Bangladesh and India celebrated their 50 years of historic relationship in December last year. The relations between the two countries have been identified as ‘a multidimensional fraternal relationship’ – sustaining amid several challenges in the last five decades. From the 1971 Bangladesh War of Independence to the present trends, the historical ties have increasingly deepened into the comprehensive and ever-expanding area of cooperation between the two nations. In the meantime, Bangladesh’s eco-political strength and geographical proximity have made the country a hotspot for South Asian trade and connectivity – transforming it into the most valuable neighbor for India. It has also opened a bundle of opportunities for the two nations to attain sustainable development through mutual collaboration.
In addition, the growing economic significance of Bangladesh to the Indian economy and the country’s paramount status in regional security, have uplifted the mandate for a special relationship between Dhaka and New Delhi. Moreover, in a time of a new geostrategic milieu, when great powers are back in the business of allying with littoral states in the Indo-Pacific region, the importance of Dhaka to New Delhi’s strategic ambitions has increased exponentially – intensifying the need for addressing the remaining challenges and building a robust relationship that can be described as a model for bilateral relations.
As Bangladesh has become a key pillar of India’s Neighborhood First policy, it is also the largest trading partner of India in South Asia, and bilateral trade between the two countries grew at an unprecedented rate in the last few years.
As per 2016-17 data, 83 percent of the total Indian exports in South Asia were made to Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka, with Bangladesh alone accounting for 35 percent. According to the Commerce Ministry of India, Indian exports to Bangladesh amounted to $6.8 billion in the fiscal year ending March 2017, recording 13% growth. During the same time, India’s bilateral trade with Bangladesh increased by 9.9 percent to $7.4 billion.
In terms of energy, India is currently exporting more than 660 MW of power to Bangladesh. The energy cooperation has opened tremendous prospects for many Indian public sector units such as Indian Oil Corporation, Numaligarh Refinery Limited, and Petronet LNG Ltd who are working in collaboration with Bangladeshi groups in the vast energy sector of Bangladesh.
India’s eastern neighbor has also become one of the key destinations for its migrant workers. According to an estimate, Indian nationals working in Bangladesh sent almost $4 billion – making it the fifth largest destination for remittance money. Bangladesh with its new upper-middle-class population also contributes to the large tourism industry of India. The country receives the largest number of visitors from Bangladesh and more than two million visas are issued every year by the Indian High Commission in Dhaka – benefitting the Indian economy at large. According to the Press Information Bureau of India, the percentage share of Foreign Tourist Arrivals (FTAs) in India during September 2017 among the top 15 source countries was highest from Bangladesh 20.65%, while 10.24% from the USA followed by UK (7.04%), Sri Lanka (3.98%), Australia (3.5%), China (2.46%), and Nepal (2.3%).
Security and Connectivity
Security cooperation has been a major feature in Bangladesh–India bilateral ties. As India sees Bangladesh as the closest partner in ensuring security in its geographically disadvantaged northeast states, Dhaka has taken significant steps in dealing with major Indian insurgent organizations and maintained close cooperation with New Delhi in terms of intelligence sharing and security matters. In addition, Bangladesh has also entered an Extradition Treaty with India in January 2013 – addressing the security concerns of each other and strengthening mutual trust.
In terms of connectivity, both India and Bangladesh have taken arguably the most number of connectivity initiatives in South Asia which is regarded as one of the least connected regions in the world. Bangladesh has also allowed transit facilities to India – permitting it to use Bangladeshi territory to transport goods to its economically underdeveloped northeastern states. In addition, deepening connectivity through roads and railway have boosted the bilateral trade between the two countries. In recent times, Dhaka has also offered India to get access to its Chittagong and Mongla seaports which will help the northeastern Indian state’s economy on a large scale.
The China Factor & Indo-Pacific Strategy
As China has emerged as one of the leading economic powers in the world, it has built close bilateral relations with almost all the South Asian states. In terms of Bangladesh, China has replaced India as its largest trading partner in the last decade. The two countries have also maintained close security cooperation as China is the major defense equipment supplier to Bangladesh. However, such cooperation is not well received by India which wants to maintain its own hegemonic status in the South Asian region. Because many Indian experts believe that Beijing’s growing engagement with India’s neighboring countries is ‘Chinese design and India’s default’ which weakens New Delhi’s position in the region and hampers its strategic ambition. They also argue that if the Bangladesh-China relationship strengthens further, it can only be to India’s detriment.
Nevertheless, such views are rejected by Bangladesh as it wants to balance its relationship with both India and China who are its key partners in trade and security. Yet, policymakers believe that if New Delhi wants to maintain its fraternal relations with Dhaka – surpassing all limits of bilateral ties, first it needs to address the prevailing challenges which have kept Dhaka hesitant about New Delhi’s commitment to its neighborhood first policy.
On the other hand, as a key ally to the United States in its Indo-Pacific strategy to counter the Chinese influence in the region, India has joined several initiatives like the Quad, Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, etc. Since Bangladesh is positioned at the top of the Bay of Bengal – one of the key parts of the Indian Ocean, it carries significant strategic value for ensuring the objectives and interests of India and its ally. So, it is in New Delhi’s utmost interest that it maintains close cooperation with Dhaka.
Whether economically or geopolitically Bangladesh carries paramount importance to India. Thus, New Delhi should pursue its foreign policy based on fraternal principles which will never engender, even indirectly any distance between its only reliable friend in the region. To do so, it must avoid activities – undermining Dhaka’s interest and addressing the pressing issues to demonstrate its obligation to its closest neighbor. In a multiplex world order, India must act rationally to its friendly relation with Bangladesh, and it will be detrimental to India’s interest if that relation is even diluted, much less revised.
[Photo by Prime Minister’s Office, India]
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
Kazi Fahim Ahmed is currently working as a Research Intern at the East Asia Study Center, University of Dhaka, Bangladesh.