New Delhi: Bangladesh has said it is “not going to choose” between India and China as it expressed desire to join the “Indo-Pacific relationship”, though it is part of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
“We are part of China’s BRI but we are very willing to be a part of the Indo-Pacific relationship… we are not going to choose [between India and China],” Gowher Rizvi, international affairs advisor to Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, said during a virtual seminar hosted by London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies Tuesday.
The event was also attended by Pankaj Saran, Deputy National Security Adviser of India, and mediated by Rahul Roy-Chaudhury, who leads the South Asia research programme at IISS.
Though China is an important element in Bangladesh’s developmental projects, it is not “at the expense” of its relationship with India, Rizvi said. “China has a role in Bangladesh. They are an important part of our many development projects. But this is not in any way at the expense of our relationship with India.”
He added: “India is our most important partner and you cannot conceive of anything different. It would be suicidal to think differently.”
Rizvi also stressed that the “blue economy” or oceanic economy, especially the Bay of Bengal, is an important part of Dhaka’s long-term development plans. The Bay of Bengal area is fast becoming the cornerstone of the Indo-Pacific strategy.
PM Narendra Modi will visit Bangladesh on 26-27 March in his first trip abroad since the Covid-19 lockdown. The visit also marks the 50th anniversary of bilateral diplomatic ties, Bangladesh’s liberation war and the birth centenary of “father of the nation” Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
Bangladesh Monday expressed gratitude after India conferred the Gandhi Peace Award 2020 upon Mujibur Rahman posthumously.
Not just Teesta waters, also need ‘basin-wide arrangement’
Rizvi and Saran spoke on whether India and Bangladesh are anywhere closer to resolving the issue over sharing waters of the Teesta river that flows through Sikkim, West Bengal, Bangladesh and enters the Bay of Bengal.
“Unfortunately, Teesta [issue] continues to distract us from many other issues,” said Rizvi, pointing out that Teesta is one of 54 trans-boundary rivers shared between India and Bangladesh.
“We should think of a basin-wide arrangement so that the two countries don’t have to benefit at the expense of the other,” he said.
Meanwhile, Saran reminded that Dhaka and New Delhi signed the Ganges Water Treaty in 1996 that has “stood the test of time”.
“We stand committed to a resolution on sharing of waters of the Teesta river,” said Saran, adding that the two countries have been engaged in a regular and ongoing dialogue with Dhaka on the issue.
‘Committed to Rohingya refugee crisis’
Asked if the Myanmar coup would affect Bangladesh’s response to the Rohingya refugee crisis, Rizvi said Dhaka is still committed to working out ways to send the refugees back home with “dignity and safety”.
Since 2015, hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas, Muslim Myanmar nationals, have been forcibly displaced by the Myanmar military, causing them to flee to neighbouring countries, like Bangladesh. According to UN estimates, over 742,000 refugees have fled to Bangladesh since 25 August 2017.
Rizvi credited India with providing material assistance to improve conditions at refugee camps, and helping build homes in Myanmar to ensure that there are sufficient living conditions in place for the return of displaced persons.
“We fully understand the humanitarian cost that Bangladesh is bearing to host this large number of people,” said Saran, adding that India has offered assistance to improve “burden-sharing” with Bangladesh. He added that India will remain engaged with Bangladesh on the issue.
(Edited by Sanghamitra Mazumdar)