Sushma Swaraj’s Bangladesh visit aims to bolster bilateral ties

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New Delhi: India’s external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj is expected to visit Dhaka later this month for a comprehensive review of relations with the key eastern neighbour, in a trip that is also expected to focus on Rohingya refugees fleeing Myanmar into Bangladesh—a development that has crimped India-Bangladesh ties.

Swaraj’s visit—expected in the third week of this month—comes close on the heels of another by Indian finance minister Arun Jaitley to Dhaka last week that saw India operationalise a $4.5 billion dollar line of credit finalised during Bangladesh prime minister Sheikh Hasina’s visit to New Delhi in April. The $ 4.5 billion dollar loan is the third to Bangladesh since 2010 and the largest ever to any country extended by India.

The main item on Swaraj’s agenda is chairing the Joint Consultative Committee meeting which looks at all aspects of the bilateral relationship, from security ties to trade and cultural affairs.

Ties between India and Bangladesh have warmed considerably since New Delhi ratified and signed a land boundary agreement with Dhaka in 2015 that had been languishing since 1974. India views Bangladesh as a critical component of its policy to forge closer links between South and Southeast Asia, given the country’s strategic geographical position. It is a member part of the Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Myanmar-Nepal-Sri Lanka-Thailand economic grouping that India views as an alternative to the largely dysfunctional South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) that brings together India and all countries in its immediate neighbourhood into a bloc.

India’s operationalization of the $4.5 billion line of credit last week comes against the backdrop of a wrinkle in ties—after New Delhi said it shared Myanmar’s concerns over “extremist violence” in Rakhine state. The comments were made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his recent visit to Myanmar. Bangladesh was reportedly upset by the move with Dhaka’s envoy in New Delhi conveying his country’s concerns to the Indian foreign secretary. Dhaka’s unease stems from the fact that thousands of Muslim Rohingyas from Rakhine have fled across the border into Bangladesh following a Myanmarese military push after Rohingya insurgents attacked police posts and an army base in August.

“With India seemingly giving up on mending ties with Pakistan, India has to position itself differently on the issue of regional cooperation and here Bangladesh emerges as a critical country,” said Harsh V. Pant, a professor of international relations at London-based King’s College. “Bangladeshi prime minister Sheikh Hasina has become an important and reliable partner for India. She is facing elections next year and the Rohingya issue is a big issue in her country,” Pant said. “India has put in a lot of effort to upgrade ties with Dhaka and it will have to keep this up,” he said.

For India, Bangladesh and Myanmar are both important neighbours as it shares long borders with them. Insurgents operating in India’s northeast have taken shelter in both countries in the past, using bases there for hit-and-run operations. India has viewed with concern increasing Chinese aid and infrastructure assistance to both countries—fearing a heightening of Beijing’s profile and a waning of its own influence in its periphery.

Recent figures suggest that Bangladesh houses some 1.2 million Rohingyas, placing a strain on its resources. The United Nations has called the exodus of 507,000 Rohingyas since late August the world’s fastest-developing refugee emergency, and says Buddhist-majority Myanmar is engaging in ethnic cleansing. India, on its part, sent food aid last month to Bangladesh to help tide over the humanitarian crisis.

Bangladesh is also one of the countries in India’s periphery that has signed up for China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative unveiled by Beijing in 2013, aimed at connecting China by land and sea to Southeast Asia, Pakistan and Central Asia, and beyond to the Middle East, Europe and Africa. India has been opposed to the project as one strand of it—the China-Pakistan-Economic Corridor (CPEC)—runs through Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK). New Delhi had cited “sovereignty issues” while declining to be part of the international conference hosted by Beijing.

At the India Economic Summit in New Delhi last week, Bangladesh foreign secretary Mohammed Shahidul Haque said sovereignty issues sometimes had to take a backseat to economic priorities. “In the case of Bangladesh, we realised that sovereignty is important. We are geographically small and in order to overcome that limitation, we have to link ourselves with the rest of the world… One of the issues that we attach huge priority to is how to overcome our limitations. It is not by holding onto sovereignty issues but by opening up,” Haque said.

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