Tension with Delhi spurs Bangladesh's look-east policy

PUBLISHED : Friday, 10 January, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 10 January, 2003, 12:00am

A new defence pact between Bangladesh and China has upset India, despite Dhaka's assertions New Delhi has no reason to worry. Analysts say Bangladesh is looking eastwards in a major foreign policy shift triggered by deteriorating relations with India.

They said recent developments were forcing Bangladesh - surrounded by India on three sides - to come out of the shadow of 'Big Brother' and forge ties with other countries in the region.

This week, Bangladeshi Foreign Minister M. Morshed Khan forcefully advocated 'closer ties with China and the nations of Southeast Asia', while outlining the country's foreign policy priorities this year. Mr Khan said that by 'diversifying' diplomatic relations, Bangladesh would reap trade and economic benefits.

'We will come out of our isolation and reach out to many countries this year,' he said.

Besides China, Bangladesh is wooing Thailand and Myanmar, evidenced by Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia's back-to-back trip to Beijing and Bangkok last month and a visit to Dhaka by Myanmar's ruler, General Than Shwe.

The defence pact with China - for training and development of the two countries' armed forces - that raised New Delhi's hackles was one of four agreements reached during Begum Zia's five-day visit to Beijing. China has also agreed to fund the construction of a bridge over the Dhaleswari River near Dhaka.

India and China fought a brief border war in 1962 and had frosty relations for decades, although ties have improved in recent years.

Last month, General Than Shwe, chairman of Myanmar's ruling junta, the State Peace and Development Council, became the first Myanmar leader to visit Bangladesh in 16 years.

'The doors are open to us in the west, east, south and north but we are focussing on the east because it is good for us,' Begum Zia said.

Bangladesh's Daily Star wrote that Dhaka was deliberately distancing itself from India in protest against the recent anti-Bangladesh rhetoric by the top leadership of the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.

Deputy Prime Minister Lal Krishna Advani triggered a diplomatic row by accusing Begum Zia's government of sheltering al-Qaeda fugitives and providing a launching pad for Pakistan's intelligence organisation, Inter-Services Intelligence, to carry out terrorist attacks in India.

Mr Advani and Foreign Minister Yashwant Sinha also charged Dhaka with aiding and abetting secessionist insurgencies in India's troubled northeastern region and demanded that Bangladesh immediately shut down dozens of training camps.

Yesterday, Mr Advani said 20 million illegal Bangladeshi immigrants would be arrested and deported from India, as they posed a grave security threat.

Mr Advani's announcement followed Home Minister I. D. Swamy's unsubstantiated accusation that Bangladesh was flooding India with illegal immigrants to create Muslim-majority regions in the northeast that would ultimately secede from India.

According to the Star, Dhaka was also frustrated by Delhi's persistent refusal to throw open its huge market to reduce Bangladesh's trade deficit with India, which exceeds US$1 billion (HK$7.8 billion).

Because of this, experts say, Bangladesh is looking eastwards to join the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) to bolster its sagging economy.

They said Bangladesh's experience with the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation was disappointing and it was keen to join other regional forums to boost its trade prospects. They said the grouping had been hamstrung by unresolved tensions between India and Pakistan, leaving Bangladesh in the lurch.

Graphic: BANX10GFN