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Saturday, January 31, 2009
Strategic Issues

The geostrategic scenario of Bangladesh-Part II

INDIA is Bangladesh's closest neighbour. India shares its longest border (2,840 km) with Bangladesh. Although the border is demarcated, there are a few unresolved issues such as enclaves and adverse possessed lands - legacy from the colonial past. The issue of water sharing of common rivers, especially of the Ganges and the barrage built across it in Farakka, West Bengal had been the greatest irritant. Some issues remain unresolved mainly due to bureaucratic dillydallying and political backsliding. More recently, the maritime boundary issues have come up. The position of the two countries on this issue is not too divergent and given the political will, the issue could be resolved to the satisfaction of both the parties. Arms and drugs smuggling, human trafficking, movement of criminals and extremist elements across the border are of common concern to both the countries. Thankfully, these issues are receiving due attention of both the governments.

India is one of Bangladesh's largest trading partners and a fast growing export destination. There is also a bright prospect of Indian investment in Bangladesh economy. She had long been seeking direct road and rail access to the northeastern states through Bangladesh, thus avoiding the circuitous route through the Shiliguri Corridor. Some quarters within Bangladesh felt that allowing transit rights to India would amount to surrendering national sovereignty. These critics, of course, cannot explain why sovereignty is threatened in case of road or rail transit, but not in case of river or air transit that already exist since Pakistan period. We need to devise a win-win situation where Bangladesh allows Indian transit on payment of appropriate toll, and in return, gains greater access into the huge Indian market. The Treaty could provide important advantage for Bangladesh in its relationship with India. The same could be said about the opening up of the Chittagong port for the NE states of India. The road, rail, and maritime link between Bangladesh and India, and then the rest of Asia will be a major source of earning and will attract huge investment and trade. Opening up of Chittagong port for external users will mean generating greater revenue that will provide for modernization and expansion of port facilities. In fact, additional traffic could further justify a deep-sea port near Chittagong. We have been pushing back for too long on Asian Rail and Highway networks that are planned to connect Bangladesh with the rest of Asia. The network aims to provide seamless access to goods and passengers traveling across frontiers as are done in Europe or the Americas. If the Government continues to drag its feet, the planned network will bypass Bangladesh and reach Assam, Myanmar and beyond through the Shiliguri Corridor.

Bangladesh-China Relations
China is a major trading partner of Bangladesh as well as a major supplier of her weapons and armament. While Bangladesh looks up to China as a strategic partner, China's response to such overture has been lukewarm at best. Chinese economic assistance while small in volume has been more visible, such as the Friendship Bridges. Bangladesh's response to the adverse trade with China has largely remained muted. However, in future, there is good prospect of balanced, two-way trade with China, especially if the road and rail link is established with eastern China and if road link could be established with Tibet via India. Meanwhile, Bangladesh, along with India, must continue its effort to dissuade China from damming the Brahmaputra for that would bring about a great human tragedy throughout Eastern India and Bangladesh. While China emerges as a global economic and military power, our close and intimate relation with her becomes a strategic necessity.

Bangladesh-Myanmar Relations
Bangladesh's attempt to foster close relationship with Myanmar had often been thwarted by the military junta in Yangon that had been keeping the country closed for five decades. Bangladesh had to take care of thousands of Rohingya Muslims refugees for decades who were pushed out of Myanmar. While the land boundary was demarcated in the '70s, the maritime boundaries between Bangladesh and Myanmar remain a potential source of conflict. Their respective claims are widely divergent on a piece of sea territory that is rich in energy and marine resources. The naval forces of Myanmar and Bangladesh came face to face in the Bay of Bengal in November 2008 after an oil and gas exploration attempt by Myanmar in an area claimed by both the countries. Though the tension has been subsequently diffused the crisis is far from over. It is of utmost importance for Bangladesh to develop close and friendly relations with her neighbour while not compromising her vital national interest.

Bangladesh and SAARC
Bangladesh, as a proponent of regional cooperation, had always paid a leading role in SAARC. Yet there has not been a substantial progress in regional peace and amity, mainly due to India-Pakistan rivalry. The so-called SAARC spirit of cooperation and fraternity is looking frail today due to the simmering hostility between India and Pakistan. In the current crisis, the smaller member states of SAARC are only bystanders, unable to do anything to defuse the crisis. Despite the prevailing gloom, Bangladesh, along with other SAARC members, should continue efforts to better relations between the two major partners. The problems facing the SAARC countries can be best faced regionally be it terrorism, poverty reduction, climate change or job creation. Bangladesh, having excellent relation with all member states, could be a catalyst for future cooperation within SAARC.

Bangladesh and the World
Bangladesh maintains close diplomatic and economic links with North America and the EU. These two regions are the major destination of our export and are important sources of development assistance. We have a special relationship with the UK within Commonwealth. Our relationship with Japan, Korea and the countries in Southeast Asia are very important for trade, commerce, investment and economic assistance. Bangladesh's special relationship with the members of the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC) needed to be mentioned. The Gulf Arab states are important as a source for our energy resources. They are also vital to our economic wellbeing because of the remittance that we receive from our workers in the region. The downside of our relations with the Gulf States has been an inflow of extremist religious ideologies that originate there and are officially patronised by some of these states. Bangladesh is an active member of the UN and its many agencies. It is one of the largest contributors of military and police forces to the worldwide Peace Keeping Operations (PKO). High degree of professionalism shown by our forces around the world had earned admiration of the world community.

Geostrategic Priorities
As we near the end of the first decade into the 21st century, we need to reassess our geostrategic challenges and prospects for the future. Some of the national priorities can be tabulated as follows:

* Allocate more resources for education. Ensure that the resources are spent to produce enlightened citizen fit to meet the challenges of our time.

* Attract foreign and domestic investment and expand our export basket. Encourage investment from China and India to raise their stake in the welfare of Bangladesh. Seek additional market access into those countries.

* Improve border relations with neighbours. Demarcate land boundary and settle enclave issues. Effectively check human, drugs and arms trafficking.

* Create a Counter Terrorism Operations Centre, manned by security personnel from all South Asian countries, to fight the scourge of terrorism jointly.

* Ensure that no country's territory is used to harbour terrorists or to train them to launch attack on another country. Ensure accountability of intelligence agencies to their respective governments.

* Enter into Asian Highway and Trans-Asian Railway network. Initiate discussion with India regarding surface transit, port and airport facilities. Ensure that it is a win-win situation for all parties involved.

* Negotiate with India on sharing of water of all common rivers. Create public opinion within India, especially in Assam, against Tipaimukh Dam. Along with India, try to dissuade China from damming and diverting Brahmaputra River.

* Develop a South Asian Power Grid to interconnect countries of the region so that electricity can be purchased and sold across the frontiers like any other commodity.

* Enter into dialogue with India and Myanmar on the delimitation of Maritime boundary. Revive talks on Myanmar-Bangladesh-India Gas Pipeline Project with the provision of Bangladesh tapping onto the gas supplies when needed.

The author is a freelancer.

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