'Defence pact with India to balance coop with China'

An exclusive interview with Farooq Sobhan, taken by Mizanur Rahman Khan | Update:

LABO1560A major challenge for Bangladesh diplomacy in the next 4-5 years is not only to coexist between India and China but also to show ability to engage with both the countries in a constructive relationship, observed former foreign secretary Farooq Sobhan. Emphasising the importance of a triangular relationship for Bangladesh in attaining its development goals, he said, “If we can do that, it will be a critical factor in our achieving 8-10% growth and thus achieving our target of becoming a middle income country by 2021.”

The career diplomat also feels that Bangladesh’s purchase of submarines from China is “in no way directed against India”. Dwelling on the proposed defence framework agreement between Bangladesh and India, he explained that Dhaka might have taken the view that a traditionally close defence relationship with China needs to be balanced by strengthening defence cooperation with India.


Mr. Farooq Sobhan was born on 17 September 1940. During his long diplomatic career he held various posts in Islamabad, Cairo and Paris during erstwhile Pakistan period, and subsequently as a member of the Bangladesh Foreign Service in Dhaka, Belgrade and Moscow. While posted as ambassador, deputy permanent representative of Bangladesh at the UN in New York, he was elected chairman of the Group of 77 at the UN for the period 1982-83. He also served as chairman of the UN Commission on Trans National Corporations from 1991-92.

Mr. Sobhan later served as ambassador/high commissioner in Malaysia, China and India. He served as foreign secretary of Bangladesh from March 1992 until September 1997. He served as special envoy of prime minister Sheikh Hasina from 1997-1999 with the rank and status of a state minister; during this period he visited more than 40 countries.

In 2003, he was appointed a visiting professor at the Elliot School of International Relations, George Washington University in the US. Since 1 October, 2000, he has headed the Bangladesh Enterprise Institute (BEI), an independent think-tank, as its president and CEO.



Here is the full text of the interview:


Prothom Alo: Do you foresee any major shift in the present alliance or understanding between China and Russia during the Trump presidency?

Farooq Sobhan: What we have today in the case of China and Russia is not what I would call an alliance but more in the nature of a strategic partnership. Is the Trump presidency going to change that? I don’t think so. What we are likely to have is a period of uncertainty during which Mr. Trump will have to sort out US relations with Western Europe, in particular NATO, as well as with Russia, China, Japan and India.

In the case of Western Europe and NATO, the key question will be the role of the US in dealing with Russia’s position on Ukraine, Crimea, the future of NATO and Syria. In the case of India, several questions will have to be dealt with starting with the existing strategic partnership that currently exists between the US and India. Will this continue?

Prothom Alo: How much importance will Mr.Trump give to India? Will he seek to forge an alliance with India against China?

Farooq Sobhan: Perhaps the most important question that will need to be answered will be the nature of the triangular relationship between the US, Russia and China. Will Mr.Trump be able to wean Mr. Putin away from China?  How far will Mr.Trump go in confronting China? Will Mr. Trump continue his efforts to undermine the One China policy which has been the cornerstone of Sino-US relations since 1979? In his effort to forge closer relations with Russia will Mr. Trump be willing to ignore the criticism of Russia by his allies in NATO? Will he forgive Russia’s perceived transgressions in Syria, Ukraine and the Crimea?

We can only speculate about what might happen. But Mr. Trump’s cabinet appointments, in particular his choice of the secretary of state, suggests that Mr. Trump is keen to improve, if not totally re-calibrate the US-Russia relations. But in order to do so he will face serious resistance from within the Republican Party, the US Armed Forces and the security agencies in the US, most notably the CIA, which has accused Russia of interfering in the US elections by leaking information from hacking various accounts of the Democratic Party and individual candidates of the Democratic Party.

Will Mr. Trump try and mobilise support for India against China? And what will be the impact of his thumbing his nose at China on Japan, Australia, the Republic of Korea, North Korea, indeed the entire Asia-Pacific region?

There are already clear indications that a number of the ASEAN countries are re-thinking their relations with China on the premise that the US will be less engaged in the Asia-Pacific region. It may be argued that some of the countries in the region are already tilting towards China. It may be argued that during the Trump administration the US influence in the Asia-Pacific region will be much less compared to China.

PA: Do you think that the Rohingya issue could create some problems or influence the realignment that you have mentioned?

FS: No, the Rohingya issue has its own dynamics. Of course Bangladesh would like the major powers, particularly the neighbours of Myanmar to persuade Myanmar to stop the persecution of the Rohingyas. In this regard much is going to depend on Bangladesh’s own diplomacy in being able to secure the support of the permanent members of the Security Council, in particular, China, Russia as well as the US. I think we can count on the sympathy and support of most of Europe. We can also count on the support of most of the ASEAN countries. The key question though is whether this support and sympathy can be converted into concrete measures that might persuade Myanmar to change its position on the Rohingyas. Or should we rely instead on quiet diplomacy? Do we deal with the Rohingya refugees as a humanitarian crisis or a security crisis?  I think we may need to move on multiple tracks. Dealing with the Rohingya crisis will require deft handling by Bangladesh.

PA: Do you think China and India can help Bangladesh realise or fulfil its Vision 2021?

FS: So the big challenge for Bangladesh, I would say in the next four to five years, is not simply our ability to coexist between India and China but our ability to engage both countries in a constructive relationship. A relationship which is viewed by all three countries as a ‘win-win’ relationship. Bangladesh should try to forge a triangular partnership with India and China, on the basis of mutual benefit. If we can do that, it will be a critical factor in our achieving 8-10% growth and thus achieving our target of becoming a middle income country by 2021. It will also help in the process of both regional and sub-regional economic integration. Such a partnership could also encourage Myanmar to take a constructive approach on a range of connectivity issues.

PA:  What is your opinion about Trump’s policy towards China and his questioning the long-standing US position on ‘One China’ and what will be the impact of such a change in US policy on Sino-Indian relations?

FS: Well, I think certainly Mr. Modi will try and continue the close partnership that was forged with the US and Mr. Obama, with Mr.Trump and his administration. The Indian diaspora in the US today commands considerable influence and we might recall Mr. Trump’s well-publicised meeting with the Indian diaspora in New York during his presidential campaign. I would therefore be inclined to think that the strategic partnership forged between India and the US during the past two decades will continue.

But we should take nothing for granted. I would like to flag three potential areas of friction. First is the question of visas. Will Mr. Trump clamp down on H-1 visas or at the very least impose restrictions on family members being given visas? Secondly, will he crack down on ‘illegals’, which reportedly include a large number of Indians who have overstayed their visas? Thirdly, how will Mr. Trump’s efforts to bring back jobs to the US impact on India’s IT sector among others?

As regards the second question on the possible impact of Mr. Trump challenging or disowning the ‘One China policy’ which has been followed not only by the United States but I would say by the overwhelming majority of the international community, my view is that if Mr. Trump rejects the ‘One China policy’ this will have a serious destabilising impact throughout the Asia-Pacific region.

I cannot think of any major power whether it is Russia, or any country in Europe or even India that will or can support Mr. Trump’s rejection of the One China policy. I think in my view there will be strong pressure on Mr. Trump both from within the US, including the Republican party, as well as the entire international community, including India, not to deviate from the ‘One China policy’. However, if Mr.Trump does go ahead this will place India in a very awkward position and could in due course of time see a revival of a new phase of the Cold War in South Asia.

PA: Do you think Mr. Trump can manage to get support from India, Japan or Russia? Is there any possibility?

FS: No I don’t think so. It is inconceivable that any major power today can reject the One China policy. Today China has emerged as an economic superpower. It is second only to the US as an import market, while it is fast becoming one of the largest foreign investors in the world. It has one of the world’s largest reserves. China’s investments in the United States are greater than the US investments in China. China is also one of the largest markets for US exports. China today holds 1.2 trillion dollars worth of US Treasury Bonds.

For Mr.Trump to try and restrict Chinese imports to the US or impose a tariff rate of 45% on all Chinese imports, will produce a strong reaction not only from consumers in the US, but also from most of the Fortune 500 companies. The unilateral tariffs will also be in violation of WTO rules. So I don’t think Mr. Trump’s “Get Tough on China policy” which includes rejecting or questioning the One China policy, is going to be supported by the international community; nor is it likely to be supported  by Congress or by the Republican Party.

So, I think Mr. Trump will have to make some adjustments to his foreign policy once he is sworn in as the President of the US. For the present he has the luxury of ‘shooting from the hip’ cowboy style because he is not the President of the US.  I am not sure as President of the United States whether he can say the same things.

PA: Do you think the US pivot to Asia will continue?

FS: No, I don’t think so. If I understand Mr. Trump’s policy towards Asia correctly, what he is signaling is that Asia is now on its own, that the US is not willing anymore to provide the kind of defence support that it was willing to provide earlier under Mr. Obama’s pivot to Asia. I think in Asia at one level Mr. Trump appears to be almost clearing the way for China to emerge as the single most influential and powerful player in the region, with no country in the Asia-Pacific region in a position to challenge or confront China’s power.

PA: In the past, we saw that when Bangladesh bought the MiG-29s from Russia the United States expressed its displeasure but now when Bangladesh has purchased two submarines from China the US has so far refrained from expressing any kind of displeasure or criticism. Any comments?

FS: So what you are saying is that our purchase of submarines from China has not prompted any adverse comments from the US at least publicly, whereas India or at least the Indian media has been quite critical of the purchase.

PA: Not officially, we saw some Indian media and former defence officials, the former naval chief and others have expressed some sort of reservations, do you think it may create some strain on India-Bangladesh relations?

FS: I don’t think so. I think perhaps when our prime minister goes to India, this issue will be discussed and I think the prime minister will no doubt stress that the purchase of the submarines is in no way directed against India and that Bangladesh would like to have equally friendly relations with both India and China; a relationship where the three countries can work together on a whole range of issues. Seen from the point of view of Bangladesh, it can be said we need to have an army, an air force and a navy which is commensurate with our status as an independent and sovereign country with a 160 million population. We have our own interests to defend and preserve, we have no aggressive or offensive intentions against any country, so these submarines have been purchased to safeguard our own security and national interests.

PA: How do you assess Bangladesh’s foreign policy pursued by prime minister Sheikh Hasina? Is it not correct that Bangladesh has been maintaining good relations with India China, Japan, Russia and the United States as well as other important countries?

FS: The ideal policy is our ability to maintain friendly and cordial relations with all the countries that are of importance to us. This was the policy enunciated by Bangabandhu: “Friendship with all and malice to none”. It is in Bangladesh’s interest to maintain friendly relations with everyone. We certainly don’t pose a threat to any regional or global power. We want our foreign policy to reflect our economic interests and therefore it is in Bangladesh’s interests to be on good terms with all the major powers. We have to remember that the US and Europe are our major markets for our RMG exports; the OECD countries are also today and have been so for the past 45 years, our major development partners. We have recently been offered a lot of assistance from China, India, Japan and Russia, so we need to keep on good terms with all these countries. So our effort should be to continue to  maintain the best of relations with all the major powers.

PA: One Russian defence expert has commented in Sputnik online, their official online website, that Bangladesh bought some obsolete submarines from China and has done so only for prestige reasons, so India should not worry about this development.

FS: I should say India should certainly not worry about this development. I will not comment on what the Russian defence expert has said about the submarines, I will leave this to our own experts to respond. But what I would like to say is that as an independent country Bangladesh should be responsible for safeguarding its own security and national interests and therefore if the government and the prime minister believes that they need to build up our navy and have submarines then I’m sure they are doing this in the national interest.

PA: The Times of India indicated that during the visit of their defence minister, Manohar Parrikar, that he may discuss a defence framework agreement to be signed between Bangladesh and India. Do you have any idea or whether it has some significance or necessity?

FS: What I can say is that I have heard about the Defence Framework agreement, but I have no knowledge about either the details or the status of this agreement. It is quite possible that in pursuit of a policy of constructive engagement with India and with China, the government of prime minister Hasina may take the view that because we have traditionally a close defence relationship with China that we need to balance it to some extent at least by strengthening our defence cooperation with India. I understand we are already doing some joint exercises and some joint training programmes with India, so perhaps this framework agreement will place the existing cooperation within a framework agreement. We have something similar with the Chinese, so I suppose the idea could be to maintain some sort of balance between China and India.

PA: There are some concerns whether Bangladesh in seeking to maintain good relations with the big powers has actually been able to achieve a ‘win win’ relationship with the major powers?  For instance, some people feel that although India has still not been able to sign the Teesta agreement, Bangladesh has continued to make unilateral concessions to India.

FS: Well the big challenge in the trilateral relationship between Bangladesh and China on the one hand and India on the other is that we don’t have any major bilateral disputes with China. On the other hand, because we share a boundary of 4,000 kilometers plus with India, we do have a number of bilateral issues that need to be amicably resolved between the two countries. Apart from the Teesta there are multiple issues arising out of the 54 rivers we share with India. We are the lower riparian in each case.  We also have multiple problems because of the long boundary we share with India. Apart from the chronic problems of smuggling, drug, arms and human trafficking, from time to time people, usually Bangladeshis, are killed on the border. Managing Indo-Bangladesh relations has always been a big challenge. Dealing with the negative media publicity, as well as public perception of the relationship on both sides, has always been a problem. It is really going to be a measure of our diplomacy how effective we are in dealing with all these problems. There has been significant progress in Indo-Bangladesh relations covering a wide range of subjects. I want to mention four in particular.

One is energy cooperation: I think the big success story in the Indo-Bangladesh relations has been energy cooperation. We are already importing quite a lot of energy from India. India has cleared the way for us to buy at a future date hydro-power from Bhutan and also from Nepal, as and when such power becomes available. We are looking at an integrated energy grid; we are hoping to buy more power from Tripura as well as the North-East. So, a lot has happened and is happening in the field of energy cooperation.

 Secondly, now that we have been given duty and quota free access to the Indian market, once we improve connectivity and remove some of the existing non-tariff barriers, India could become one of the biggest markets for Bangladesh’s exports. The Indian market alone can be worth 20 billion dollars to Bangladesh over the next 10 years, so we need to work harder at removing the tariff barriers and improving connectivity.

Thirdly, it is very much in our interest to address the issue of connectivity because connectivity is not just transit for India through Bangladesh to the North-East or through Bangladesh to Mongla and Chittagong. It also means transit for Nepal and Bhutan through India to Bangladesh, thus enabling these two countries to use our ports.

Fourthly, if we develop our infrastructure and improve connectivity this will facilitate closer cooperation with the Indian North East. This in turn will make Bangladesh an attractive destination for Indian investments. Indian manufacturers will then be able to cater to both the Bangladesh market as well as the Indian North East. Indian investors can also benefit from Bangladesh’s duty free access to Europe, Canada, Australia, China and Japan.

So these are some of the big challenges that lie ahead and the two governments must be able to work their way to finding acceptable solutions to these problems. If we look at the India-Bangladesh relationship during the last 45 years going back to 16 December 1971, my sense is that very often the points of difference in the relationship have dominated the conversation, as compared to the points of convergence, which would be of benefit to Bangladesh in particular. So that’s why this relationship needs very careful handling and again it would be a measure of our diplomacy how we can handle and manage these difficult issues so that we not only benefit from our relations with India but people in both countries see this as a ‘win-win’ relationship.

PA: How do you see the possible impact on Bangladesh-India relations since Trump is likely to continue the US-India strategic partnership?

FS: In my view Bangladesh, in particular our embassy, will need to be extremely active in Washington. In Washington to make an impact you need to develop good contacts not only with the state department and the White House but also in Congress, with both the Republicans and the Democrats. You need to develop contacts with the power brokers in Washington, the think tanks, the media, corporate America, because these are the power centres that influence decision making in Washington. So if we want our voice to be heard, if we want Washington to know that Bangladesh is an important player in the global market, if we want to defend our interests in particular our access to the US market and we want Washington to realise Bangladesh, in its own right, is a very important player in this region, we will need to be very active in getting to know some of the first, second and third tier people who will move into key positions in the new administration.

PA: What should be the correct line of policy to follow in the case of Myanmar? Should the prime minister invite Aung San Suu Kyi to visit Bangladesh?

FS: Our effort all along has been to try and convince Myanmar that Bangladesh wants a relationship based on trust and friendship, because both our countries will gain a lot through trade, investment, connectivity,  as well as through cooperation in the Bay of Bengal, through what is now known as the Blue Economy. Objectively speaking we have many more areas of convergence than areas of divergence. We are partners in BIMSTEC as well as partners in BCIM. Bangladesh wants a very close bilateral relationship with Myanmar but we want at the same time Myanmar to take a responsible and constructive position on the Rohingya issue.

In the past, and I have dealt with the Rohingya issue in 1978 as DG (IO and UN) and in 1991-92 as additional foreign secretary, when we had to deal with a massive exodus of Rohingyas into Bangladesh, because they were being systematically persecuted by the authorities in Myanmar. At that time there was no problem in referring to them as Rohingyas. Both in 1978 and again in 1991-2 we were able to persuade the Myanmar authorities to accept the return of the Rohingyas. On both occasions nearly 300,000 Rohingyas were repatriated, only a handful stayed behind in Bangladesh. The number of Rohingyas who in recent years have taken refuge in Bangladesh is well over 500,000.

Today Myanmar insists on referring to the Rohingyas as Bengalis and treating them as illegal immigrants, this was not the case in the past. The Rohingyas have been living in the Rakhine province for hundreds of years. We need to convince  Myanmar that it is in their best interest as well as in ours, to have a good working relationship with Bangladesh. I think therefore it is very important for high level meetings to continue. It would therefore be a good initiative to invite Aung San Suu Kyi to visit Bangladesh.

PA: Do you think the Rohingya problem is the biggest challenge in our foreign relations and foreign policy?

FS: It’s one of the big challenges. we have many challenges in the realm of our foreign policy and foreign relations. As I mentioned earlier, constructive engagement and balancing our relations with China and India, our ability to reach out to the global market to expand our exports, attracting more foreign investments, finding employment for nationals abroad, are all huge challenges. So I won’t say Myanmar is the biggest challenge but it is certainly one of our biggest challenges.

PA: You mentioned that in 1978 Bangladesh was successful in repatriating the Rohingyas back to Myanmar. Did China play a role in helping Bangladesh to resolve the Rohingya issue at the time?

FS: In the past, as far as I can recall, we did request the Chinese to do some quiet diplomacy. But it was the UN that played a major role. In early 1992, Jan Eliasson, who is the current deputy secretary general at the UN, visited Bangladesh and Myanmar in his capacity as under secretary general for humanitarian affairs. We also requested a number of other countries to speak to Myanmar. So I think it was a combination of countries and organisations that helped in persuading Myanmar to agree to the repatriation of the Rohingyas. Perhaps most important of all was our bilateral engagement with Myanmar.  Even though it was a military government, they were quite responsive and they were quite willing to accept the return of the overwhelming majority of the Rohingyas who had crossed into Bangladesh and who were given shelter both in 1978 and 1991-92.

PA: Could it be a flash point, because a few days ago the International Crisis Group (ICG) has come out with a new report which shows that there are some Rohingya groups linked with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia ?

FS: Yes, I have also read the International Crisis Group report and yes, I have also heard about the attempts on the part of some external groups to radicalise some of the Rohingyas. Obviously Bangladesh will need to take all possible measures to ensure that the Rohingyas do not pose a threat to peace and security. This problem needs to resolved peacefully through dialogue.

PA: The ICG report has also raised the possibility that IS and Al Qaeda-like organisation may try to exploit the situation.

FS:  Yes, we have to always be conscious and aware of the fact that both IS and Al-Qaeda will try or can try and take advantage of a situation like this where Muslims are being persecuted.  This is another reason why we need to convince our next door neighbor Myanmar to try and resolve this problem peacefully and we will obviously do everything possible to try and work together with Myanmar in ensuring that this problem is settled peacefully rather than allowing any outside elements to  aggravate or exacerbate the problem.

PA: Should Bangladesh request China and India to do something?

FS: China and India are two important neighbours of Myanmar, we should certainly seek their help, assuming that we have not done so already. The support of ASEAN is very important. I think it is noteworthy that Myanmar convened an ASEAN meeting to discuss this problem. Both Malaysia and Indonesia have been very supportive. In fact the Indonesian foreign minister has just visited us. The US, the EU, Japan and others can also play a role. But at the same time we should continue to reaffirm our willingness to resolve this problem amicably through bilateral discussions.

PA: How do you see the postponement of prime minister Hasina’s visit to India and if it is rescheduled, will it take place in February?

FS: I was told this is a scheduling problem. As I understand it both the prime ministers have multiple commitments, so it’s an issue of finding dates that will be acceptable to both the prime ministers.

PA: Now that the Chinese president has visited Bangladesh do you think our prime minister will visit  China?

FS: We have regular exchange of visits at the highest level with both India and with China. Now that president Xi Jingping has visited Bangladesh, it will now be the turn of our prime minister to visit China.  I’m sure this will happen in due course of time.

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