Bangladesh, South Asia and Myanmar in Modi's US trip

US President Joe Biden and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi meet with senior officials and CEOs of American and Indian companies in the East Room of the White House in Washington, US, on 23 June, 2023Reuters

Indian prime minister Narendra Modi landed in the United States on 21 June on a state visit. On 22 June he addressed a joint session of both the houses of the US Congress, held a bilateral meeting with President Joe Biden and attended a dinner hosted in his honour. The next day, a 58-paragraph joint statement was issued.

The joint statement highlighted all issues of bilateral relations, with discussions giving priority to defence and military cooperation. Both sides gave importance to strengthening strategic ties aimed at protecting peace and stability in Indo-Pacific region.

Before the meeting, an agreement was signed between the US company General Electric and India's Hindustan Aeronautics for joint manufacture of India's Tejas fighter jet. Also, India's defence ministry is to purchase 31 MQ 9-B predator drones from US' company General Atomics for USD 3 billion. The drones will be assembled in India. The US Navy will carry out maintenance and repairs of their vessels in India. US support for India's inclusion in the Nuclear Suppliers Group was reiterated. The two leaders expressed their satisfaction at Air India signing a deal to buy 100 aircraft from the US Boeing company.

The US' expectations regarding Bangladesh's elections were clear. However, while the matter was not brought up in official talks, it cannot be ascertained that the issue remained completely unmentioned

In the days running up to Modi's US trip, discussions in Bangladesh centered on whether the Indian prime minister would request President Biden to relax the US stance on certain recent steps taken in context of Bangladesh's election. There was a general assumption that Bangladesh had requested India to make such an appeal, though the Bangladesh government denied having made any such request. In a report of the Hindustan Times on 20 June, it was stated that Bangladesh had sought India's help to assuage its tensions with the US over its national election.

The joint statement gave no indications of any talks between the two sides regarding the recent US steps pertaining to Bangladesh. Before the trip, the 'Washington connections' of a certain think-tank in Dhaka said that India had no leverage with the US regarding its stance on Bangladesh's elections. The matter would not be raised during the talks. At the White House briefing too, the matter was sidestepped and in response to media questions, it was said that India's relations with Bangladesh was a matter between those two countries. And the US' expectations regarding Bangladesh's elections were clear. However, while the matter was not brought up in official talks, it cannot be ascertained that the issue remained completely unmentioned. We, after all, do not know what transpired during the exclusive talks between the two leaders.

Other than terrorism, Afghanistan and Pakistan, there was only a little mention of South Asia in para 28 of the joint declaration. It was said that both leaders welcomed the ongoing consultations between the two governments on regional issues including South Asia, the Indo-Pacific and East Asia and looked forward to the governments holding an inaugural Indian Ocean Dialogue in 2023.

Much more words were expended on the Indo-Pacific than South Asia in the joint declaration. As expected, there were clear signs of opposition to China. Given the prevailing adverse relations that the US and India have with China, this came as no surprise.

Similarly, there was only one small paragraph about the Myanmar situation in the joint statement. Both leaders expressed their deep concern at the deteriorating situation in Myanmar. They called for the release of all those arbitrarily detained, the establishment of constructive dialogue, and the transition of Myanmar towards and inclusive federal democratic system.

In any consideration, this paragraph is extremely generic and moderate. It has no mention of the Myanmar military junta, or the crimes committed and being committed. The matter completely ignored was the over one million Rohingyas driven out of the country. There could have been at least some mention of the repatriation of the Rohingyas to their homeland.

Not long ago, our foreign minister was invited to attend the G-20 summit of development ministers held in Varanasi, India. One the sidelines, he held a meeting with the Indian external affairs minister. In Dhaka the strong speculations were that he had made a request that during Modi's visit to the US, a request be made so that the US does not take any harsh measures regarding Bangladesh's elections. It is difficult to say whether he had actually done so. But there had been an opportunity for India to request that a few words be added regarding repatriation of the Rohingyas, since Bangladesh was facing one of its worst crises since independence.

Despite its good relations with the Myanmar junta, India at various times has spoken in favour of repatriation. America and other western countries in general too are empathetic towards the Rohingyas. So it is natural for a positive attitude to be expected from India. Among the many crises, the global community has the propensity to forget a crisis when the next one comes along. This is evident in the case of the Rohingya crisis. That is why the victim of the crisis must try to use every opportunity to bring the issue up so it remains alive in the collective memory. This was such an opportunity. Will the foreign minister and his team be a bit more alert?

* Md Touhid Hossain is former foreign secretary.