Sheikh Hasina-Modi Summit, 2022: Facing Regional Geopolitics Through Mutual Understanding and Trust

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The recent visit of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to India from September 5-8 was very important from a geopolitical point of view. The regional politics is undergoing changes due to some recent developments such as the Ukraine war, Taiwan tension, increasing competition in the Indo-Pacific, accession of the Taliban government in Afghanistan, economic breakdown in Sri Lanka, protracted Rohingya issue, ongoing tension between Bangladesh and Myanmar, and intensifying Indo-China rivalry. In this context, the visit was crucial to establish a relationship of mutual trust and understanding between Bangladesh and India. During the visit, both countries discussed issues like security, defense, border management, trade and connectivity, water resources, power and energy, and regional cooperation which bear political and strategic significance in this changing regional geopolitics. No doubt, it will help them to face the upcoming challenges together. Moreover, this visit has created more scope for regional cooperation which will enable South Asia to fight the difficulties as a regional whole.

Evolving Regional Geopolitics in South Asia

If anyone wants to realize the true essence of the recently concluded visit of Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to India, one must take into consideration the changing dynamics of regional geopolitics. The visit took place in a context that is much different compared to the visit of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to India back in 2019. Since then, many developments have taken place which shaped the regional geopolitics in a way that no one predicted. The outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic seriously disrupted the world economy. South Asia was no exception in terms of falling Gross Domestic Product (GDP) rate, supply chain disruptions, and massive job losses. But the countries were quick to recover which showed the resilience of South Asian countries. South Asia achieved a GDP growth rate of 8.32% in 2021 which was a 13.56% increase from last year. However, the war in Ukraine severely damaged the upward growth rate once again. The rising inflation, soaring price of essentials, and shortage of energy supplies have created the fear of global instability and insecurity. The withdrawal of the US troops from Afghanistan after a decades-long military operation last year is also a very important factor in regional geopolitics.

Moreover, the economic crisis in Sri Lanka has handed a strategic advantage to India over China to reestablish its dominance there. India has become the largest financial supporter of Sri Lanka since the crisis started. The Rohingya crisis and Myanmar’s violations of  the sovereign space of Bangladesh are detrimental to the bilateral relations between the two countries. It seriously undermines the peace and stability of the region. There is also increasing competition in the Indo-Pacific. The relations between India and China have also deteriorated in the last few years. All these events have contributed to shaping the regional geopolitics differently compared to the visit of Prime Sheikh Hasina to India before the outbreak of Covid-19. Besides these, some domestic factors such as the impending national election, growing anti-India sentiments, and certain contentious bilateral issues have made the visit geopolitically significant for both Bangladesh and India.

The Geopolitical Significance of the Hasina-Modi Summit

In the last 50 years, Bangladesh and India have elevated their bilateral relations into a strategic partnership. Bangladesh features in India’s “Neighborhood First” and “Act East” policies. Moreover, it holds the key to establishing a good connection between the strategically significant Northeast and mainland India. Similarly, Bangladesh relies on India for its trade, energy, security, and development. Most importantly, India helps Bangladesh to maintain balanced diplomatic relations with other major powers in world politics.

Bangladesh and India are now enjoying the “golden chapter” of their friendly relations and 2021 was the landmark year when both the Indian President and Prime Minister visited Bangladesh on different occasions. The relations between these two friendly neighbors even go beyond strategic partnership as both countries have strong political, security, defense, economic, and cultural ties in between them. The recently concluded Hasina-Modi summit will definitely boost the existing strategic partnership between the countries amid changing dynamics in regional geopolitics.

Since the Ukraine war began, the world has been facing a renewed energy crisis due to the sanctions on Russia which is one of the largest energy suppliers in the world. In Bangladesh, the price of oil and gas has doubled. In the recent visit, cooperation in the energy and power sector was prioritized. The Unit-I of the Maitree Super Thermal Power Plant was officially inaugurated by both Prime Ministers. A synchronous connection between the electrical grids of the two nations was also agreed upon. One such project is the high-capacity 765 KV transmission line that will run from Katihar in Bihar to Bornagar in Assam through Parbatipur in Bangladesh. Moreover, both countries discussed the quick completion of the “India-Bangladesh Friendship Pipeline” which will help to meet Bangladesh’s energy needs. Bangladesh expressed its intention to import energy directly from India. At the sub-regional level, Bangladesh also proposed to import power from Nepal and Bhutan through India. Nonetheless, this visit will definitely help Bangladesh to ensure its energy security in the face of energy shortage in the country. In addition, regional and sub-regional energy cooperation will also get new momentum.

Food insecurity is another issue that has been triggered by the Ukraine war. The price hikes of essential commodities have affected the livelihood of poor and middle-class people in Bangladesh. As a result, the Bangladesh government identified rice, wheat, sugar, onion, ginger, and garlic as ‘strategic commodities’ during the visit and sought an uninterrupted supply of these critical products. By doing this, Bangladesh has rightfully elevated the significance of these essential food products in their bilateral relations, which will require India to be more cautious and build a framework to eliminate all the uncertainties in regard to the supply of these ‘strategic commodities’.

During the visit, an emphasis was also placed on bilateral cooperation in defense and security due to increased political rivalry and the emergence of new security threats in the region. Both countries agreed to finalize the projects under the $500 million Line of Credit (LoC) for defense. Moreover, India welcomed the procurement plans for vehicles for the Bangladesh Armed Forces to increase bilateral defense ties. Many common security threats were also discussed during the visit. Both countries promised to maintain a peaceful and crime-free border. To bolster border security, both leaders directed officials to step up their efforts against arms smuggling, drug trafficking, illegal trade, and human trafficking. They also decided to strive toward bringing the number of border casualties down to zero. Both countries also reiterated their commitments to counter and prevent the spread of terrorism, violent extremism, and radicalization together. Nevertheless, an emphasis on maritime security was also given as India requested Bangladesh to implement the 2019 MoU for providing a coastal radar system to increase maritime surveillance.

A strong economy is said to be the foundation to build the hard power of a country in the future. The bilateral trade between Bangladesh and India reached $10.78 billion last year. During the visit, both countries discussed the prospects for a Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (CEPA) and directed officials to start negotiations to complete the deal as soon as possible. It will help Bangladesh to reduce its dependency on the European market for its exports as we can see the impacts on Bangladesh’s export volume due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the Ukraine war. Both leaders also discussed the removal of all sorts of trade barriers and the upgradation of land port facilities for enhancing bilateral trade. Bangladesh is also the highest receiver of Indian credits under its LoCs. Bangladesh appreciated the efficiency of India’s fund disbursement in the last financial year, as India became the top development partner in terms of total funds disbursement in a single year. It signals India’s growing contribution as a development partner against China.

Connectivity has also strategic significance, especially when it comes to access to ports that are located in strategically significant areas. During the Summit, the two Prime Ministers expressed their satisfaction with the successful conclusion of the trial runs under the Agreement on the use of the Chattogram and Mongla Ports (ACMP). These two ports are located in a strategically significant area of the Bay of Bengal where China wants to establish its presence through its BRI. Bangladesh already gave access to the Chattogram port to China. Now, with India having access to the port, both China and India will try to balance each other there. Besides port connectivity, both countries emphasized coastal shipping, inland water transit, transit to the third country, construction of new connectivity infrastructures, linking different railways and highways of both countries, and regional and sub-regional connectivity initiatives to facilitate bilateral and regional connectivity.

The protracted Rohingya crisis has also been creating security threats for Bangladesh and the whole region. During the visit, India appreciated the generosity of Bangladesh to host over 1.3 million Rohingya over the last five years and reiterated its continuous support for a safe, sustainable, and dignified return of the Rohingya to Myanmar. Bangladesh, at the same time, expressed its gratitude for India’s support during Covid-19 as it helped Bangladesh by providing medical equipment and more importantly the Covid-19 vaccines under the “Vaccine Maitri” initiative. In the future, both countries pledged to work together for ensuring human security for the people living in the region.

Lastly, both leaders underscored the importance of regional cooperation through the regional organizations to counter future challenges as one unified entity. They discussed their respective role in different regional and sub-regional organizations such as the BIMSTEC and Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) to strengthen regional unity and cooperation.

Concluding Remarks

The evolving geopolitics has given India new advantages for playing bigger role in the region and beyond. In this context, the Hasina-Modi Summit bears critical geopolitical significance. The visit has undoubtedly strengthened the strategic partnership between Bangladesh and India. However, Bangladesh is deeply committed to its policy of maintaining a balanced and independent stance on foreign policy and strategic matters. It was evident when Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in an interview with ANI ahead of her visit, reiterated that Bangladesh’s foreign policy is based on “friendship to all, malice to none” and mutual understanding and trust is the root of peace and stability in the region. [Read as a Pdf]

– Mohammad Estiak Hossain is a Research Intern of the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA).