Can Bangladesh, India, and the United States fit in the same foreign policy breath? Exploring two forthcoming summits may help expose some possibilities: US President Donald J. Trump's travel to India to meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi on February 24-6, followed by Modi dashing to Dhaka on March 17 to celebrate Bangabandhu's 100th birth anniversary with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Two populists dominate one scenario, doing what populists do best, that is, make noise; in the other two South Asian neighbours will again probe what they have been probing for almost half a century: how to squeeze more juice out of an amicable status quo.
Thickening the proverbial plot is China's snowballing growth: since too many China-funded ports have bankrupted along Indo-Pacific shores, vulnerability hangs in the air in and around South Asia. Globally, Europe is splintering and Japan fading, leaving the United States alone to dampen China's surge, especially as it looks an increasingly economically wounded player. Russia could intervene, but has so far preferred not to trigger any China-US fracas, only to relish the spoils; just as late leadership bloomer, India, suddenly seems hungry for global opportunities. India clicking with the United States may not only be the sole game-changing equation from the above possibilities, but also the catalysing conjoiner of both summits.
Sure asymmetries will show in that pairing, and nowhere more so than within the regional context. Whereas the United States fully controls its own corners of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, as well as the American hemisphere, India cannot fully claim South Asia, let alone the ocean bearing its own name. Chinese footprints surrounding India suddenly matter more than those across Latin America; and they haunt other Indo-Pacific rim-land countries. Local responses/reactions have only beckoned collective action, not individual, depicting flakiness. With the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD, a post-2004 tsunami arrangement first assembled in 2007, then reassembled ten years later), safeguarding local interests in Australia, India, Japan, and the United States, their efforts to carve strategic pathways is moving too slowly. From afar, France, which boasts more sovereign Indo-Pacific territory than any local country because of its multiple-island possessions, also identifies with QUAD vibes, as the March 2018 Franco-India naval agreement exemplifies. Without 'punch' in that 'big picture', vulnerability against the Chinese avalanche only spreads. The buck could stop with Bangladesh.
Hitherto stalled at the strategic level and facing regional uncertainties and circularities, India cannot but break this impasse locally: global leadership (so deliberately avoided in the past) requires reclaiming the neighborhood first. Even if under populist thrusts, India's need to snatch Nepal and Sri Lanka back from China, prevent Afghanistan from drifting that way, and keep Bangladesh within India's own lair have begun to resonate louder.
Making Bangladesh matter on the same page as the United States has become the maiden policy priority of new Indian Foreign Secretary, Harsh Vardhan Shringla. The once popular High Commissioner in Dhaka (before that, Ambassador to Thailand, thus revitalising India's Southeast Asian interests), Shringla returns to New Delhi from an equally strategic, albeit brief, Washington stay as Indian Ambassador (the youngest ever). Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Bhutan were immediately singled out for nurturing, Afghanistan to dilute the surging Pakistan-tilted Taliban ascendance in that country, and Bhutan to dilute China's encroachment.
With Bangladesh in the middle, how India fiddles may matter the most, given the forthcoming summits. Trump's India visit allows Modi to go beyond reciprocating the regal reception he himself was accorded on his 'Howdy Modi' US visit last September, with Ahmedabad reciprocating Houston's exuberant Modi welcome. Backdoor wheeling and dealing already earmarks over $4.0 billion of defence-related supplies, such as Seahawk helicopters and Sentinel radars; surface-to-air missiles, valued just under $2.0 billion, as part of the Integrated Air Defence Weapon System; and $2.5 billion worth liquefied natural gas arrangements to facilitate Indian export-promoting investments in Louisiana. With over $20 billion worth of military purchases from the United States over the last decade or so, is India conveying a message? Trade was underplayed: India's sine qua non is GSP (Generalised System of Preferences) concessions, worth $250 million annually, affecting one-eighth of India's $60-odd billion US exports.
Behind the Ahmedabad hoopla and Delhi deals crucially lie some populist vibes. Trump courts US citizens of Indian descent, while Modi wants Trump's visit to portray India's 'big league' entry. Both feed sometimes tottering domestic supporters, but need each other. Behind the emergent and historical Taliban-US agreement lies the naked truth of failure, Trump to deliver in Afghanistan (and Syria), the United States to win its longest-ever (two-decade old) war. Two South Asian consequences: India consummating its great-power graduation, the United States finally finding its China-containment partner. India turning to Bangladesh, its most durable anchor, would re-enforce any and every India-US trade-off.
Broader still, the gung-ho US Indo-Pacific strategy would be effectively salvaged. Though largely an anti-China cordon, the United States did invite China to join (just as the United States was itself invited to join China's Asian Infrastructural Investment Bank, which it refused), but its age-old ambivalent Chinese policy approach dominates the setting. One recalls how President George W. Bush's 2005 Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership Agreement (TPSEP) got nowhere, as did President Barack Obama's Trans-Pacific Partnership (underscored by Foreign Secretary Hillary Clinton's Asian Pivot policy approach). Trump's unsavory addition of Iran and Israel to any Pacific equations raises security considerations irreversibly above economic interests. India has had to scale back Iran's Chabahar port construction (meant as an Afghan outlet and China containment gesture). It has, instead, glowed in its newly cultivated Israeli relations, building much like a World War II-type populist troika: India, Israel, and the United States, tip-toeing Germany, Italy, and Japan then. Some very unpopular Trump decisions on Jerusalem and Palestinian peace may scar India's favourable reputation in the region.
None of these can impede a more invigorated Bangla-India relationship. Modi's attendance of a special Bangladeshi day will reaffirm how Bangla-Indian relations can go beyond the robust Mujib-Gandhi dynastical nexus, partly defray Bangladesh's weariness with India's uncooperative Rohingya stand and sporadic Bangla-bashing under Modi's watch, as within the NRC (National Register of Citizens) and CAA (Citizen's Amendment Act) legislative contexts, and most of all, particularly in the wake of the China-Myanmar agreements, slow somewhat Bangladesh's China sway. Optics, like these, demands meaningful and immediate policy-making action. Loosening bilateral trade strictures and promoting regional cooperation cry out, while recent fissures show Bangladesh's capability to face India eyeball-to-eyeball without blinking. Relaxing tensions could not have come at a more opportune time for both.
Bangladesh could double India's growth-rate this very year; and at no other time has the United States stood more solidly behind Bangladesh's Rohingya stand, not to mention easing garment exports further. Indian Foreign Secretary Shringla is fully versed with these nuances, and given his Southeast Asia interests, he could be India's lightning-rod, jumpstarting bilateralism.
Diplomacy becomes an art when local nuances enter 'big picture' thinking, releasing unscripted stories, forging future anchors. Bangladesh, India, and the United States have never needed these more; but then, never before has the appropriate doctor attended leftover ailments.
Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Dean (Acting), School of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences (SLASS) and Head, Global Studies & Governance Program Independent
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