Geo-strategic importance of Bangladesh
Brig Gen Sakhawat Hussein ndc, psc (Retd)
Since the concept of large scale troops movement became part of warfare, 'strategy' became inseparable from the conduct of warfare. Strategy since then has been a constant subject of study by the commanders who would direct armies in battle. As the battle grounds became bigger and bigger involving continents, more and more geography came into play in conceptualizing the future wars. It was in the Napoleonic era that geo-strategy became the province of the commanders as well of the sovereign. Two great wars gave the concept a boost, with additional emphasis laid on it by the geographers turned geo-strategists. Geo-strategy is not absolute but some of the ingredients or factors could be absolute and the value could change with changing characters of variables. Geo-strategy is transparent yet perceptive. Therefore, one needs to understand the prevalent geo-strategic reality in the global context in general and regional context in particular. We must be clear in our understanding as to how the global reality affects the region, such as ours, which is increasingly becoming an arena of middle power rivalry involving the lone superpower by one actor or another to counter balance the adversary.
In South Asian context, the region that we are directly concerned with, rapid geo-strategic changes have to be viewed in right perspective to understand the regional geo-strategic ambience, particularly by the policy makers of peripheral countries like ours. This is essential to make a comprehensive assessment of the regional dynamics. We are part of South Asia that continues to be one of the most volatile geo-strategic regions, with three neighbouring nuclear powers. South Asia's balance of power since the Sino-Indian war of 1962 tilted completely towards India after the emergence of Bangladesh in 1971. India became the dominant power in the region with the nuclear explosion in 1974. However, this situation was not without a challenge. Pakistan, which was still recuperating from the ignominious military defeat by India, decided to counter the regional giant with equal ferocity. India's nuclear explosion pushed Pakistan into a collision course, having triggered an unholy nuclear race that continues unabated. The nuclear race culminated in 1998 in series of nuclear explosions, first by India and then by arch-rival Pakistan. The two regional antagonists became the sixth and the seventh nuclear powers. It is notable that three out of seven proven nuclear powers are Asian countries, sharing common and disputed boundaries.
Bangladesh could not remain out of the ambience of changes obtaining globally and regionally. With the changed South Asian geo-strategic scenario, Bangladesh's geopolitical importance increased due at least to three factors. First, Bangladesh began to be referred to as the third largest Muslim country in the world and as the second in the region. The second factor is Bangladesh's location within the 'geo-strategic frontier' of India, South Asia's most powerful country. And the third is Bangladesh being in close proximity with China, Asia's largest power, considered a strategic rival of both the US and India. The prevailing geo-strategic environment thus poses challenge to Bangladesh's national security aspects, particularly economic development, energy security and military growth.
Elements of Geo-Strategy
The strategic importance of a country is dependent on some variable and non-variable factors. One needs to recognize and understand the ways how these factors tend to influence a country's geo-strategic strength or its vulnerability. Let me briefly touch upon the elements I consider most important in determining the strength or vulnerability.
- Geographic setting of state and region (the most important factor),
- Military History, and
- Military prowess
Geo-Strategic Setting of Bangladesh
To fathom the geo-strategic importance of any country one has to have a close look at the map for understanding how geography alone can make a country important that ultimately influences geo-politics. Having recognised geographic location as the most important factor of geo-strategy, let us in brief examine the geographic map of Bangladesh to understand how we feature in the regional and global geo-strategy.
Needless to mention, Bangladesh is surrounded by India almost entirely on three sides except for a small but significant border of 172 miles with Myanmar in the southeast. This border is contiguous with Myanmar state of Rakhine (old Arakan). The Bay of Bengal, with shared coastline with India and Myanmar, bounds the south. Significantly, one of the strategic Indian Marine outposts, the Andaman & Nicobar Islands that is developing to be an important military base is not very far from Bangladesh. It is only about 300 miles south of Bangladesh's prime seaport of Chittagong. And in the north, Bangladesh is separated from the Himalayan kingdoms of Nepal and Bhutan by a strip of Indian territory, famously known as Shiliguri Corridor, only about 12 miles at its narrowest point. One has to pay particular attention to this geo-strategic real estate that is considered to be a strategic vulnerability to Indian national integration. The Shiliguri Corridor is a crucial determinant of Bangladesh's importance in regional geo-strategy. This particular strategic constraint of India also plays a very significant part in the national security of both India and Bangladesh.
The Shiliguri Corridor is regarded as a very sensitive strategic real estate for New Delhi, it being the only land connection with the insurgent-infested Northeastern states of India, known as the Seven Sisters. Should this land corridor be blocked by hostile action, either by internal or external elements, India would find itself cut off from its strategic Northeast. The only alternative to offset the constraint is to have a strategic corridor through Bangladesh. The importance of such an alternative route first dawned on Indian strategists during the 1962 Sino-Indian war. China threatened to cut off India's Line of Communication in the Seven Sisters, particularly in NEFA (North East Frontier Agency, now renamed Arunachal Pradesh). Thus, Indian strategists are well aware of the fact that China is capable of cutting off the vital communication line between the Northeastern Seven Sisters and rest of the Indian Union.
One must note the geographic disposition of the Indian state of Sikkim, a disputed territory between two Asian giants - India and China - since the former annexed the small Himalayan kingdom in 1975. Sikkim, however, provides easier access to India from Tibet (China) and the other way round. The most important access from India to China is through Nathu La and along Hatungla Ridge. Metal roads do exist connecting Kolkata port with the Nathu La Pass. The same route could also provide access for Bangladesh through Indian territory.
I have laid emphasis on the location of the Siliguri Corridor vis a vis Bangladesh's position in the south to highlight the importance of the transit route through Bangladesh territory to nuclear India's beleaguered Northeast, should China ever threaten India in conventional or unconventional conflict. The Bay of Bengal is fast turning into a hotbed of rivalry involving India, China and the all-powerful USA. Needless to say, this tends to enhance Bangladesh's strategic salience due to sheer proximity factor.
Changing Regional Geo-Strategic Scenario
The changed geo-strategic dynamics, following the rise of the United States as the lone superpower and the subsequent events in Europe and the Middle East, and the rapid changes in global geo-politics actually accentuated the fear-psychosis of the existing and emerging middle powers. These powers, apprehensive of the perceived threats to their national interests from state and non-state actors, are either aligning with or moving away from the predominant global power. The emerging strategic partnerships between Russia and China and between the United States and India seem to be going in opposite directions. However, the ever increasing strength of the middle powers necessitated extension of their strategic frontiers. In our region we are witnessing the strategic rivalry between India and China. India, having defied US influence for five long decades since its independence, moved much closer to the USA and established nuclear and military cooperation with Washington, shunning the spirit of the principle of non-alignment. On the other hand, Russia and China, having moved closer to each other, are trying to counter the US influence in their respective backyards.
In the backdrop of the redefined strategic frontier of the emerging Asian military giant, India, Bangladesh needs to reassess its own geo-strategic dynamics, with the focus on its opportunities and challenges. Most of all, Bangladesh needs to bear in mind its geographic location, vital for Indian integration and expansion of strategic frontier, and its non-renewable cheap energy.
Bangladesh in Indian Strategic Dynamics
It is pertinent to note the following to understand the role that Bangladesh plays in India's strategic dynamics.
- Bangladesh’s location is a strategic wedge between mainland India and Northeastern seven states of the Indian Union. Each of these states is land-locked and has shorter route to the sea through Bangladesh. Currently, Kolkata port is used by these states for both domestic and imported cargo.
- The navigable rivers in India's Northeast that could connect West Bengal or Orissa ports pass through Bangladesh.
- The only entry to and exit from the Northeastern region of India is through the Shiliguri Corridor that is close to the Chinese border and within striking distance of Bangladesh. The Shiliguri Corridor is the most sensitive 'choke point' for the Indian Union.
- Most of the Northeastern states of India are virtually under siege where decades-old insurgencies are raging unabated, particularly in Assam, Tripura, and Nagaland. These states are yet to be fully integrated with the Indian Union.
- Arunachal Pradesh (formerly NEFA), still disputed between China and India, is within close proximity of Bangladesh.
- Bangladesh provides easy land access to Southeast Asian countries that are important for India's Look East Policy.
Sino-Bangla Relations in South Asia's Changing Strategic Dynamics
China has been a constantly important factor in Bangladesh's foreign policy since the establishment of diplomatic, military and economic ties in 1976. Since then the Governments of Bangladesh of all political complexions have pursued similar China policy. In this context, the growing linkage, connectivity and possible land connection enhances Bangladesh's regional geo-strategic status particularly for the following reasons:
- China enjoys access to the Bay of Bengal through Myanmar.
- Dhaka's proposal to connect Kunming with Bangladesh by road through Mayanmar could be an alternative route for China;
Quest for natural resources: China is known to have shown interest in Bangladesh's energy sector. This assumes significance in the context when both India and China are competitors in energy sector in terms of consumption and international investment. Reportedly, India is skeptical about Sino-Bangla understanding and possible cooperation in nuclear energy sector and;
The enhanced importance of the Bay of Bengal and the perceived triangular contest there involving India, China and the USA. The facts that Bangladesh is the third largest Muslim country and one of the four Muslim democracies are strategically important.
Former BDR Chief being greeted by BSF Jawans
The China Factor in South Asia's GeoStrategy
China looms large over South Asian geo-strategic scenario. China, over the decades, has developed closer links with all South Asian countries, especially strategic relations with Bangladesh and Pakistan. This strategic relationship is factored in India's geo-strategic appreciation. Indeed, the growth of strategic relationship between Bangladesh and China has not escaped the Indian strategic analysts, particularly the last year's visit of Bangladeshi Prime Minister to China and Beijing's agreement on providing assistance to Bangladesh in nuclear power sector, apart from military cooperation. "Just before Khaleda Zia's visit, an official of the State Power Development Board stated that Bangladesh needed a 1,000 megawatt nuclear power plant to meet the growing power demand. China reportedly agreed to give assistance to Bangladesh for peaceful use of nuclear energy for medicine and electricity generation. It will provide assistance for Rooppur Nuclear Plant", writes Indian strategic analyst Anand Kumar. He expressed his apprehension regarding this stating, "China does not want to lose its influence in Bangladesh. It has attracted the country by offering cooperation in the area of nuclear energy. But this is a dangerous development in South Asia. This kind of Chinese cooperation with Pakistan had earlier resulted in proliferation of nuclear technologies. The same can happen in the case of Bangladesh….China has always been more concerned about containing India than preventing proliferation".
Relationship with China enhances Bangladesh's strategic status and relationship with Myanmar is seen as an important linchpin in the 'new emerging strategic equation in north Bay of Bengal, hotly contested by China and India'. In that context, the recent Indo-US strategic relations are regarded as synergic move by both to counter Chinese influence in South Asia in particular and in the Pacific Rim in general. Not only Indian analysts but analysts in Washington and many notable political commentators view the new synergy as a development of a counter force to China. However, these analysts fear that Indo-US synergy would not only put India on a collision course with China but may even sway Delhi's desire to close strategic gap with both Bangladesh and Pakistan.
Needless to mention, the US attention is drawn towards Chinese 'incursion in the Indian Ocean' that may become critical, should a conflict develop in East Asia over Taiwan or alleged North Korean nuclear arsenal.
What I re-emphasise is that Bangladesh's geo-strategic location is a prime concern for India as a growing world power, as Dr. Shubash Kapila puts it in one of his strategic concept papers. He contends the following:
Bangladesh lies contiguous to India's sensitive Northeast, which has been the focus of de-stabilisation through anti-Indian insurgencies by China, Pakistan and now Bangladesh, singly and jointly with Pakistan.
India's national security interests dictate that Bangladesh is not allowed to operate as a "springboard" for anti-Indian activities in any form or variety.
India's national security interests dictate that Bangladesh is not permitted to be "Talibanised". A "Talibanised" Bangladesh is not only a security threat to India but also to Southeast Asia and the United States global security interests."
Dr. Kapila's strategic concerns for India are not unique; he rather represents the mainstream geo-strategic thinkers of Delhi. It was in thus-defined geo-strategic ambit that New Delhi's reaction to the bomb blasts on 17 August 2005 is to be viewed. For long, Delhi has been accusing Bangladesh of connivance with religious extremists for expanding towards Northeast India's Muslim majority districts of Assam. India's increasing demand on Bangladesh for strategic concessions needs to be viewed in the context that most Indian strategists agree that Bangladesh is a crucially important country for India to secure its strategic frontier which goes beyond India's geographical boundary, from Hormuz to Malacca and from Pars, Iran, to Hanoi, Vietnam. To India's strategic decision makers, Bangladesh is well within its internal security parameter. That perception makes India more tremulous while dealing with Bangladesh.
What we must not lose sight of is that the increasing geo-strategic stature of Bangladesh may become its burden if we do not pay attention to our internal security as much as we should.
The author is a defence and security analyst.