Dhaka University’s professor of international relations, Imtiaz Ahmed, talks to Prothom Alo’s AKM Zakaria about the geo-politics of this region, Indo-China relations, Bangladesh’s stance in the competition between these two countries, and the recent controversial statement of the Indian army chief.
Prothom Alo: The Indian army chief has said that Pakistan and China were behind a planned influx of Muslims from Bangladesh into India. Indian army chiefs normally do not make such political statements. What could the reason be behind such a statement?
Imtiaz Ahmed: Such a statement is unfortunate and unwarranted. We must look into why he made this comment. It is clearly a political statement, so this might reflect the army chief’s personal political ambitions. He will be retiring and may, for some reason, be wanting to appease the ruling party BJP. It also may have something to do with the ongoing elections in India’s northeastern states.
Prothom Alo: What impact will this remark have on bilateral and regional politics?
Imtiaz Ahmed: Actually there has long been such talk in Indian politics about migration from Bangladesh. This is a matter of domestic politics and they use this issue politically. As this issue is brought up repeatedly, it has an impact at a state level too. The anti-Bangladesh and anti-Muslim attitudes may increase in India because of such statements. We have seen and still see similar practices in Bangladesh’s politics. Anti-Indian politics are instigated here. Despite initiatives to improve relations between these two countries, these attitudes haven’t changed. The Indian army chief’s remark may have both communal and political impact. Anti-Indian feelings may increase in India and anti-Indian feelings may increase in Bangladesh. The anti-Indian quarters in Bangladesh will be pleased with such statements because they can easily cash in on this.
Prothom Alo: Prime minister Sheikh Hasina recently told India that it should not be anxious about Bangladesh’s relations with China. Is India uneasy about China-Bangladesh relations? Why did the prime minister have to reassure India?
Imtiaz Ahmed: Our prime minister probably said this in reply to a question by Indian journalists.
Prothom Alo: That means there is a sense of uneasiness in India about Bangladesh’s relations with China and that is why the journalists raised this question.
Imtiaz Ahmed: Actually, relations between China and India are very complex. The 1962 war still casts a shadow and India cannot forget that defeat. This is reflected in Indian cinema, literature, intellectual discourse and politics. And yet, given the present-day situation, India has the most trade with China. In fact, the highest number of Indian students goes to China for higher studies. The two countries have regular summit meetings. But India cannot accept any of its neighbours building up economic or trade ties with China. Our prime minister probably wanted to make it clear that just as India maintains economic relations with China for the sake of development, so does Bangladesh.
Prothom Alo: What lies behind India’s uneasiness? Is it the Chinese president’s visit to Bangladesh and the commitment of huge financial assistance? Or Bangladesh’s purchase of submarines from China?
Imtiaz Ahmed: The problem is that India’s foreign policy is not as sophisticated as it should be. India perhaps felt, given the manner in which it supported the present government during the last election, Bangladesh would do nothing against its wishes. But Bangladesh is strengthening ties with China, has purchased submarines from them. India perhaps is not pleased with all this. If that is so, then it must be said that India’s foreign policy lacks maturity.
Prothom Alo: India’s influence on Sri Lanka, Nepal and the Maldives has waned in recent times. Why do you think this is so?
Imtiaz Ahmed: I feel India sees two models among its neighbouring states. One is Pakistan and the other is Bhutan. That is how they view the neighbours, but they must understand this is not how things are to be viewed. Bangladesh is in no way Pakistan. Bangladesh wants to maintain ties of friendship with India. At the same time, it is not possible to control things in Bangladesh the way India does in Bhutan. India has harmed its own position in trying to do so in Sri Lanka and Nepal. Anti-Indian sentiment has increased in those countries. There have also been changes in politics. The political parties in Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh have a sort of consensus about improving economic relations with China. But India is not binging about any changes to its foreign policy. India itself will maintain economic ties with China but will not allow its neighbours to do so. This is hardly a sign of maturity.
Prothom Alo: Bangladesh’s relations with China are not simply economic. Bangladesh has a long history of arms procurement and military relations with China.
Imtiaz Ahmed: Bangladesh has historic ties with China. When a country purchases arms, it naturally wants to procure arms different from its neighbours. There is no reason for India not to understand this. All countries do this. About the submarines, India has to understand that now Bangladesh’s maritime boundary has been determined. There is need to protect this, to be vigilant against trespassing pirates and unlawful fishing. Procuring submarines for the purpose is much more cost effective for the navy than purchasing a large number of vessels. Bangladesh is a nuclear power and has a strong navy. If India cannot accept Bangladesh purchasing arms or two submarines from China, then what can be said?
Prothom Alo: It is important for countries like Bangladesh to maintain a balance in the race between India and China to gain dominance in the region’s geopolitics.
Imtiaz Ahmed: There are certain psychological aspects to the competition between India and China and certain strategic aspects too. India is making certain changes in its attitude. Actually India’s bureaucracy doesn’t understand China as well as Indian businessmen do. While India is not officially involved in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, its businessmen are eager about this.
Then there are certain strategic reasons behind India wanting to keep up the hostilities with China. If it can display its adversity with China, it can gain favour with the US and the West. India has already gained benefits from the US in the form of nuclear and military cooperation. India knows that its hostility with China will not reach a level of actual conflict. It is strategically necessary to maintain its adversity with China.
Prothom Alo: Under such circumstances, how does a country like Bangladesh maintain ties with both the big countries?
Imtiaz Ahmed: The relations should be extensively economic. Bangladesh can take initiative to hold an economic summit with India and China. It will be a win-win situation for all three countries. It will particularly benefit India’s northeastern states in economic terms. Bangladesh has the scope to play an important role in this connection. After all, Bangladesh has no enmity or competition with either of the two large countries and no territorial disputes either.
Prothom Alo: India and China have clearly sided with Myanmar over the issue of the oppression of the Rohingyas and the refugee crisis. China has historic ties with Myanmar, but India’s stand in Myanmar’s favour is surprising. Why did Bangladesh not get India by its side?
Imtiaz Ahmed: We feel India has made a serious mistake. The Rohingya issue had given India’s prime minister Narendra Modi an opportunity to exert his leadership and to play a role. India’s policymakers failed to use that opportunity. The incidents taking place in Myanmar’s Rakhine state have been internationally recognised as ethnic cleansing, genocide and crimes against humanity. In 1971, India won international acclaim for standing beside Bangladesh against the genocide. But that position has been weakened by its silence concerning the Rohingya issue. India should realise it cannot go anywhere near China’s economic strength. Even the US cannot do so. India cannot win in any economic competition with China. And given Myanmar’s historic ties with China, there is no way that India can extract Myanmar from China’s grasp. What has happened in the meantime is that India has lost the support of the Bangladeshi people due to its stand on the Rohingya issue. Who knows whether this was retaliation on the part of India against the procurement of submarines and financial support from China?
Prothom Alo: What about China’s role in the Rohingya issue?
Imtiaz Ahmed: China exerted its veto in the Security Council in favour of Myanmar. After that, China’s foreign minister came to Bangladesh and proposed a three-phase solution to the problem. He made the same proposal in Myanmar. It was based on this that finally an agreement came about between Bangladesh and Myanmar. China, in whatever way, played a role in this regard. India failed to do so.
Prothom Alo: Apprehensions steadily grow as to how effective the agreement between Bangladesh and Myanmar will be. Is there anything for Bangladesh to do now regarding the Rohingya issue?
Imtiaz Ahmed: India and China have a similar stance when it comes to Myanmar. But the two countries can resolve the crisis. I feel our prime minister should visit Beijing and Delhi specifically on the Rohingya issue. Such visits can prove to be effective.
Prothom Alo: Bangladesh has always maintained a balance between the two countries and taken the sensitivities into consideration. Bangladesh had almost finalised a deal with China for the construction of a deep sea port at Sonadia but this fell through at the last moment due to objections from India.
Imtiaz Ahmed: China’s foreign policy is different from the foreign policy and strategies of other countries. China takes time and perseverance in building relations. If there are obstructions, they simply move to a new effort. They do not linger over what is done and over. They adopt a policy of wait and see. China showed no sign of displeasure or exasperation over the failure to sign the Sonadia deep sea port deal. China’s president visited Bangladesh and made commitments for massive assistance. Bangladesh should take initiative so all concerned can be involved in such a framework. If necessary, a deep sea port can be brought about with joint investment of India and China. After all, China, India and other neighbouring countries will all benefit from a deep sea port in Bangladesh. China has huge investment in Colombo’s sea port, yet India uses that port. After all, a port isn’t built to serve just one particular country.
Prothom Alo: At a seminar recently held in Delhi, Indian experts said that Bangladesh wasn’t given due attention in India’s diplomacy despite Bangladesh’s geopolitical importance in the region. What would you say?
Imtiaz Ahmed: India’s policymakers view their neighbours from the perspective of the map. Bangladesh is much smaller in size than India. But they must understand that the map is not everything. It does not reveal geopolitical importance, strategic importance and economic importance. The importance of Singapore of South Korea cannot be judged by the size of these countries on the map. Bangladesh is the world’s seventh largest country based on the size of its population. It would in no way be wise to overlook a country with such a large population. India must understand its own interests are linked to Bangladesh’s development and stability. Bangladesh’s under-development or instability will not bode well for India. Bangladesh is doing better than India in many sectors Now will India be resentful about this or support the advancement? India must understand that development of Bangladesh and is neighbours are important in its own interests. Indian policymakers must accept this reality and act accordingly.
Prothom Alo: India quite openly supported Bangladesh’s last one-sided election. Now another election is up ahead. What do you think India’s stance will be this time?
Imtiaz Ahmed: India has gained some experience over the past four years. They perhaps realise now that simply supporting the ruling party will not necessarily mean that everything can be extracted. Actually it was possible for such elections to take place in Bangladesh due to our own political foibles. I do not think this time India will want to directly back any one particular party. I think they will be eager for an inclusive election with the participation of all political parties.
Prothom Alo: Thank you.
Imtiaz Ahmed: Thank you too.
*This interview, originally published in the print edition of Prothom Alo, has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir