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Current Affairs
CENTRAL AND S. ASIAN THEATRE - I Geo-strategic openings for Bangladesh
Friday, 25 May 2012
On May 6, Mr. Pranab Mukherjee, Indian Finance Minister and a “Kakababu’ (dear uncle) to Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina wrapped up his Tagore-brand cultural solidarity mission in Bangladesh with incidental political messages both to the Leader of the Government and the Leader of the Opposition that all the promises made by India in the Delhi joint communiqué 2010 for solution of long-standing bilateral frictions shall be honoured. Such promises include signing of the Teesta Water-sharing, implementation of Indira-Mujib land border delineation pact, cessation of extra-judicial killings of Bangladeshi farmers and traders at the borders with India by Indian Border Security Force (BSF), etc.
Yet, even as Mr. Mukherjee was meeting our leaders, news came pouring in from mofussil districts that the Indian BSF personnel had increased their terrorising practices in the Bangladesh borders, killing their targets by throwing cocktails across Indian fences, shooting guns without warning, abducting and torturing persons at random from traffic near the border in the name of eliciting information about criminal elements, and in turn indulging criminals and smugglers for bribes while victimising innocents to intimidate the public. Things came to such a pass that this week, the Foreign Ministry of Bangladesh sent a strong protest note to India over the escalation of violence by its security men at our borders. The note cited the cases of two latest fatal victims of Indian BSF. Md Durul Islam, 38, of Chapainawabganj received bullet wounds on May 16 as the BSF personnel opened fire when he was inspecting his own maize field. He succumbed to the injuries the same day. Another Bangladeshi national, Faruk Ali, also died as a result of firing by the Indian border guards in the same area on April 14. The ministry has requested India to conduct an inquiry into the incidents and take appropriate action against the BSF personnel responsible for such deplorable acts.
The note also called for immediate effective action to prevent recurrence of such incidents in the future. While registering its protest over continuation of such killings by the BSF, the ministry recalled the commitment of the Indian leadership to put an end to such acts of violence.
The ministry reminded that the Indian side had reiterated its assurance with respect to incidents of firing by the BSF at various forums, the most recent one being at the Joint Consultative Commission meeting between Bangladesh foreign minister and external affairs minister of India on May 7-8.
India doctrine
One cannot but interpret such predatory practices of border management by Indian power as coded signals that irrespective of what political leaders of the Government of India might have to say to promote camaraderie with neighbouring small fries, the “security state” of India has its own long-term agenda to pursue and its own doctrine of “ferocious” image-building for psychological dominance over its neighbourhood. But that doctrine appears of late to have had contrary effects, notwithstanding India’s continuing ascendancy as a global economic power, Global and regional balances of both military and economic power are changing fast, and the US-led process of globalisation has also its side effects of throwing together strange bedfellows. India doctrine is thus turning out to be patently detrimental to consolidation of Indian influence in the region commensurate with its real military and economic power.
Persistent unease in India’s relations with neighbours might have also somewhat modified the spirit of US-India strategic partnership. The USA is perceived now to be nurturing direct relations with all of India’s small neighbours, albeit with “non-binding” consultations with Delhi over regional geopolitics. Of late there was a lot of speculation in the media by strategic analysts about evident “downturn” in Indo-US relations, so much so that Karl F Inderfurth, a Chair of Policy Studies in the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, had to intervene with an article in the Hindustan Times published May 22 this year. The article began: “What does the New Year portend for US-India ties? The spectre of a relationship adrift or even unravelling is being bandied about. Towards the end of the 2011, several articles appeared with ominous titles such as: ‘Neglected India: why is Washington ignoring the world’s largest democracy?’ and ‘Ebb and Tide: Has the US-Indian strategic partnership bombed?’ More to the point, where might there be opportunities in 2012 to advance US-India ties, even as both capitals are suffering from various degrees of policy paralysis and moving into full campaign mode, with the presidential election in the US and a series of state polls in India.”
Inderfurth advised both countries to deepen existing initiatives, not to mistake “not now” for never, and look beyond capital ‘beltways’, as there is increasing space for more State-level and business-level interaction.
Diplomatic choreography
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had already put into practice initiatives mentioned in the third advice of Inderfurth, as was evident during the Kolkata leg of her India visit this month. Inderfurth concluded: “At the East Asia Summit in Bali last November, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh offered this assessment of the current state of Indo-US ties to President Obama: ‘I am very happy to report to you that there are, today, no irritants whatsoever in our working together on a multiplicity of areas.’ While this gracious observation by India’s PM can be seen as a bit of a diplomatic overstatement - all countries have some ‘irritants’ - it is also true that US-India ties are not adrift.”
And about the outcome of Hillary’s India visit, Jim Yardley reported in the New York Times on May 8 as follows (abridged): “Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton arrived in New Delhi this week after declaring that India should reduce imports of Iranian oil and comply with Western sanctions. Yet across town, India and Iran were trying to figure out ways to do business together.
“No doubt, this week’s diplomatic choreography — with the Americans on one side of the capital and the Iranians on the other — could easily have been interpreted as a deliberate provocation at a moment when the once-shiny partnership between India and the United States seems to have dulled. But if the scheduling was poorly planned, the situation actually provided an illuminating window into the realpolitik of Iranian sanctions and of how the United States and India, as well as China, are all trying to achieve their divergent goals.
“China and India had already rejected the threat of sanctions and vowed to act in their national interests. The Obama administration called on both countries to make significant reductions of imports.
“Indeed, both countries now have arrangements to buy Iranian oil in their domestic currencies — rather than the dollar — that could increase their exports to Iran and also make Iranian oil cheaper.
“The Obama administration, which has courted India as a geopolitical partner, recognizes that India has its own interests to defend: Indian leaders want to maintain good relations with Washington, and avoid crippling sanctions, yet India is heavily dependent on foreign oil, meaning that drastic reductions could damage an already wobbling Indian economy.
Tug of war
“Indian officials believe India has made the ‘significant reductions’ (and) met the American demand, and many analysts expect the Obama administration officials to grant an exemption during a high-level Strategic Dialogue between the two countries next month in Washington.
“In New Delhi, Mrs. Clinton .... used a brief news conference to praise India as ‘a strong partner,’ adding that India and the United States share a common goal of preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. ‘We commend India for the steps its refineries are taking to reduce its dependence on imports from Iran. And we have been consulting with India, and working with them on some areas on alternative sources of supply. There’s no doubt that India and the United States are after the same goal,’ she said.”
Indian analyst Alok Bansal, on the other hand, wrote in rediff.com: “United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to New Delhi last week was to prepare ground for the next US-India Strategic Dialogue to be held in Washington. The visit could be termed as relatively lackadaisical, even though it included all the statements that an Indian audience would love to hear from a visiting dignitary. In fact, her visit was marred by the simultaneous visit of an Iranian trade delegation to boost India-Iran trade relations, consequent to restrictions placed on trade with Iran by the Western banking channels.
“India has recently overtaken China and is the largest destination for Iranian oil exports. Iranian crude accounts for 13 percent of India’s oil needs and unfortunately for India, there is no cost-effective viable substitute. More significantly, despite large reserves, Iran lacks refining capacity and this allows many Indian refineries to export petroleum products to Iran. Some of the private Indian refineries are totally dependent on Iran.
“Most critical vulnerability for India is Iran’s ability to destabilise the Persian Gulf region and disrupt maritime access to the Gulf through the Straits of Hormuz. The region has 54 per cent of global oil reserves and 40 per cent of global gas reserves and any disruption of supplies from the region would lead to the oil and gas prices skyrocketing, which could be catastrophic for a growing economy like India.
“India officially does not recognise unilateral sanctions imposed by the US and asserts that it will pursue its national interests to ensure its energy security. However, India in its own subtle way is cutting down its dependence on Iranian oil.
‘High point Kolkata visit’
“If her (Secretary Clinton’s) visit to New Delhi was lackluster, it was her visit to Kolkata, where she went before New Delhi that could be termed as the high point.
“Clinton visited non-governmental organisations and schools, and won quite a few hearts in the traditional bastion of communism in India.
“Her Kolkata visit was a follow-up on her visit to Chennai in July 2011, where she had spoken about India’s historical role in East and South East Asia and had reminded the audience that ‘the stretch of sea from the Indian Ocean through to the Pacific contains the world’s most vibrant trade and energy roots linking economies and driving growth.’ The visits to Chennai and Kolkata signify the enormous economic opportunity that the US sees in this region. It was also probably an attempt to apprise the regional satraps about the enormous economic dividend that could be tapped by following pragmatic policies.  She also talked of Kolkata becoming an important hub on the new Silk Route connecting the economies of East, Central and South Asia.”
It is in the context of “the New Silk Route vision” of reshaped Clinton-Style US foreign policy of “civilian power” balance that we shall examine next week in the second part of this article the shrinkage of Indian initiatives and opening of geo-strategic space for Bangladesh in the Central and South Asian theatre.