India and Bangladesh boost ties, yet challenges remain

Underlining a sea change in their relationship, India and Bangladesh foster ties during prime minister Manmohan Singh's visit to Dhaka. Turkey-Israel relations reach a new low as Ankara suspends defence industry relations. US and Pakistan praise arrest of al-Qaeda operatives in Quetta while Tuareg fighters in Libya are asked to rally with new leaders. All this in today's security briefing...
Radu Nikolaus Botez
8 September 2011

On Tuesday, Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh embarked on a two-day state visit to Dhaka where he met his Bangladeshi counterpart prime minister Sheikh Hasina. The visit is the first of an Indian prime minister since 1999 when then-prime minister Athal Bihari Vajpayee went to Dhaka, and the first of a prime minister from the Congress party since 1972.

One issue on the agenda are the almost 200 territorial enclaves that have been disputed between two countries over the past decades. India holds 111 of those in Bangladesh, with an estimated population of 150,000 while Bangladesh has 51 enclaves, with about 50,000 residents, surrounded by Indian territory. Singh and Hasina have reportedly reached an agreement that foresees the exchange of these territories, while also finishing demarcation of the border. For India, it is the first fully demarcated border with one of its neighbours.     

However, no deals have been reached on two other major issues. Aiming at moving towards a resolution of water sharing between the two countries, Singh and Hasina were supposed to sign an agreement on the sharing of the Teesta river, giving Bangladesh 48 per cent of the river’s waters. But Mamta Banerjee, chief minister of the India-Bagladesh border-state of West Bengal, objected to the agreement, thus putting a deal out of reach, much to the anger of Bangladesh. Nor was the question of granting India transit to its north-eastern states through Bangladeshi territory resolved, seen to be dependent on progress on water sharing. Many, including the Bangladesh National Party (BNP), the opposition party, have said that Dhaka should use the transit question as bargaining chip in order to obtain concessions from New Delhi on other issues.

In July, Congress party leader Sonia Gandhi visited Dhaka where she met with Sheikh Hasina while India’s foreign minister Somanahalli Mallaiah Krishna also went to Bangladesh earlier that month.

Following the visit of Hasina to New Delhi in early 2010, relations between the two countries have been on an upswing.

The openSecurity verdict: Ties between India and Bangladesh, characterized by distrust and suspicion in the past, have considerably improved since Sheikh Hasina took office in 2009. While Singh’s visit to Dhaka is of great importance and underlines a sea change in relations, initiated with Hasina's visit to New Delhi in 2010, some challenges remain.

Over the past two years, Dhaka has moved towards New Delhi on different issues. Most notably, it addressed India’s security concerns, a long-time irritant, by arresting and handing over militants active in India’s northeast that took shelter in Bangladesh, such as Arabindo Rajhowa, leader of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), a militant group. Others that have been arrested earlier were extradited. India, on the other hand, has been handing over criminals seeking refuge in India. Moreover, New Delhi seems to have restrained its trigger-happy border guards that tended to shoot illegal migrants from Bangladesh trying to cross the border without asking questions.

On the economic side, India has now granted duty-free access to 46 textile items from Bangladesh in a bid to boost trade and reduce Dhaka’s trade deficit; while importing more than $4.5 billion worth of goods in the fiscal year 2010-11, Bangladesh only exported goods worth $512 million. Trade between China and Bangladesh, however, has long surpassed that of India.

China-Bangladesh relations have not only flourished in the economic realm as China has also become Bangladesh’s preferred arms supplier; recently, Dhaka has announced it is procuring 44 Chinese MBT-2000s main battle tanks worth $162 million. The country’s 2011 defence budget totals $1.6 billion. China has also been engaged in different infrastructure projects such as the Chittagong port, to which India was also granted access. China’s relations with Bangladesh are closely watched in New Delhi where some see Bejing’s increasing ties with Indian Ocean Region-countries as amounting to “strategic encirclement” of India.  

Ultimately, the future of India-Bangladesh relations will depend on internal politics in Bangladesh where the BNP, traditionally opposing stronger ties with India, has strongly criticized the government for making too many concessions in negotiations. They expect Sheikh Hasina to take advantage of Bangladesh’s importance for both India and China and extract more benefits for their country rather than easily make concessions. Indeed, as The Economist recently pointed out ‘for India, however, the risk is that it is betting too heavily on Sheikh Hasina’. However, the fact that Manmohan Singh is also meeting BNP leader Khaleda Zia during his visit, a primer, indicates that India is aware of the need to engage with the opposition party if it wants relations to be sustainable.

Public opinion, it seems, favours improvement of relations and will do so as long as the border remains free of skirmishes and unnecessary killings, while a resolution of the water sharing issue would also help New Delhi in furthering ties and reducing distrust and suspicion. At the same time, it needs to make clear its intentions on issues such as the transit corridor; some in Bangladesh fear India will use it for army supplies in order to clamp down on insurgents in its northeast more easily or, worse, to supply divisions at the border with China there.

While ties seem to have reached a normal level with Singh’s visit to Dhaka, India and Bangladesh now need to make sure their relationship is sustainable.

Israel-Turkey relations deteriorate further

On Tuesday, Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey was ‘totally suspending’ defence industry ties with Israel. In the last deal between the two countries, Ankara had acquired 10 advanced drones which it uses in its operations against Kurdish rebels. Although Turkey has no plans to buy more military equipment, it might need Israeli technical assistance to operate them, according to commentators.

Relations between the two countries have considerably deteriorated since nine Turkish nationals died in a deadly raid by Israeli forces on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla last year. Ankara has repeatedly demanded an apology from Tel Aviv, with foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu stating two weeks ago that “there can be no normalisation with Israel if Turkey’s demands are not met”. However, Israel has refused to apologise, saying its forces acted in self-defence.

A UN report on the events, published last Friday, says force used by Israel was “excessive and unreasonable”, while also noting that Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza was in line with international law. According to observers, the publication of the report, initially due in February, has been delayed in order to allow reconciliation between the two countries. But Turkey expelled Israel’s ambassador and suspended all military agreements following the report’s release. Davutoglu stated that ‘the time has come for Israel to pay for its stance that sees it above international laws and disregards human consciences,’ while Erdogan threatened that Turkey would impose more sanctions against Israel, without, however, providing details on the nature of those sanctions. He also said Turkey will step up its surveillance of the eastern Mediterranean Sea.

US, Pakistan praise cooperation in arrest of al-Qaeda operatives

On Monday, Pakistan announced the arrest of three al-Qaeda operatives in the south-western city of Quetta, saying that the ‘operation was planned and conducted with technical assistance of United States intelligence agencies with whom Inter-Services Intelligence has a strong, historic intelligence relationship.’ One of the arrested militants is Younis al-Mauritani, a senior member of the Islamist group ‘responsible for planning and conduct of international operations’. The arrest is seen as another blow to the global terror network; last month, a US drone killed al-Qaeda’s top operational planner and second-ranking figure, Atiyah Abd al-Rahman in Pakistan.

Ties between the US and Pakistan have been strained since the killing of Osama bin-Laden by US special forces in Pakistan earlier this year. The operation was seen as a violation of its sovereignty by Pakistan while bin-Laden’s whereabouts rose doubts about Islamabad’s counter-terrorism efforts, especially in the US. The praise from both Islamabad and Washington for the successful arrest of al-Mauritani and two other operatives is seen by some observers as an indication of a thaw in relations between the two countries. However, others suggest Pakistan feels its efforts have not received sufficient acknowledgement by the US.

Tuareg fighters in Libya asked to cooperate with new leaders

Tuareg leaders in Mali and Niger have asked Tuareg fighters in Libya to abandon Muammar Gaddafi and to cooperate with Libya’s National Transitional Council (NTC). Tens of thousands of Tuaregs, one of the largest nomadic groups in the region, have settled over the years in Libya, some of them joining Gaddhafi’s military. More have crossed the border as mercenaries to fight for Gaddhafi.

According to Ibrahim Ag Mohamed Assaleh, the head of Niger and Mali’s Tuareg Contact Group, Tuareg fighters have fled Libya following the on-set of the war and are now asked to return in order to avoid the conflict to spill into their countries of origin. The larger concern, however, is that an already food-insecure and instable region, not least due to a mounting security challenge from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), would be unable to deal with such an influx of people.

Although Tuareg leaders say the NTC has provided assurances that Tuareg fighters in the army would not be targeted, migrants from sub-Saharan Africa in general have faced reprisals as they are seen as mercenaries who fought for Gaddafi.   

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