Unless there is a change in the form of government or there occurs a marked shift in global or regional political order, the foreign policy of any ‘normal’ country maintains continuity with its past. However, certain adjustments are made to accommodate visions of the new political leadership and to address day-to-day matters in foreign policy. As nothing has happened in the last three years that can influence the existing global or regional order, India’s policy towards Bangladesh is in continuation with what it was under Dr Manmohan Singh led United Progressive Alliance-II (UPA-II) government (2004-2014).
Settlement of the India-Bangladesh Boundary Dispute
After Indian Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi took office on 26 May 2014, his government’s first challenge on the foreign policy front was the ratification of the Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) with Bangladesh. The LBA protocol was signed by the UPA government in 2011. During his election speeches, particularly in constituencies bordering Bangladesh, Modi had stated that his government would not compromise with India's territorial sovereignty. However, soon after taking charge as prime minister, he realised the difference between electoral rhetoric and policy related realities. His government supported the ratification of the LBA by the Indian parliament, despite opposition from some of his supporters in Assam.
Later, in June 2015, the prime minister himself went to Dhaka to exchange the ratified documents with his Bangladeshi counterpart, Sheikh Hasina. The land swap exercise resulted in the exchange of 111 Indian enclaves (with a total area of 69.44 square kilometres) in Bangladesh with 51 Bangladeshi enclaves (with a total area of 28.77 square kilometres) in India and preservation of the status quo on territories in adverse possession. With the adjustment of adverse possession in the implementation of the Protocol, India received 11.23 square kilometres of land and transferred 9.17 square kilometres of land to Bangladesh. In this land swap exercise, India gave around 40 square kilometres to Bangladesh.
Before the exchange of the ratified documents of the LBA, in July 2014, India and Bangladesh also concluded their disputes over the Exclusive Economic Zone, which, unlike the LBA, was resolved through a verdict by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague. In its final verdict, the PCA awarded 19,467 square kilometres of the total 25,602 square-kilometre sea area (76 per cent) to Bangladesh, leaving 6,135 square kilometres (24 per cent) to India. The judgement also allowed Bangladesh a 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone. The government of India chose to accept the verdict.
Growing engagements between Bangladesh and China do influence India’s policy towards Bangladesh. In a bid to keep Bangladesh out of China’s sphere of influence, India increased its economic engagements with Bangladesh. During PM Modi's 2015 visit to Bangladesh, the two countries signed 22 agreements and Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs). Earlier, in 2011, India provided US$1 billion Line of Credit (LOC) to Bangladesh, which was increased to US$2 billion in 2015.
Furthermore, in 2017, during Hasina’s New Delhi visit, the two countries signed 35 agreements and MoUs. India announced the third (a new) concessional LOC of US$4.5 billion to Bangladesh. This is mainly in priority sectors to bring India’s resource allocation to Bangladesh to over US$8 billion by 2023.
Between the two bilateral visits, on 14 October 2016, Chinese President Xi Jinping landed in Dhaka. During his visit, Bangladesh and China signed 27 agreements and MoUs between the two governments, and Chinese state-owned and private entities signed 13 agreements mostly with Bangladeshi private enterprises. In total, the two countries signed 40 agreements and MoUs worth over $25 billion.
Security and Defence
More than the increasing numbers of Chinese industries in Bangladesh, it is presence of the Peoples Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) ships in the Bay of Bengal that worries India. The presence of PLAN ships has been possible due to the defence engagement between Bangladesh and China, which have been growing since 2000. To secure its strategic interests in the Bay of Bengal, India is also engaging with Bangladesh on defence and security related issues.
After two Chinese submarines joined the Bangladesh navy in November 2016, the then Indian Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar visited Bangladesh from 30 November to 1 December 2016. His delegation included the vice chiefs of the Indian army, air force, and navy along with the director general of the coast guard.
During Hasina’s 2017 visit to New Delhi, India and Bangladesh signed two agreements and seven MoUs. India announced a LOC worth US$500 million to Bangladesh for procurement of defence goods. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and others criticised this. Interestingly, an almost similar defence deal was signed between Bangladesh and China in 2002.
India has repeatedly expressed its support for Bangladesh in its fight against militancy. In May 2016, India’s foreign secretary went to Bangladesh when the then US Department of State’s Assistant Secretary, Nisha Desai Biswal, was in Dhaka. At that time, although denied by the government officials of the two respective countries, the media was rife with a rumour of India-US cooperation in tackling militancy in Bangladesh.
Teesta River Issue
In September 2011, India and Bangladesh agreed on a new percentage of water sharing from the trans-boundary Teesta River. The deal was not agreed upon because West Bengal’s Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee refused to accept it citing that she believed that Bangladesh would get 33,000 cubic feet per second (cusec) of water annually, instead of the 25,000 cusecs originally agreed upon.
Since then, Bangladesh has been trying via all diplomatic means to persuade Banerjee but the chief minister has not yet changed her position. During her visit to India in 2017, Hasina began with the Teesta River water issue and finished with it albeit she could not clinch the deal. In Bangladesh, the non-conclusion of the Teesta issue is being considered as a sign of India’s indifference towards Bangladesh’s national interests.
In the last three years, like in past, India’s policy towards Bangladesh has continued with India’s ‘over’ dependence on the Awami League leadership instead of engaging with others as well. A tactical shift is needed to adjust with the emerging socio-political reality in Bangladesh.
Views expressed are the author's own.