India still ‘first’ for Hasina, but lack of Teesta solution puts all eyes on China trip
Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s decision to choose India for her first visit since her re-election in January is widely being seen in the diplomatic circle as a reaffirmation on Dhaka’s part to regard New Delhi as its most important partner | PTI

India still ‘first’ for Hasina, but lack of Teesta solution puts all eyes on China trip

Hasina has returned with nearly 10 agreements with India but not much on the Teesta water-sharing issue; it makes her forthcoming China visit more significant

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who chose India over China for her first bilateral visit since her re-election in January, returned home with nearly 10 agreements from her two-day New Delhi trip, but without much to show on the contentious Teesta water-sharing issue.

Sharing the water of the Teesta, one of the 54 common rivers between the two countries, has remained an emotive and sensitive issue in bilateral ties between the two neighbours even though their relations have progressed substantially in other areas in the past decade.

Hasina is scheduled to travel to China on an official visit next month.

Second trip in a fortnight

Her weekend visit to India was her second trip to the country in a fortnight. She was among the leaders from India’s neighbourhood who attended Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s swearing-in ceremony at the Rashtrapati Bhavan on June 9.

Hasina’s two-day state visit to New Delhi from June 21 to 22 was the first state visit as Modi began his third consecutive term as prime minister.

The Bangladesh Prime Minister’s decision to choose India for her first visit since her re-election in January is widely being seen in the diplomatic circle as a reaffirmation on Dhaka’s part to regard New Delhi as its most important partner.

Agreements signed in wide range of areas

The two sides further consolidated their ties by signing nearly 10 agreements across a range of areas to help each other achieve their respective “national development goals”.

India has decided to help Bangladesh launch its first satellite through its own vehicle and also announced e-visa facility for people of Bangladesh who come to India for medical treatment at Indian hospitals and medical centres.

The wide range of areas in which the two sides have signed agreements and Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) include defence, space, oceanology, border management, sharing water of the common rivers, connectivity, trade and commerce, and digital and green technologies, indicating the potential of the bilateral relationship in the coming days.

The two sides also agreed to begin talks soon on the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) between the two sides.

Border and security

India also assured Bangladesh that the two sides will try to manage their borders better and reduce the number of deaths resulting from shootings by their respective border forces. The regular killing of Bangladeshi nationals on the border has been an emotive issue that has often led to the rise of anti-India sentiments in the neighbouring country.

Hasina held meetings with Modi, both in the restricted format and at the delegation level, on bilateral, regional, as well global developments, and discussed how the two sides could work together in areas of counter-terrorism and counter-radicalism that could pose a serious threat in the two countries’ development and growth.

Hasina also engaged with Indian President Droupadi Murmu, Vice-President Jagdeep Dhankhar and External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar.

Revival of traditional links

Prime Minister Modi, while welcoming Hasina and her delegation, said he and the Bangladesh Prime Minister met nearly 10 times last year as the two sides focussed on “commerce, connectivity and collaboration” to take the relationship forward.

Modi said India’s attempt has been to revive the traditional water, road and rail links between the two countries that existed until the 1965 India-Pakistan war. Once the links are revived, they would help the movement of goods and people not only between the two countries but through regional and sub-regional cooperation with the other neighbours too.

Foreign Secretary Vinay Kwatra said discussion between the two Prime Ministers were focussed mainly on bilateral issues and how they could strengthen the ongoing partnership further and not about China or any third country.

The tussle with China

But Hasina’s India visit will be seen by observers in the context of China’s looming presence in the neighbourhood and growing footprint in Bangladesh. In recent years, India and China have been engaged in a tussle over expanding their influence in South Asia, an area that India has long considered as its zone of influence.

That tussle between the two powers has intensified further since May 2020, as Indian and Chinese soldiers have locked themselves in a military standoff along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) — the unofficial border between the two sides.

Hasina’s decision to come to India first, before going to China, therefore, gather special salience.

What Hasina’s move signifies

The Chinese were keen on Hasina visiting Beijing at the earliest but she decided to wait for the Indian parliamentary election and complete her visit to New Delhi before going to Beijing.

Many Indian observers are happy with her decision, as they see it as India’s primacy over other countries in the South Asian region.

But some experts see a shrewd diplomatic move on Hasina’s part to get India committed on key issues such as the Teesta River, before she hears the Chinese offer.

The contentious Teesta talks

The Manmohan Singh government had been unable to sign an agreement on sharing the water of the Teesta River with Bangladesh because of strong resistance from West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who argued that any amount of water given to the neighbouring country would only amount to depriving the farmers in her own state.

When Modi became Prime Minister in 2014, he too failed to convince Banerjee to relent on her hardline position.

The status quo on the issue finally led Hasina to approach China to develop the Teesta River for better utilization of its water.

Beijing’s offer

About four years ago, Beijing came up with a proposal for a multipurpose Teesta River management project. The USD 1-billion project includes dredging, construction of reservoirs, laying a drainage system along the river, and building embankments and satellite cities on both banks, according to newspaper reports.

But during a visit to Bangladesh in May, Foreign Secretary Kwatra offered India’s support for the Teesta project. He said Indian experts will also look into the sharing of the Ganga water treaty between the two sides, since it is due to expire soon.

The Indian offer to get involved in the project is to keep China out from carrying out construction inside Bangladesh, in an area that is barely 100 km from the Siliguri “chicken neck” corridor — the strategic stretch of land that connects India’s northeastern region with the mainland.

What next?

But the Indian offer put Hasina in a diplomatic spot. To get out of it, the Bangladesh Prime Minister announced in parliament that she had asked officials in the relevant department to seriously look at the Chinese offer on Teesta.

This, observers say, was a deliberate attempt on her part to force India to make a commitment on this important project. And this resulted in her second visit within a fortnight to India.

India has now agreed to send a technical team for the management of the Teesta River in Bangladesh. But Kwatra has made it clear that it is not about sharing the water of this common river.

It remains to be seen how Hasina shows her just-concluded Indian visit as a successful one. At the same time, it has now made her forthcoming visit to China more significant.

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