Amid concerns about China, India and Bangladesh discuss partnership in the Indo-Pacific region

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External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar with Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina (Image Courtesy:S Jaishankar Twitter handle)

India on Thursday gave a sharp geopolitical twist, with a hint of a China factor, to its ties with Bangladesh, pointing out that Dhaka was not only New Delhi’s partner in South Asia, but also in the broader Indo-Pacific region.

During a visit to Bangladesh, ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Dhaka later this month, External affairs minister S Jaishankar said: “We see Bangladesh as a key neighbour and a valued partner not only in South Asia but also in the broader Indo-Pacific region. Every outcome and achievement in our relationship resonates through the region. It is no secret that we cite it to others as an example for emulation,” Jaishankar remarked to the media after talks with Bangladesh foreign minister AK Abdul Momen at State Guest House in Dhaka.

By bringing in the Indo-Pacific into the equation, Jaishankar was making two points. First India and Bangladesh had truly become regional partners, with the bandwidth of their relationship expanding from South Asia to parts of the Indian Ocean and West Pacific. The Indo-Pacific region is located on the either sides of the Malacca straits, a strategic trade channel that links the Indian and the Pacific Oceans.

Both India and China are engaged in a rivalry for influence in the Indo-Pacific, including South Asia. To counter the Chinese assertiveness in the region, India has bonded with Japan, Australia and the United States. All countries are part of the Indo-Pacific Quad, which is evolving with an eye on China’s expansionist policy. Jaishankar’s remarks were therefore clearly a manifestation of India’s attempts to broaden the Indo-Pacific strategy by roping in Bangladesh as well.

With an eye on China, the US is also playing along to draw Bangladesh into the Indo-Pacific orbit, to prevent Dhaka from becoming, unlike Pakistan, a satellite of China. In October ahead of the visit to Dhaka by the US Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun Washington had made it plain that it was keen to enmesh Bangladesh in a broader Indo-Pacific strategic fit.  “The Deputy Secretary’s engagement in Bangladesh will focus on advancing our common vision of a free, open, inclusive, peaceful, and secure Indo-Pacific region with shared prosperity for all, U.S.-Bangladesh cooperation on COVID-19 response and recovery efforts, and sustainable economic development,” the U.S. Embassy in Dhaka said in a statement announcing Biegun’s visit.

Both the ministers alluded to the special ties between India and Bangladesh during Jaishankar’s visit. While Momen termed the relations rock solid, Jaishankar said the ties have transcended a strategic relationship.

The significance of our ties with Bangladesh lies in its centrality for our ’Neighbourhood First' and its growing relevance for our ’Act East’ Policy, said Jaishankar.

The External affairs Minister added: “As you know, we are working to prepare for the planned visit of our prime minister. It will be a very memorable visit, the prime minister’s first travel outside India since the Coronavirus pandemic as well as his second as PM to Bangladesh.”

PM Modi will be visiting Bangladesh on March 26-27 to attend the golden jubilee celebrations on the country's independence.

They two foreign ministers discussed the nuts and bolts of expanding business and increasing connectivity including train communications. Water sharing issues of all the trans-border rivers including Teesta. Replying to a question on the killings of Bangladeshis by the Indian Border Security Force along the border, the Indian minister said, “We have talked about it. Many of the deaths take place inside India. Every death is regrettable.”

“Many of the deaths are fairly deep inside India. We discussed it as neighbours and friends and agreed that our objective should be 'no crime no death border'. If we can get it right, we can address the problem effectively,” Jaishankar told the media.

“We have a meeting of our water resources Secretaries very soon. You all know the position of the government of India. This has not changed,” Jaishankar said to the question regarding the Teesta water sharing agreement.

Jaishankar further added:  “Our comfort levels are so high now that we have shown that there is no issue that we cannot discuss and resolve through amicable dialogue. Even the pandemic has provided an opportunity to reaffirm our friendship. Bangladesh is the largest recipient of Made in India vaccines. Also, among the friendships our largest gift of vaccines (2 million) is also appropriately to this country.”

Jaishankar spotlighted that India and Bangladesh have made practical progress on the ground. That included conducting trial run of container cargo through Chattogram Port to Agartala, adding two new  routes to inland waterways connecting Tripura, handing over 10 locomotives, and forming a JV in the energy sector.