After several postponements, the prime minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, has finally agreed to visit India in April but her government is reluctant to sign an agreement on defence that India is pushing for.
While New Delhi has called for a comprehensive, 25-year agreement on defence cooperation, Dhaka is thought to favour agreeing a looser, and less formal, Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that would have no time frame.
India pitched the idea of greater defence cooperation with Bangladesh when its defence minister, Manohar Parikkar, visited Dhaka in December.
“India wants a long term comprehensive defence cooperation agreement. We want to take a more calibrated, phased approach. An MOU may be a good way to begin,” said a top Bangladesh diplomat who was privy to the negotiations. He said the issue surfaced during Indian Foreign Secretary Subrahmanyam Jaishankar’s recent visit to Dhaka in late February.
“We are for greater defence cooperation with India, the relations between our defence forces are improving and we want to tackle the threat of terrorism together, but I think it is not yet time for a long-term agreement,” the diplomat said.
The agreement India proposed would cover greater military-to-military cooperation, sale and supply of military hardware from India to Bangladesh and coordinated operations against mutually perceived threats.
Bangladesh sources much of its military hardware from China – something India is wary off. Its recent purchase of two Chinese submarines raised hackles in Delhi with some Indian defence analysts even asking why Bangladesh needed submarines at all.
Bangladesh military officials are not keen on purchasing defence hardware from India, believing that India’s own reliance on military imports suggests it has few quality products of its own to offer.
They point to the poor quality of equipment India supplied to Nepal and Myanmar, while admiring Chinese equipment for being cheap and easy to use.
But India is now willing to offer a US$500 million line of credit to Bangladesh for the purchase of military hardware. Bangladesh might welcome that and could use the funds for purchasing fast patrol craft for its coastguards and radar for its air defence.
Hasina is unwilling to push the military in this regard. “On issues of defence, she would like to go by the military’s advice,” said one of Hasina’s top advisers who did not want to be identified.
Bangladesh has a history of military coups, beginning with the assassination of Hasina’s father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and most of her family in 1975. Civil-military relations have matured in recent years but Hasina still does not like to cross the line and prefers to go by the military’s advice on defence issues.
She is also keen to strike a balance between her country’s relations with China and India. While India has been a traditional ally for Awami League governments in Dhaka, China has emerged as a key source of development funds and defence hardware.
China and Bangladesh signed development financing deals worth US$25 billion during President Xi Jinping’s visit to Dhaka in November.
Hasina’s proposed visit to Delhi has twice been postponed – in December and February. While both foreign offices cited prior commitments of the two prime ministers, deadlock over several issues including a deal over the sharing of river water is widely considered the real problem.
“Bangladesh is still predominantly an agricultural country. For us, river water is a crucial issue,” said Shamsul Arefin, the head of Dhaka-based think tank Bangladesh Peace Research Institute.
“Hasina needs to show some positive takeaways from her Delhi visit such as [an agreement on] water sharing. She has addressed the entire range of India’s security and connectivity concerns, like pushing out Indian rebels and allowing the transit of goods to India’s troubled northeastern region. It is payback time for India.”
Bangladesh’s parliamentary election is due in January 2019. But with a booming economy, a trade surplus and a recent clean chit to her party leaders from the World Bank over an infrastructure project, Hasina might want to advance the election by a year or more. The only problem is the elusive water sharing deal.
“The failure to find a solution to the river waters issue will surely impact the rural electorate,” said Arefin.
While Hasina might not want to upset the army by going for a defence agreement with India, she also does not want to upset Delhi before an election. Agreeing to an MOU rather than a long-term agreement on defence cooperation would strike the right balance – upsetting neither India nor China, and not being seen as too close to either.