Vol. 5 Num 626 Fri. March 03, 2006  

Implications of India-US defence pact

Though an ally for a long time, India voted against Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) meetings twice, apparently to: (a) strengthen the US-India alliance, (b) legitimise India's nuclear weapons, and (c) obtain great power status, and perhaps on sudden realisation of the virtues of nuclear electricity.

However, things do not appear to be as smooth or inspiring as it seems. With growing rhetoric and possibility of a confrontation, Indian government is becoming increasingly nervous at the reference of Iran to the Security Council to abandon its nuclear plans. However, US has realised that UN sanctions on Iran may be possible only through tough diplomacy. US considers Iran as "central banker" for global terrorism, a partner with Syria in destabilising the Middle East, despite the claim of Bush administration that its "war on terrorism" is successful we hardly see any sign of it.

On the contrary, she is destroying the economy of Iraq, killing innocent Iraqi civilians and demolishing a large number of historical sites. In its striving to control firmly Iraqi oil, the recent destablisation of oil market is seriously affecting the growth of developing countries, particularly the non-oil producing least developed countries. In Afghanistan, the common Afghanis appear to be in favour of withdrawal of UN forces from their soil. In Pakistan, it is not certain as to how long Pervez Musharraf will be able to contain the growing anti-US feeling.

Even if we assume that Iran has secret nuclear ambitions, other members of the UN perhaps do not have the moral right to object. After all, Pakistan, India, and Israel have built the bomb. If these countries can get away with their atomic arsenals, why shouldn't Iran? There is no morality that enjoins that India, Pakistan, and Israel can have nuclear bomb, but not Iran. The fear that Iran will eventually dominate large parts of the Middle East appears to be rather speculative. The fact is that US desires to remain dominant everywhere.

The growing closer relation between India and the US may not help establishing the envisaged peace in South Asia. Neither can it be overlooked by China or Russia. India may lose its image as a sober, neutral, and peaceful country. This will encourage her small neighbours to develop closer relationship with China.

US-South Asia relationship vacillated between "close embrace and uneasy distance" for the last five decades. Bangladesh-US relationship was not friendly at independence, it started changing with the visits of presidents Zia and Ershad to the US. A number of developments between 1990s and the early 21st century helped in strengthening of US-Bangladesh relationship. Among these developments were Bangladesh's participation in US-led Gulf War coalition against Iraq, US assistance to Bangladesh to recover from devastating cyclone in 1990, and the first ever visit of a sitting US president (Bill Clinton).

In 2003, former US Secretary of State Colin Powell stated that "Bangladesh's democracy, Bangladesh's economic progress, Bangladesh's friendship and Bangladesh's people do matter to the US." Pakistan is already an ally and strategic partner of US. The other prime object of US attention is India. The US wants India to undertake regional responsibilities commensurate with its growing power. The strengthening of Indo-US bilateral relations will have implications for Bangladesh and other countries in South Asia. As far as Bangladesh is concerned, US attention to Bangladesh is because it is a democratic moderate Muslim country as compared to Jordan, Egypt, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and other US allies in the Muslim world.

It would be relevant to discuss in this regard about Bangladesh's present relationship with China. Because of very rapid growth of China (average around 9 per cent) over the last two decades, the US is showing concern. China has consistently a diplomatic strategy with two basic goals: to maintain a peaceful environment conducive to its economic development and to minimise the scope for the US and its allies to slow down China's rise. It has its own set of strategic interests to prevent rise of any peer or competitor or rival in Asia. It particularly seeks to keep India's power and influence confined within its borders and to enhance China's influence in South Asia.

China regards Bangladesh as having the potential to facilitate its security interests in the region. In fact, Bangladesh can play a vital part in promoting Chinese interests in the regional order. It can connect south western China with South Asia by a land route. Bangladesh along with Myanmar can provide Chinese access to the Bay of Bengal and to the Indian Ocean.

Both India and the US consider Bangladesh-China present relationship at acceptable level. However, within a decade or so, Bangladesh will have to reassure them that it is not siding with China against India. The signing of Bangladesh-China defence cooperation agreement has, however, raised suspicion in India as to its scope and intent. For strategic reasons, Bangladesh will have to be more attentive to China's political goals and show deference to its geo-political interests, views, and values. Once South Asia comes within China's sphere of influence, the situation would render China a power in South Asia too, and make its participation in any regional forum, security or otherwise, inevitable. If the US continues to prosecute its unproductive, indefinite, and costly war on terrorism, its economic power as well as its capacity for leadership may attenuate, resulting in the erosion of US political and military role in the Asia-Pacific.

The recent US-India defence pact may have serious implications for the arms race and raise strategic questions regarding relations with China. China-India-Pakistan triangular relationship is a vital factor for South Asian peace. Bangladesh's internal security situation has become worse. The Islamic extremists are conducting repeated bomb raids. The government response to deal with them is inadequate so far. If India-China relationship deteriorates due to increasing US interest in Indian affairs, Bangladesh will be in a difficult situation as to whom to support -- India or China.

As we see from our experience during the last five decades or so, China has proved to be a very trusted ally. Thus it may be a folly for us to damage or destroy our relationship with China to satisfy either India or the US. Our defence, economic, and technological capability should certainly improve rapidly to make our country self-reliant. We also need to develop mutual trust and confidence with other neighbours of the region. Our policymakers must carry out a true socio-political study to determine exactly the loss and profit for our people.

A.B.M.S. Zahur is a retired Joint Secretary.