Pak-Bangladesh Entente: A Window of Opportunity

Amidst Sino-India military standoff, the latest telephonic conversation between Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her Pakistani counterpart Imran Khan has raised lots of eyebrows in New Delhi, shattering the aplomb of India about Eastern theatre.

Indian media may pretend to portray the event as surprising, but it is hardly surprising, if analysed from a Bangladeshi perspective. Since the bloody separation from Pakistan in 1971, Bangladesh has walked through tempests after tempests. The assassination of two Presidents (Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in 1975 and Ziaur Rahman in 1981) who both wanted normalisation of ties with Pakistan and to look beyond New Delhi in addition to coups, counter coups, failed coups, political agitations and uprisings have engulfed Dhaka in political turmoil for a good part of its nearly five decades of existence. A rising China has enabled a paradigm shift, which has become visible since the recent military standoff between India and China, which has emboldened Dhaka to take more assertive role in its South Asian outlook.

However, Bangladeshi public’s dismay for Indian attitude towards her all-weather friend never quieted down. Unresolved Teesta river water sharing, humongous trade imbalance, relentless killings of Bangladeshi nationals along the border, routine interferences during times of political instability, libelling Bangladeshis as termites and illegal infiltrators, and changing geopolitical order only boasted Dhaka’s morale to play her cards. What Dhaka desperately needed was a long period of political stability, aiding a much-desired economic growth that drew millions out of extreme poverty.

 

New looks in Dhaka

A new setup of Awami League cabinet after the 2018 election hinted Dhaka’s premeditation to remodel regional priorities, where most of the pro-Indian veteran politicians were left out. In an unprecedented attempt China took symbolic gesture to congratulate Hasina’s re-election, where the then Chinese Ambassador was seen handing over a replica of a boat – Awami League’s electoral symbol – as a congratulatory note from China, a move reaffirming to expedite the strategic relationship that was announced by Xi Jinping during his visit to Bangladesh in October 2016. Such an elevation allows Beijing to check India’s influence over Bay of Bengal. In order to cement Chinese leverage over the Bay of Bengal into a lasting impression, breaking the ice between Dhaka and Islamabad was imperative.

The thaw in Bangladesh-Pakistan ties was expected after Imran Khan’s ascendance to premiership in 2018, when Bangladeshi Prime Minister in a press conference expressed her willingness to improve ties.

Despite having formal relations, the ties between Dhaka and Islamabad turned frosty after the starting of the trial of Bangladeshis accused of ‘war crimes’ during 1971 war. Keeping aside all the political rhetoric associated with the tribunal, from a geopolitical perspective, Dhaka’s ‘war crimes’ trials significantly scaled down the political influence of Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami. Nevertheless, from Pakistani point of view, Islamabad considered politicians from opponent parties of Awami League as a bastion of anti-Indian politics. But ground realities in Bangladesh have been changing significantly after Beijing’s desire to foster partnership with Dhaka grew louder. Although the Bangladesh Nationalist Party led opposition faction was traditionally seen as pro-Chinese, distance that grew between them after the Taiwan fiasco never changed, rather Chinese Communist Party took the opportunity to grow its relationship with the ruling party i.e. Awami League. The beginning of a formal relationship between Communist Party of China and Awami League marked the presence of a strong pro-China faction inside the ruling party which is traditionally seen as pro-India.

The thaw in Bangladesh-Pakistan ties was expected after Imran Khan’s ascendance to premiership in 2018, when Bangladeshi Prime Minister in a press conference expressed her willingness to improve ties. She said: “Imran Khan hit many sixes. Now let’s see if he can smash a six in the game of power. We will be happy if he can do this.” The desire to have entente was marked during Sheikh Hasina’s face to face interaction with Imran Khan in Saudi Arabia. The signs of melting of the ice surfaced when Pakistan was seen cordially welcome Bangladesh cricket team for a bilateral tour. These events in addition to other developments clearly indicate that Dhaka and Islamabad are improving ties in a gradual manner, unlike Indian claims of a bolt from the blue.

 

Common Grounds for Dhaka and Islamabad

Bangladesh and Pakistan are both victims of political turmoil and internal strife. While Pakistan was battling out terrorism within its borders, Bangladesh faced challenges of political instability which largely played role in her economic hardship. Bangladesh restored a sense of political calm after 2015 – continuation of the regime since 2009 and strengthening of administrative control all the way down to grassroots. The most critical factor for the stability of Dhaka government is the unflinching support from the military. A country like Bangladesh had, many times in the past, seen military interventions against civilian government. Hence military support was crucial for Dhaka regime’s survival in the tumultuous times of 2014 and 2015.

These events in addition to other developments clearly indicate that Dhaka and Islamabad are improving ties in a gradual manner, unlike Indian claims of a bolt from the blue.

The common links of Pakistan and Bangladesh are the military establishments of both countries and China, the biggest military hardware supplier and trading partner of both Islamabad and Dhaka. Following a series of contacts between Sheikh Hasina and Imran Khan, governments in both countries look to mend the strained ties by taking account of changing geopolitical order. Emerging economies of Bangladesh and Pakistan want to exploit the full potential of China’s Belt Road Initiative (BRI), a colossal project that is openly opposed by India. India, for her part of the Quad concept, will look to face up to China’s overtures in the region on behalf of the United States (US). China on her part will look to diffuse India’s position in Quad by actively promoting Dhaka and Islamabad ties.

Taking into account the huge economic potential of BRI and mutual trade, Dhaka and Islamabad will be aware of India’s dismay, and based on the common grievances associated with India and the emerging fallout of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, Dhaka and Islamabad will in the future move on to enhance contact and collaboration in economic and military spheres. As both the countries are participants of BRI, the countries share common threats of hybrid warfare directed against them.

Khalid Ibn Muneer

Khalid Ibn Muneer

Khalid Ibn Muneer is an independent foreign affairs analyst based in Dhaka, Bangladesh. He is a keen follower of South Asian and Middle Eastern affairs, and is an editor of the foreign affairs blog Qutnyti.

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