Despite some difficulties, Bangladesh is the number one place to engage all three big powers – India, China and the United States – in a bridging role, a Singapore-based foreign affairs analyst said.
“Anything to do with China and India has a shadow over the United States as well. And so I think Bang-ladesh is the number one place to engage all three in a bridging role,” Professor Kanti Prasad Bajpai, Vice Dean, Lee Kuan Yew School, National University of Singapore said.
He was speaking at a discussion this week as part of Cosmos Dialogue Distinguished Speaker’s Series, entitled “China-India Relations: Implication for South Asia.”
“I think its (Bangladesh’s) diplomatic links with both China and India, probably the strongest amongst all the countries of South Asia. The kind of positive equidistance that Bangladesh has between China and India probably no other country in this region can match. It also has fairly good relations with the Unit-ed States,” Prof Bajpai said.
The discussion was chaired and conducted by President of Cosmos Foundation and renowned scholar-diplomat and former Advisor on Foreign Affairs of Bangladesh Caretaker Government Dr Iftekhar Ah-med Chowdhury.
Chairman of Cosmos Foundation Enayetullah Khan delivered welcome address while former Bangladesh High Commissioner to India and former Ambassador to the United States Tariq A Karim, among others, spoke.
Enayetullah Khan said Prof Bajpai deals extensively with the question of whether China and India can cooperate, since this is a relationship that is at the core of global geopolitical speculation and angst in recent times.
Dr Iftekhar said handling India and Bangladesh simultaneously called for unusual diplomatic deftness, not easy to muster for the smallest and the weakest among the three State actors.
“However, Bangladesh could not afford to shy away from it,” he said, adding that the logical option was to attempt to manage both India and China.
The scholar said Bangladesh has had two foreign policy aspirations: the first was its search for security and preservation of its sovereignty, and the second was its quest for development and economic welfare.
The first required the space for the maintenance of sufficient maneuverability in policymaking, particu-larly as it was a weaker neighbour bordering a far larger state, India, he said.
There was the consequent felt need in Bangladesh to live “in concord with ‘but ‘distinct from’ that pow-erful neighbour, said the scholar, adding that the concord was necessary because of Bangladesh’s geog-raphy-it was virtually ‘India-locked’ and the need to remain distinct was essential as Bangladesh’s own sovereign identity could only be defined in those terms.
He said Bangladesh’s foreign relations, therefore, involved engaging in a web of multiple external inter-actions including with India and China.
While Bangladesh sorely needed to tap China’s vast support capabilities, the problem was India and Chi-na regarded each other as more than competitors, Dr Iftekhar said.
Indeed, they had become structural rivals on the regional and global plane, he added.
“To curry favour of one risked the danger of the annoyance of other. This put Bangladesh on a problem-atic spot, as the idiom goes, between Scylla and Charybdis,” Dr Iftekhar said.
Responding to a question, Professor Bajpai said it is Bangladesh if anyone can perform the bridging rule because of probably two or three things.
Bangladesh is the biggest neighbor of India and China and with the kind of international heft of stand-ing, it has diplomatic capacity through its foreign service, its think-tanks and could conceptualize what bridging might be in a way that the smaller countries may not be quite able to do.
Professor Bajpai said China and India have strategic interests in the region and they have a sense that they want to promote a certain view of regional order that makes them think about South Asia in rather different ways.
The former Professor in the Politics and International Relations of South Asia, Oxford University said South Asia features as a kind of the possibility of building coalitions that would harm the interests of the other side.
Talking about all the major river systems of South Asia, Prof Bajpai said cooperation over river waters is one where there might be a concert as well.
In the areas of infrastructure development, energy, environment and disaster management, China and India have huge capacities, given their expertise and the size of their economies, he said.
Prof Bajpai said there are a number of regional organizations and there might be a place where Bangla-desh can serve as a bridging role.
He said Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and the Maldives have a deeper political, to some extent security, a different kind of economic relationship and cultural relationship with India that probably goes deeper than China.
Sharing his own assessment, Prof Bajpai said South Asian neighbou7rs India and China have handled the divide between these two countries rather well.
And without giving anyone a fence, he said, the countries of South Asia have in their own way managed the kind of stresses and strains of the polarization between the two peoples.
With India, becoming closer to the United States since 2001, and culminating with things like the free and open Indo Pacific, QUAD and so on, he said.
“In fact, this polarization has increased. So, India increasingly seems to be regarded as a sort of quasi ally of the United States,” said Prof Bajpai.
Talking about the implications for South Asia, he said it seems conceptually there are four possibilities for South Asian neighbours of these two countries if they look at how China and India may affect the region.
The first possibility is that either China or India becomes hegemonic in South Asia while the second is a condominium with China and India offering each other to dictate terms to the rest of South Asia and they cooperate, said Prof Bajpai.
“The third is a concept. This is a different kind of condominium, perhaps more than a condominium, where they would collaborate amongst themselves, but also with the South Asian states to deal with a number of pressing matters in the region,” he said, adding that the fourth C is competition, which is the competitive relationship.
Prof Bajpai said it is fair to say that India was probably dominant in South Asia until about the early 2000s but since Xi Jinping came to power; China has a much bigger role in South Asia.
“For sure, China has always been a player in South Asia, but I don’t think its involvement, its influence has ever been as high as that has been since about 2012.”
Mentioning that geography and locations matter, former Ambassador Tariq A Karim said, “I must have good relations with India. I want good relations with all the countries in South Asia.”
He said it was understood that China is going to be a rising power and at some point of time, Bangladesh will also need help from China.
“We cannot afford to lean either to one side or the other, because the minute we lean to one side, the corrective reactions will come into the government to our detriment,” said the former diplomat.
Highlighting the relationship that Bangladesh has carefully built up with both India and China, he said, they are in the middle of two new challenges.
He said Bangladesh is a bridging nation historically and it is important in regional and global relations and commerce. “We are no longer insignificant basket cases, we are an emerging middle-power. We do not want India and China fighting.”