palpable socio-economic growth, despite political ups and downs and natural calamities, and today it stands on the threshold of change. It’s “make or break” time, say analysts.

At this crucial point in time, it is the Awami League government which holds the reins of the nation. Riding the power on “winds of change”, it has raised people’s expectations high. However, the expectations are tinged with a degree of apprehension when it comes to international relation, regional relations in particular, as the Awami League government and its leader Sheikh Hasina, are yet to rid themselves of the pro-Indian label. Whether founded or unfounded, this stigma is there. Even if other governments have been accommodating to India’s demands, somehow it is Awami League which always bears the brunt at home if the neighbour’s overtures are too strong for comfort. And Sheikh Hasina’s recent Indian trip, along with the deals signed during the visit, has given more grist to the mill; speculations run amok.

US-India nexus
Pundits of South Asian affairs in recent times have been watching with interest the strengthening nexus between India and the United States of America. This alliance, holy or unholy as it may be perceived, is a reality stretching from Afghanistan down to Myanmar and beyond. Bangladesh finds itself caught up in this plexus of interests and experts call for a honing of negotiating skills to ensure national interests are not sacrificed at the expense of others. “It’s a matter of give and take, and we must make sure we take as much as we give, or at least get the best deal on the table,” says a regional expert, discussing the present predicament of the country.

Now that US-India ties are cemented in no uncertain terms, the relationship equations in Bangladesh have taken a new turn. While leftist leaders have long cried themselves hoarse against “US imperialism”, they may find themselves faced with a confusing conundrum to contend with. Rather any overt presence as feared by many (in the shape of US marines swarming all over the place à la old Hollywood movies), the US is likely to use its regional ally India to do its job here.

India, over the past years, has grown in stature and clout and all indications are that the US is very much behind strengthening India as a regional power. If India has the ability to emerge as economic and strategic super power in the region, and it is proving so, it has full blessings and backing of the US. After all, India has all the features which the US values – democracy, economic strength and more. In fact, among the emerging powers of BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China), India enjoys a strong reputation for democracy.

Analysts contend that the US is giving India leeway regarding Bangladesh. Whether it is its business interests or otherwise, it finds it more expedient to utilize India’s services in this regard. After all, India and Bangladesh share a multitude of commonalities in culture, methods of business and transactions, etc. It is not as if the US is giving up its interests in Bangladesh, say analysts, it has long being eying the gas, oil, coal and other mineral resources of the country, as well as the deep sea port and more. It is likely to work to this end through consortiums with India and thus ensure its interests in Bangladesh.

The US also wants to see a consolidation of Bangladesh’s image as a moderate Muslim country. It has always portrayed Bangladesh in this light. This is perhaps a departure from the Indian propensity to identify Bangladesh as a haven for “Islamist militants” or “terrorists”. But the US realizes that the sheer homogenous nature of Bangladesh’s demographic composition is unique – to a greater extent it enjoys one language, one religion and one culture.

Confirming US interests in Bangladesh, there are reports that US President Barack Obama is likely to visit Bangladesh at the end of this year or early next. This will be on the last leg of his scheduled visit to Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. He has reportedly met with seven Congressmen in the US concerning Bangladesh. Three points are supposed to have been highlighted during this meeting – Bangladesh’s possible role as a moderate Muslim country; the relationship between the present government and Nobel Laureate Professor Muhammed Yunus; national unity and to what extend democracy is actually being practiced in the country. In the meantime, the Awami League government is lobbying hard to ensure Obama’s visit to Bangladesh. If he does actually come, all pending issues between the US and Bangladesh will be finalized prior to the visit.

Inscrutable China
In the meantime, China may be maintaining its characteristic inscrutable silence, but it has its eyes wide open where regional developments are concerned. If there had traditionally been more than a degree of coldness and tensions between China and the US, things have relaxed to a great extent. Trade relations have stepped up and the vibes between the two powers are more positive than they have ever been in the past. However, it is not the same story where India and China are concerned. Tensions prevail and relations are strained. The borders between the two are more often than not on alert.

It is the animosity between India and China that had made India all the more determined to strengthen its position in Bangladesh, whether through transit, use of the port, trade facilities or more. The US, on the other hand, would rather maintain its cordial bilateral ties with China. If interests conflict, says analysts, there is always India to do the needy. “With India and the US,” elaborates the analyst, “It’s a sort of ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’ kind of deal.”

However, the equations may not be all that simple. India and the US may have conflicting agendas in certain areas where Bangladesh is concerned. India’s actions concerning its insurgency-ridden northeastern states added to its present understanding with the Bangladesh government, may well result in a backlash in Bangladesh. The situation in Bangladesh could grow volatile and India has always propagated the idea of Islamist terrorism in Bangladesh. The US, on the other hand, is not against the Islamic forces in Bangladesh, be they Jamaat-e-Islami or other Islamic groups which represent the nation’s moderate stand. They be want to see a Muslim majority sans the stigma of terrorism.

Observers of the region feel that China is none too pleased with recent developments between Bangladesh and India. It is not happy with the position India is assuming in the region either. If its interests are threatened or hurt, China is not one to sit back and lick its wounds. Its power should not be underestimated. It is a dark horse, but has proven to the world that it is a force to contend with. And if India flexes its muscle in that direction, say analysts, China will show India exactly how powerful it is. The US, in the meantime, will be friends to all and reap the benefits.

Hasina’s government is also aware that proximity with India may rub China up the wrong way. This is not something that Bangladesh can afford. To appease the Chinese, Bangladesh is reportedly already planning all sorts of trade and business deals with China. Perhaps the construction of the deep sea port may also go to China. Other big infrastructural contracts with China are also in the pipeline.

The Myanmar factor
Another interesting development in the region was the recent tensions between Bangladesh and Myanmar. The maritime boundary issue had loomed large on the scene as casus belli, the cause of possible war being Myanmar’s claim on nautical territory which Bangladesh considers its own. India has similar claims on the waters in the bay, territory rich in mineral resources. But as Indian influence grew in Myanmar and even the US took a softer stance regarding the Myanmar military junta, the border tensions defused. Some regional experts feel that India had stepped up pressure on Bangladesh, even through Myanmar, but released the pressure as it was getting what it wanted. Others see US intervention, as it has its eyes riveted on the oil and gas blocks in the bay and Bangladesh is its best bet.

Meanwhile, within Bangladesh itself, discontent brews. Nationalist forces are going blue in the face crying foul over the deals with India. Their slogans about Bangladesh being sold out may sound like a broken record of clichés, but when the business community begins to protest, it is time to take notice.

The trade deals and business agreements between India and Bangladesh have not made the business community happy this side of the border. There is a distinct sense of apprehension that the domestic market is going straight to the hands of Indian businessmen and industrialists. As it is, Bangladesh’s poultry sector has been hit hard. If other sectors follow suit, the discontent may be manifest in more vocal and violent terms.

Dilemma over democracy
Despite degrees of dissatisfaction here and there, all seems to be going hunky dory particularly where the US-India collaboration is concerned. And the present government in Bangladesh, already in India’s good books to all apparent appearances, seems also to be winning kudos from the American side too.

However, the US has one particular concern and that is the matter of democracy. Whether through war or peace, the US has always prided itself as the champion of democracy. So when it comes to Bangladesh, it will be vigilant in its watch on democratic practice in the country.

But just how is democracy faring in Bangladesh? Antagonism continues to brew between the ruling party and major opposition BNP. BNP remains away from the parliament and the government is hardly offering them an olive branch. In the meantime, government quarters talk of a ban on religion-based politics, meaning a blow to Jamaat-e-Islami. A prohibition on Jamaat may well lead to an aggressive outburst. It won’t take much for its younger activists to turn from moderation to militancy.

The US will not condone any such detraction from democracy. It has always maintained that if democracy is to survive, a robust opposition must be allowed to flourish. But will the Awami League government allow a forceful opposition to grow? And how will India view a consolidated nationalist opposition waiting in the wings for the next election? Analysts say that they would want to see the present government at the helm for another term at least, to ensure a continuity of their agenda implementation. But what about the US determination for democracy?

Despite the intentions and the agenda, there is no foolproof guarantee that all will go according to plan. After all, “the best laid schemes of mice and men” are often known to backfire.