Enter the dragon


The game has changed in South Asia

On April 7, 2017, the prime minister of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh touched down in New Delhi to start her four-day state visit to the Indian Union. This visit comes in the wake of deepening ties between the People’s Republic of Bangladesh and the People’s Republic of China. These ties are multi-sectoral and span many things — from infrastructure development to defense procurement.
All relations between two sovereign governments are based on mutual self interest and the Sino-Bangladesh relation is no different. That is how it should be.
The Indian Union’s deep state strategic doctrine looks upon Bangladesh as part of its geo-strategic sphere of influence. The Indian Union can have any doctrine it wants, but what it means on the ground is what matters. Irrespective of what certain lobbies within Bangladesh would like to project, Bangladesh is no Sikkim, or even Bhutan. But that alarmism is good for dealing with a large neighbour with whom Bangladesh has a huge negative balance of trade.
What matters in this time and age is not absolute political sovereignty in the 19th century European nation state model, for in times of an integrating world economic order, no entity is absolutely sovereign. What matters is in extent of control one has over capital, goods, and human flows in and out of its territory as well as the extent to which one’s policy is influenced depending on who one is economically indebted to. Thus, sovereignty is a concept that sits on a sliding scale.
Some non-UN members, like California, are way more sovereign in many ways than, say, UN members like Panama. The fundamental markers of sovereignty thus are, how much is one entity dependent on externalities to fulfill its needs. That translates into one issue — how much is one dependent on external capital for one’s needs.
When you demonise someone for narrow domestic purposes and shower red carpet love towards the same person for reasons of protocol, propriety, and self-interest
Capacity building through judicious use of the loaned capital ostensibly makes up the ceding of sovereignty by taking loans. It’s a subtle game. It is always imperative to assess in any loan-giving scenario whether the loan is being taken for the taker’s interest or is being given for the giver’s interest.
To arrive at a win-win scenario in such a transaction is delicate business. This is precisely where China has wooed Bangladesh through favourable investment terms during the recent Dhaka visit of China’s Premier Xi Jinping.
The Indian Union cannot match the depth of Chinese pockets by a far shot. Thus it has to fall back upon clichés like “civilisational and cultural ties” which really have no place in hard-nosed international relations.
Such references to “civilisational and cultural ties” are even more dubious when done by the present incumbent union government in the Indian Union. The government ruling party has time and again used the spectre of “illegal Bangladeshis” to create a vote bank of unified religious majoritarianism in its favour in a way that no pan-India party in the Indian Union has ever done.
When you demonise someone for narrow domestic purposes and shower red carpet love towards the same person for reasons of protocol, propriety, and self-interest, it is sort of embarrassing for everyone involved, assuming that the sense of shame has not been eradicated from one’s psyche.
Delhi is anxious at the recent procurement of two submarines from Beijing by the Bangladesh Navy. These are its first two submarines. Delhi sees this as the growing influence of Beijing in its “backyard.” But “backyard” fantasies do not take away the fact that Bangladesh is sovereign.
It has dispute-free maritime borders with Myanmar and the Indian Union. Thus, the self-sovereign bigger part of Bengal, in its present political form as Bangladesh, is staking its rightful share in the affairs of Bay of Bengal.
There can be no dispute about an entity claiming its rightful share. Those who deny an entity its rightful share can do so by projecting might.
The deepening relationship between Dhaka and Beijing means that this projection might not be possible by Delhi to the extent it could have been without a Dhaka-Beijing relationship of the present depth.
Thus, Delhi has taken to wooing Dhaka in ways it presently can, while subtly trying to steer away Dhaka from its newfound friend called Beijing.
The fact that China, Bangladesh, and Nepal can now imagine joint military exercises shows that the game has changed in this part of South Asia. From an era of committed but hypocritical passive-aggressive monogamy, we are entering a period of polyamory along with the polydirectional flows of insecurity and jealousy. Any relationship based on reality can only be better compared to one based on delusions. It marks the passage from childhood to adulthood.

Garga Chatterjee is a political and cultural commentator. He can be followed on twitter @gargac.

-Dhaka Tribune