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5 September, 2018 12:10:08 AM / LAST MODIFIED: 5 September, 2018 12:31:01 AM

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Contemporary India: Its foreign policy, security, Bangladesh-India relations

India-Bangladesh relations are anchored on a trust and friendship that goes beyond strategic partnership
Harsh Vardhan Shringla
Contemporary India: Its foreign policy, security, Bangladesh-India relations

India’s foreign and security policy imperatives are underpinned by the desire to achieve sustained and inclusive economic growth. The focus is on creating and enabling an environment for national growth and development by maintaining peace and stability; securing access to resources, energy, technologies, best practices and markets; and playing a constructive role in shaping the agenda and debate on issues of global interest.  

Under the Government of Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi, our foreign policy has become more proactive and has acquired a renewed energy, vigour, and planning in the ways India engages with the rest of the world.

This has been a period of many firsts as I will bring this out while elaborating on the foreign and security policy framework of the Government over the last four years.

One of the most important aspects of our foreign policy has been the adoption of a ‘Neighbourhood First’ approach. The historic invitation that was extended to the leaders of the South Asian countries to attend the swearing-in ceremony of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Government in 2014 signaled the emphasis that India would place on strengthening its relations with its neighbors. Since then, our immediate neighbourhood has received the greatest attention and emphasis in our diplomatic efforts. This is reflected in frequent high level exchanges; heightened focus on connectivity and economic integration to facilitate the movement of goods and people; commencement of cooperation in previously uncharted territories such as space, IT, cyber security, civil nuclear energy, disaster management, etc.

Deepening our global engagement is an important prerequisite for economic development and consensus building on issues of global importance. Recognizing this, our diplomatic outreach in the last four years to our international partners has been unprecedented. High level visits have taken place to more countries revitalizing India’s diplomatic engagements across continents. Our top leadership has engaged nearly all countries in the world, thereby paving the way for enhancing cooperation on a wide range of bilateral, regional and global issues. Several of these have been first-ever visits from India at the level of the Head of State/ Government, to Palestine, Mongolia, Portugal, and most recently, to Rwanda. There have been many other firsts as well: participation of leaders of all 54 African countries in the third India-Africa Forum Summit; all 10 ASEAN heads at India’s Republic Day celebration; upgradation of the ‘Look East’ Policy to ‘Act East’; enhancement of economic and strategic ties with West Asia; the ‘Forum for India-Pacific Islands Cooperation’ (FIPIC) Summit; visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to all five Central Asian Countries in one overseas trip; and the India-Nordic Summit held earlier this year.

India is also seriously committed to taking regional cooperation forward through the BBIN and BIMSTEC. Several initiatives, including in the area of connectivity, are being planned under these groupings. The successful trial run of a passenger bus service from Dhaka to Kathmandu via Siliguri, held in April this year, was a significant step towards operationalizing the BBIN Motor Vehicles Agreement. We attach high importance to BIMSTEC as it touches upon two major aspects of our foreign policy - ‘Neighbourhood First’ and the ‘Act East Policy’. We are looking forward to the BIMSTEC Summit that will take place in Kathmandu later this month. Earlier this year, Bangladesh had also successfully hosted the second meeting of the BISMTEC Security Chiefs.

Perhaps the most significant trend in Indian foreign policy has been the realignment of our diplomatic efforts in the last four years to meet the needs of the development agenda of the Government. For background, the current Government has embarked upon a mission to transform India. To this end, the Government has launched several flagship schemes in the areas of manufacturing (Make in India), urban infrastructure (Smart Cities), skill development (Skill India, Digital India, etc.). Government has also embarked on several liberalization and reform measures to improve the ease of doing business in India. Last year, India rolled out the Goods and Services Tax – the biggest tax reform since its independence. Our international outreach, led by the Prime Minister himself, has been carefully tailored and directed to create the most propitious climate for domestic growth, including by working towards a regional security environment that allows us to focus on our economic goals. This unprecedented outreach to our international partners has contributed to an increase in investments, access to new technology, securing resources for India, development of modern infrastructure and bringing foreign expertise for flagship schemes. As a result, ‘Diplomacy for Development’ has become one of the defining features of India’s foreign policy.

India also continues its policy of sharing its developmental experience with other developing countries. This was seen most remarkably in several different initiatives in the neighborhood which included the largest ever Line of Credit (of USD 5 billion) extended by India to Bangladesh and to any country in the world during the visit of Hon’ble Prime Minister H.E. Sheikh Hasina to India last year. There was also the major announcement of USD 10 billion Line of Credit for development projects in Africa during the third India Africa Forum Summit. Significant developmental projects also progressed in countries such as Mauritius, Seychelles, Jordan, Palestine and Mongolia. Human capital development in the form of scholarships and training slots continued to be a big part of India’s development partnerships abroad.

In his keynote address at the Shangri-La dialogue recently, Prime Minister Narendra Modi remarked that we are living on the “edge of uncertainty, of unsettled questions and unresolved disputes; contests and claims; and clashing visions and competing models.” He talked about the “growing mutual insecurity and rising military expenditure; internal dislocations turning into external tensions; new fault lines in trade and competition in the global commons; and assertion of power over recourse to international norms.” He also talked about the cross-border challenges including the threat of terrorism and extremism and called for rising above divisions and competition to work together.

In this context, India has been a proactive and constructive contributor to shaping of the global agenda and debate on issues of common interest such as terrorism, climate change, nuclear proliferation and global governance reform. There has been increased support for India’s efforts to isolate terrorists and their sponsors. This was manifest in universal support for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 11-point action plan on combating terrorism at the G-20 Summit in Hamburg. Bangladesh has also faced some serious challenges from terrorism and is an invaluable partner in our fight against terrorism. India fully supports Bangladesh’s policy of ‘zero-tolerance’ towards terrorism and stands with Bangladesh on this issue. We have also strongly pushed for fighting the menace of black money globally. In recognition of India’s impeccable non-proliferation record and its rise as a responsible global actor, India also gained entry into three key global export control regimes (Missile Technology Control Regime, Wassenaar Agreement, Australia Group).

We are also committed to the ethos of environmental protection and conservation and are signatories to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. We have committed to achieving 40 per cent of our electricity capacity from renewable sources of energy by 2030 and are well on our way to achieving this with advances in solar energy technology and reduction in costs. India, together with France, led the successful launch of the International Solar Alliance (ISA) which has created a platform of 121 partner countries to promote development of solar energy projects worldwide. The ISA will help mobilize investment of over USD1 trillion from public and private sources that will help it install more than 1,000 GW of solar generation capacity worldwide by 2030.     

In his keynote address at the Shangri-La dialogue, Prime Minister Modi also talked about the inclusive nature of our approach to engagement in the Indo-Pacific region – from the shores of Africa to that of the Americas. He outlined our vision for the Indo-Pacific region which we do not see as a grouping of limited members that seeks to dominate or that is directed against any country.  Our vision for the Indo-Pacific includes a free, open and inclusive region; centrality of Southeast Asia; a common rules-based order through dialogue; freedom of navigation, unhindered commerce and peaceful settlement of disputes in accordance with international law; an open, rules-based and stable trade regime; and improved connectivity. However, connectivity initiatives must be based on respect for “sovereignty and territorial integrity, consultation, good governance, transparency, viability and sustainability”, and should not place countries under any debt burden. He further outlined the five basic principles on which India’s engagement with the world will be based. These are five Ss in Hindi: ‘samman (respect)’; ‘samvad (dialogue)’; ‘sahyog (cooperation)’; ‘shanti (peace)’; ‘samriddhi (prosperity)’. As the PM said, our focus will be on promoting a democratic and rules-based international order; working with others to keep our seas, space and airways free and open and to keep our nations secure from terrorism and our cyber space free from disruption and conflict; keeping our economy open and our engagement transparent; and seeking a sustainable future for our planet, as through the International Solar Alliance.

Our ties with Bangladesh have to be seen in the context of much that I have enunciated in the preceding paragraphs. India-Bangladesh relations are anchored on a trust and friendship that goes beyond strategic partnership.  Our shared values, culture, language, ancestral roots and other commonalities all contribute to a time-tested relationship.

Over the last ten years, we have made unprecedented progress in furthering India-Bangladesh relations and have taken huge strides towards building a multi-faceted relationship which today covers cooperation in a wide range of areas including security and border management; trade, commerce and investment; connectivity; energy and power; space; developmental projects; culture; and people-to-people exchanges. Prime Minister Narendra Modi referred to the current phase of our relationship as a ‘Sonali Adhyay’ or a ‘Golden Era’.

We have amicably resolved both our maritime and land boundaries. In 2015, India and Bangladesh settled the land boundary issue which had been pending for several decades. For the first time, people who were living in enclaves on either side of the border got rights of citizenship. The fact that the Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) was passed unanimously in the Indian Parliament reflects the consensus amongst the representatives of people in India about the need to amicably resolve all outstanding issues and move ahead in our bilateral relationship. We have also settled our maritime boundary through Arbitration in 2014. This has opened up the possibility of cooperation in the blue economy and areas such as marine biotechnology, response to disasters, deep-sea fishing, etc. Our forces have since launched successful joint search and rescue operations in the Bay of Bengal region when our fishermen go missing; coordinated patrols; HADR exercises, etc. 

In a span of three years, more than 60 agreements have been signed between India and Bangladesh. Most of these agreements are not merely renewal of previous agreements but initiation of cooperation in new high-technology areas such as space, civil nuclear energy, IT and electronics, cyber-security, blue economy, etc.

Improvements in connectivity are an important prerequisite for trade, investments and people-to-people ties. This has been an important area of focus for both our governments. Last year, the two Prime Ministers jointly inaugurated two major connectivity projects in Bangladesh – the second Bhairab railway bridge and the second railway bridge over the Titas river – completed under the first Line of Credit from India to Bangladesh. The two Prime Ministers also jointly flagged off a new passenger train service between Khulna and Kolkata – the Bandhan Express – and announced end-to-end immigration and customs facilities for passengers of the Maitree Express on the Kolkata-Dhaka route. The rail link between Radhikapur (India) and Birol (Bangladesh) was also restored, and with this we have now revived four of the six rail links that existed between the two countries before 1965. Work has also started on establishing a new rail link between Agartala (India) and Akhaura (Bangladesh). In addition to the existing bus services on Dhaka-Kolkata, Dhaka-Agartala, Dhaka-Shillong-Guwahati and Kolkata-Dhaka-Agartala routes, a new bus service on the Kolkata-Khulna-Dhaka route commenced operations in 2017.

There is also a strong emphasis on tapping the potential of waterways for the movement of goods and people. Trans-shipment of goods under the India-Bangladesh Protocol on Inland Waterways Transit and Trade (PIWTT) and opening of container services between Kolkata and Pangaon under the Coastal Shipping Agreement have been important developments in this regard. India is also partnering Bangladesh fin the dredging of two important stretches of waterways in Bangladesh – Sirajganj-Daikhowa stretch of the Jamuna river and the Ashuganj-Zakiganj stretch of the Kushiyara river. The operationalization of MoUs on movement of passenger and cruise vessels on PIWTT and Coastal routes and on cooperation on aids to navigation will also help boost riverine traffic between the two countries.

Improvement of border infrastructure is also an essential requirement for ensuring seamless movement of goods and people. Keeping this in mind, we are working on upgrading 7 Land Customs Stations to Integrated Check Posts (ICPs) at the India-Bangladesh border. This will be in addition to Petrapole (West Bengal) and Agartala (Tripura) where the ICPs are already operational; and Dawki (Meghalaya) where work on setting up a new ICP is underway. We are also setting up more Border Haats which have had a positive impact on the livelihoods of border communities.

These measures have had a positive impact on trade and commercial ties which have expanded rapidly, with total bilateral trade crossing USD 9 billion in the year April 2017-March 2018. We have granted full market access to Bangladesh. This has resulted in a sustained increase in Bangladesh’s exports to India, particularly in readymade garments. There are nearly USD 10 billion of Indian investments in the pipeline, mainly in the power and energy sectors. Three Indian economic zones in Mirsarai, Bheramara and Mongla are under development and will further facilitate Indian investments in Bangladesh.

India-Bangladesh Cooperation in the power and energy sector has advanced substantially in the last few years. India is committed to supporting Bangladesh in its vision of ‘Power to All’ by 2021. At present, 660 MW of power is already flowing from India to Bangladesh and to this an additional 500 MW is expected to be added shortly. We are also looking at supply of LNG supply demand centers in the Jessore-Khulna region by establishing gas grid interconnectivity between India and Bangladesh; setting up an LPG terminal at Kutubdia; and building LPG pipeline. Work on the India Bangladesh Friendship Pipeline for the supply of high speed diesel from Siliguri to Parbatipur is expected to commence shortly. Options in terms of clean and renewable energy are also being explored. We are sharing our experience in civil nuclear energy with Bangladesh especially as the first nuclear power plant is under construction at Rooppur

Development cooperation has emerged as a key pillar of the bilateral relationship. From modest beginnings in the years after Bangladesh's liberation, India's development cooperation with Bangladesh has grown in size and coverage. With USD 8 billion in Lines of Credit under implementation, Bangladesh became India’s largest development partner. The Lines of Credit are focused on various infrastructure development projects in sectors such as road, rail, port, airport, power, information and communication technology, health and technical education. In addition to Lines of Credit, we are also undertaking several grant projects in Bangladesh in diverse sectors, including education, health, water, culture, urban development, disaster management, etc. We have also been cooperating in the area of capacity building in Bangladesh, including training of police, administrative cadres, customs, narcotics, railways and judicial officers under the Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation Programme and extending scholarships to meritorious students under the Indian Council for Cultural Relations programme.

India and Bangladesh share a historical legacy of 1971. Every Indian takes pride in the knowledge that Indian soldiers and Muktijoddhas fought together in Bangladesh’s Liberation War. During the visit of the External affairs Minister H.E. Mrs Sushma Swaraj to Bangladesh last year, India had gifted items of memorabilia of the Liberation War to the Bangladesh Armed Forces. Hon’ble Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s extraordinary gesture of honouring the next of kin of Indian soldiers who laid down their lives during the Liberation War also deeply touched the people of India. In recognition of their contributions, we are providing an additional 10,000 scholarships for the wards of Muktijoddhas (worth BDT 46 crores); free medical treatment for 100 Muktijoddhas in Indian hospitals every year; and 5-year multiple-entry visas for them.

We have an ongoing and robust security co-operation which has gained momentum with several highlevel visits from the defense establishment of the two countries and training exchanges. These visits include the first ever visit of the Defense Minister of India to Bangladesh in 2016. We have strengthened cooperation in this area with signing of defense related agreements, including a framework agreement for defence cooperation; and MoU for extending a defence line of credit worth USD 500 Million to Bangladesh. A number of new initiatives such as the ‘Annual Defence Dialogue’, coordinated patrols by the two Navies, joint exercises for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief etc. are further strengthening our ties.  

Our border guarding forces also enjoy excellent cooperation – be this in the form of sharing of information or apprehending criminals. They interact and coordinate with each other at various levels and resolve outstanding issues amicably. The recent initiative of the BSF and BGB to declare a stretch of border as a “crime-free zone" is a welcome confidence building measure that will go a long way in achieving our shared objective of a ‘de-criminalized border’.

In the last two years, we have also been able to institutionalize cooperation in areas of high-technology such as IT, space, civilian nuclear energy, cyber security and earth sciences. The two Prime Ministers, along with the leaders of Afghanistan, Bhutan, the Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka, also jointly launched the South Asia Satellite in May 2017 which will offer multi-dimensional facilities, including services in telecommunications and tele-medicine and better co-ordination in disaster management to participating nations including Bangladesh.

Last but not the least is our focus on strengthening people-to-people contacts which we view as the cornerstone of our relationship. A liberalized visa policy and a number of measures to ease access to Indian visa for Bangladesh nationals have boosted the movement of Bangladesh nationals to India.

India and Bangladesh have made huge strides forward in our respective efforts at achieving economic development and growth. Our initiatives to take the bilateral relationship forward in recent years have proven that cooperation can yield the results that our people desire - a win-win dividend for countries as proximate as ours. India, Bangladesh and other countries in the region, which share common values and developmental goals, can ensure that the GenNext, which accounts for a major part of our populations, can expect to see a more just, equitable and accessible global order. One that we can work together to achieve.

The writer is High Commissioner of India in Bangladesh. He gave the speech at the National Defence College, Bangladesh on August 13, 2018.

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Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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