August 7, 2011
M. Serajul Islam
During her recent visit to India, US Secretary of State Mrs. Hillary Clinton gave a very important speech on the shape of things to come, in US’ perception, in international politics in South, Central, Southeast Asia and the Pacific. She categorically mentioned that “much of the history of the 21st century would be written in Asia” and in that, the government and the people of India would lead. She sought for her country a partnership in India’s emergence as a world power.
By any analysis, this is a grandiose vision. It places India in a position where USA is seeking India’s attention in world affairs and not the other way round. In fact, reading the speech between the lines, one is left with the indelible impression that the Secretary has gone out of her way not just to make the Indian government happy but all Indians. Towards that, she praised the Indian Election Commission for becoming the “global gold standard for running elections”.
Some would entirely agree with the Secretary’s vision. Some would want to raise a few questions while agreeing with the vision either partially or even to a large extent. Then there are others who see in China a Super Power in waiting who would reject the whole basis of the Secretary’s vision on the ground that she has ignored China’s role in the emergence of Asia on the world stage.
The speech nevertheless underscores unequivocally India’s importance and emergence in world affairs. While the idea of the US and India forming a new alliance for the 21st century may or may not interest a lot of people not in the region or thereabouts, for Bangladesh and other countries in the region this is an alliance that needs to be examined at length, particularly what prospects it can bring them or problems it can cause them.
In her eagerness to woo India, Mrs. Hillary Clinton has given South Asia to India as its sphere of influence. She has also encouraged India to become a leader in Central, Southeast Asia and the Pacific. It is in suggesting for India a role in Southeast Asia and Pacific that the Secretary has brought China into the equation even without mentioning its name. In her entire vision for Asia statement, she has not mentioned China by name. Yet, the entire vision is shaped by US’ efforts to contain China from dominating Southeast Asia and the Pacific where it is pursuing its interests aggressively.
The praises for India are therefore intentional to take India on board to contain China in the Pacific that the US considers its backyard and in Southeast Asia. The vision statement of the Secretary has been in preparation for quite some time. It is with this vision of an Indo-US alliance aimed at China that the United States under President Bush made efforts to win India’s friendship. Towards that, the US helped India to become a member of the prestigious Nuclear Suppliers’ Group that brought India back from its pariah status for building the nuclear bomb and opened its door to enter into civil nuclear deals with the nuclear states, including the US, for peaceful use of nuclear energy.
The new Indo-US alliance should cause a few worries for Bangladesh in the context of the initiatives it has taken for a paradigm shift in its hitherto contentious bilateral relations with India. In expectation of great things from India on its long standing grievances on water sharing, trade deficit, land border and maritime issues, Bangladesh has given to India land transit from its mainland to its northeastern states and a full guarantee for its security concerns. In other words, Bangladesh has bargained off its playing hands for Indian promises.
The promises have not been just resolution of its long demands on water and the rest but on becoming a hub for regional connectivity. Bangladesh has been promised or so our government has been led to believe that roads from Bangladesh would not just go to India’s impoverished Seven Sisters but also to Bhutan, Nepal, Myanmar and China. The connectivity promise would bring Bangladesh great economic fortunes.
The Indo-US vision could be a hindrance in fulfillment of this promise. If China is the perceived threat of this vision, would India be interested in linking China to the Indian northeastern states? The northeastern states are still very unstable and insurgencies there in which China in the past played an active part have still not been fully controlled. Then again, China and India still have very major land related issues involving huge areas unresolved over which the two countries fought a war in 1962. With all these problems, it would not be very wise for Bangladesh to believe that India would help Bangladesh become the regional connectivity hub with China in the loop.
Without China, the promise of rich economic dividends accruing to Bangladesh from connectivity does not appear likely. India’s northeast states are very poor with many formidable obstacles, many involving the states themselves. While rest of India has grown fast enough to attract the world, the growth rate in the Seven Sisters is in the low single digit. It is not that these States have been waiting for Bangladesh’s land transit to develop. It is time for Bangladesh to look deeper. The reasons for India seeking the land transit to the northeast states may not be all economic.
In a recent seminar in Dhaka, Indian delegates cautioned Bangladesh not to expect too much from connectivity to avoid disappointment. Perhaps they know things that our foreign policy makers do not, like for example the complex nature of the Seven Sisters. The agreement signed by the two countries during the recent visit of the Indian Home Minister on the joint border management deserves more scrutiny. With the border fenced and sealed and the control in Indian hands, what is India afraid of? A joint patrolling with India will allow Indian armed troops inside Bangladesh soil that is not a good thing at all. The troops will bring back memories of Felani and many hundreds of others who have been shot and killed by Indian BSF in cold blood and encourage anti-India feelings. Why could the Indian Home Minister not assure Bangladesh that no more innocent deaths would occur instead of telling us that Delhi has issued instructions against such killings?
The US Secretary of State’s vision statement of a new era of Indo-US relations thus needs to be examined in the context of the government’s initiatives with India lest we are caught on the wrong foot. We need to be cautious about an Indo-US alliance that could distance us from China that is more assured of becoming the next Super Power than India writing much of the history of 21st century.
The writer is a former career diplomat and retired Ambassador to Japan.