Maj Gen (red) ANM Muniruzzaman is the president of Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Strategic studies. In an interview with Prothom Alo, he talks about the India-China dilemma, the growing security and military significance of the Indian Ocean, Bangladesh’s geostrategic position, and more.
After the China-Indian border skirmishes, national and international media have being paying quite a lot of attention to Bangladesh’s relations with these two countries.
We have an extensive border with India and China can be considered a near neighbor too. Rather than leaning more towards any of the two, we must have equilibrium in our diplomacy with the two. This is extremely important. There is no alternative to this.
It is said that all three of these countries, including Bangladesh, are focusing on ‘economic development’ in their respective national interests.
There are certain historical conflicts between China and India. This had culminated in the 1962 war. Then for quite some years they managed to maintain a sort of impasse. However, in recent times, certain events have reopened those old historical and geographical conflicts. But I don’t think this will head towards a permanent conflict because they realise that as two rising global powers, they both have to put aside their differences. And though Bangladesh may be a small country, we have considerable regional and geostrategic significance.
Certain influential media of the region and beyond have seen the recent events in Dhaka pertaining to the Indian high commissioner and the visit of the Indian foreign secretary as signs of a ‘distancing’. How would you assess the matter?
The media always veers towards sensational reports. That is where the media’s interest lies and I find no fault in that. But I do not see any change in the pragmatic diplomacy between the two countries which is based on national interests. Bangladesh is displaying a successful balance in its relations with India and China.
I hardly think it is prudent to drag minor irritants into the much larger advancements being made. It is only natural for minor tensions to exist in any bilateral relationship. Our analysis does not show any major shift in relations. Rather than leaning towards one side, we maintain good relations with all and that is how it should be. There is no cause so far to be concerned by any sensational news.
The Hindustan Times, in its editorial, has said that India stands to lose its friendship with Bangladesh due to certain mistaken policies. What are these mistakes?
All sorts of pressures have arisen in Dhaka-Delhi relations. The people of Bangladesh are dismayed at the failure to finalise the Teesta water-sharing deal despite assurances from India’s highest political level as well as with the Citizens’ Amendment Act. But temporary tensions are very natural in any bilateral relationship.
Bangladesh faces various problems by failing to receive its fair share of Teesta water. One of the most significant among these is the environmental damage. So rather than just looking towards India for a solution, Bangladesh can very well look to its other friends to discuss the matter. For example, China has given a proposal for significant technical assistance and investment in a project for the river Teesta. Bangladesh had discussed the matter with the World Bank and ADB too earlier. But as they gave no specific assurance, Bangladesh is interested in China’s proposal. The people of Bangladesh will benefit from this project.
Some say that the proposal came from the Bangladesh side.
As far as I know, Bangladesh so far has not given China any assurance about signing the deal pertaining to Teesta. Many of us hope Bangladesh’s responds to China positively in this regard. And if this happens, I see no reason for any other country to be concerned.
We have the freedom to come to an agreement with any country in our national interests. Bangladesh reserves this right. Water sharing, ending border killings and such issues must be kept on the discussion table.
There were also speculations in the media about China lending its support in the last election and getting involved in Bangladesh’s internal politics.
We have not seen any official comments from China in this regard. Of course, bigger countries have their sphere of influence and they try to expand this through their actions. We have seen such efforts in the past on the part of both India and China.
In recent politics?
We have seen some indications of efforts to this end on the part of China in Bangladesh. However, we will never want any friendly country to interfere in our internal politics.
The US, Japan, Australia and India have formed a new bloc or Quad against China. What stance should Bangladesh adopt?
Quad is an international security forum. The US is playing a role in establishing this under its Indo-Pacific Strategy. It is carrying out naval exercises. In recent times they have been wanting France and New Zealand to join too. It is better for us not to join any such military or security bloc. But we must monitor Quad’s activities.
China and the other superpowers are very active in the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. Is Bangladesh playing its due role as a maritime power?
In my opinion, Bangladesh is an important maritime country. The strategic or geopolitical location of the Bay of Bengal places Bangladesh in an extremely important position. Bangladesh’s status is extremely sensitive and significant in light of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the US Indo-Pacific Strategy, the Quad’s maritime activities, the escalating tensions and rivalry in the South China Sea and even the tangible apprehensions of conflict.
What is to be done under the circumstances?
We must take steps in consideration of all angles. Historically speaking we know that the emergence of any superpower is normally centred on the sea. Given the geographical location of the emerging superpowers of China and India, the Indian Ocean has extreme geostrategic importance. And so Bangladesh must tread with caution. We must not latch onto any country or bloc. The Indian Ocean must not become a battlefield of the superpowers. Bangladesh must definitely adhere to maritime strategic neutrality.
If Trump loses the US election and the Democrats come to power, will there be any change in the US strategic policy in this region?
There won’t be any significant change. The strategic distance between China and the US, which is escalating up and above the existing race, will not really change. Things will remain as they are with India too. But the US’ nonchalance towards the smaller South Asian states including Bangladesh will change. The US has certain new realizations in this regard.
Many observe that the US has shifted from its erroneous policy of viewing the countries of this region (India’s neighbours) through India’s eyes.
As I was saying, the US has a new understanding about the strategic significance of the smaller states of this region. They observe that there are certain tensions prevailing in the relations India has with the other countries of the region. The US, keeping its relations with India unchanged, will opt to build up bilateral ties with India’s neighbours.
It is also being said that India is changing its stance to an extent in Bangladesh’s favour regarding the Rohingya issue. Is the rest of the world forgetting the issue?
I must differ on this point as we see no change in India’s stance on this matter. On the contrary, various powers of the world have adopted a stand against Myanmar’s military. India maintains its support for Myanmar’s military. It recently handed over submarines to Myanmar and is providing necessary training. Strong ties have been forged between India’s military and that of Myanmar.
India recently became a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council. They can use this position to take initiative in favour of Bangladesh. But we have seen nothing in that direction so far.
But China has even better relations with Myanmar, yet it is even more indifferent about the Rohingya issue. We don’t get too upset about that.
China has close ties with Bangladesh, true, but Myanmar’s strategic value to China is much stronger. It has a long border with Myanmar and it has a lot of strategic interests involved there. They have set up a deep sea port in the Rakhine state. That may have much significance where China’s energy security is concerned. That is why China votes in their favour at the Security Council.
What is the way ahead, then for Bangladesh?
We should take fresh initiative to involve India and China in resolving the Rohingya problem. But it is unfortunate that not just these two countries, but no country on the SAARC-ASEAN region is backing Bangladesh on this issue. I cannot quite pinpoint whether this is our diplomatic failure or whether there are other factors involved.
So is that why Myanmar is encouraged to deploy its troops along its border with Bangladesh?
Firstly I want to point out that Bangladesh is not friendless. We have friendly relations with almost all countries. We must convince all concerned that this problem does not belong to Bangladesh alone. If is it is prolonged, it will create a crisis for everyone. In no way do we want a situation to arise that will create conflict, no matter how minor.
And now who will Bangladesh take the coronavirus vaccine from?
Firstly, we do not want to enter any narrow vaccine politics. We can work with any friendly state to obtain the vaccine. We see an expansion of vaccine politics and vaccine diplomacy in recent times. Rather than viewing the vaccine from a humanitarian viewpoint, the superpowers are seeing it from narrow political angles. Trial of China’s vaccine was to have begun in Bangladesh, but even the third initiative taken up in this regard has been halted, I hear. China must be given this opportunity immediately. After all, they have pledged that if the vaccine is successfully manufactured, they will give it to us on a low cost and priority basis.
The proposal to obtain the Oxford vaccine through India is not acceptable. We can easily be involved in this directly with the British government and Oxford, not through any third country.
This interview appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English version by Ayesha Kabir