Syed Qamar Afzal Rizvi
IN the recent past, Dhaka has triggered its grave albeit warranted differences with New Delhi over the Rohingya refugee crisis, the Citizenship Amendment Act, and the construction of Ram Mandir in Ayodha have sparked a diverse array of skepticism from Dhaka. While the India-Bangladesh drift has largely remained under the radar, Pakistan-BD have visibly undergone a diplomatic metamorphosis over the past few months. Dhaka’s interest in being a part of the China-Pakistan-Turkey nexus seems significant in reshaping the ties between Dhaka and Islamabad.
The Islamabad-Dhaka relationship is generally weighed down by the historical currents and cross-currents. If bilateral ties are to progress, both Islamabad and Dhaka must look forward instead of living in the painful past. Improvement in bilateral relations can even be a spur to reactivate the moribund SAARC, which in turn can help create a more integrated and peaceful South Asia. While relations have remained mostly frosty and foggy ever since Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina Wajed began her second tenure in 2009; there have been welcome improvements this year. Perhaps the icebreaker was Prime Minister Imran Khan’s call to his counterpart in Dhaka in July, in which both sides exchanged pleasantries. Pakistan’s High Commissioner to Bangladesh has met with that country’s Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, with both sides pledging to improve bilateral relations, according to separate statements, a further sign of a thaw in an otherwise frosty relationship.
Recent contacts between Pakistani and Bangladeshi leaders have provided a glimpse of a cautious thaw between the two sides after years of strained ties, foreign media reported. Since the independence of Bangladesh [then East Pakistan] from Pakistan in December 1971 following a nine-month bloody civil war, the relationship between the two South Asian Muslim states have passed critical courses with ups and downs. “We look forward to having a sustained dialogue with the Government of Bangladesh on how best our bilateral relations can move forward on a positive trajectory,” Pakistan’s Foreign Office Spokesperson Aisha Farooqui told Arab News recently. “We hope to work and take forward our relations, whether it’s trade, culture and all other mutual areas.” According to the State Bank of Pakistan, Pakistan’s exports to Bangladesh reached $736 million in 2019, while Bangladesh’s exports to Pakistan were only $44 million. Pakistan and Bangladesh’s embrace comes at a time when relations between India and many countries in the region are unraveling.
Upon the request of strengthening relations by the Pakistani side, Hasina referred to Bangladesh’s policy of “friendship to all, malice to none”, adding that she believes in “regional cooperation”. “The two sides agreed to further strengthen the existing fraternal relations between the two countries,” Pakistan High Commissioner Siddiqui said. On 01 July Pakistan’s newly-appointed High Commissioner to Bangladesh, Imran Ahmad Siddiqui, met Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen in Dhaka. The details of the discussion were not known, but on both occasions, the Pakistan side appeared to be more willingly proactive regarding relations with Bangladesh. Since July 22 when Prime Minister Imran Khan and his Bangladeshi counterpart Shaikh Hasina spoke by telephone, the media landscape has been rife with speculations about a new political alliance in the region and picturing both the countries taking steps to improve ties in the near future.
Trade between Pakistan and Bangladesh has always been in favour of Pakistan”. While giving a breakdown of exports and imports of the past five years, the Minister told the parliamentarians that both the countries had a total trade of $700.39 million in 2019-20, wherein Pakistani exports amounted to $654.79 million and import from Bangladesh stood at $45.60 million. As far as Turkey-Bangladesh ties are concerned, after establishing diplomatic ties, Ankara-Dhaka relations flourished; and Bangladesh became a diplomatic ally of Turkey in international affairs. Dhaka was a staunch supporter of Turkish claims on the Cyprus issue during the 1970s and 1980s, and Turkey provided technical and financial assistance to Bangladesh during its state-building process and creation of a stable and sustainable national economic system.As Turkey believes that Bangladesh has considerable economic growth potential, Ankara has optimistically targeted an increase in bilateral trade to $10 billion over the next decade. Turkey and Bangladesh even attempted to forge a free trade agreement in 2012, though its ratification was indefinitely suspended due to disapproval from EU leaders
Most importantly, China is pragmatically trying to build a network of allies in South Asia, and Beijing and Dhaka have been increasing cooperation in many sectors. China recently announced a tariff exemption for 97% of Bangladeshi exports, amounting to some 8,200 products having duty-free access to the Chinese market. China, which is the top source of foreign investment in Bangladesh, has been pouring money into infrastructure projects in Bangladesh as part of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative. Progressively Chinese developers have also received a contract to build a new terminal at Bangladesh’s Sylhet airport near the border with India’s north-eastern state of Assam. Experts agreed it is too early to predict a permanent shift in Bangladesh’s foreign policy in siding with China and Pakistan over India, and that the small country should be careful with depending on larger partners.
“Despite India’s concern, Bangladesh has given the contract of building an airport terminal in Sylhet to a Chinese company. Indian High Commissioner Riva Ganguly Das tried for four months to get an appointment with the Prime Minister of Bangladesh but did not get it. Bangladesh has not even sent a note of appreciation to India in response to Indian assistance for the Covid-19 pandemic,” said the newspaper’s editor Shyamal Dutta in an article. Defying the logic of proximity, most of India’s neighbours are now largely reliant on China for their imports. China’s strong economic ties with Pakistan as opposed to India’s minimal formal trade with its western neighbour increases the gap in both countries’ trade volumes. There can be no denying the fact that Modi’s religious exclusivism vindicated by the CAA, the Muslims of the subcontinent are finding means of unity and harmony among them. The post-Covid geo-economics and geopolitical dynamics clearly reflect that regional harmony in South Asia is an inevitable discourse. Those who reject this thesis will become more isolationist as Modi’s policies have enough currents to hammer the regional peace and harmony.
—The writer, an independent ‘IR’ researcher-cum-international law analyst based in Pakistan, is member of European Consortium for Political Research Standing Group on IR, Critical Peace & Conflict Studies, also a member of Washington Foreign Law Society and European Society of International Law.