Published:  12:30 AM, 29 February 2020

What does Trump's India visit mean for Bangladesh?

What does Trump's India visit mean for Bangladesh?

Even without a major trade agreement, this week's India visit by United States President Donald Trump indicates how close the two geopolitical allies have become.  When I first started coming to India in the early 2000's, one of the most frequent questions Indians would ask me was, "Why does the US support Pakistan?" 

The answer in part is that India allied itself with the Soviet Union almost since the start of the Cold War, not long after its birth.  Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru called his alliance "non-aligned (NAM), but no one believed that.  Nehru's pro-USSR tilt had been on display for a decade before he started his movement, and all of the major leaders were communists:

Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Ahmed Sukarno of Indonesia, Yugoslavia's Josip Broz Tito, and Nehru.There were natural consequences to its being non-aligned in name only, because until the USSR passed into the dustbin of history in 1991, US foreign policy was conducted through the prism of the Cold War; and with Nehru hobnobbing with some of the most anti-American leaders on the planet, US-India relations suffered.

Members of the US State and Defense departments are no different than their counterparts around the world.  When they want to know what's going on in a particular area, they rarely get on a plane and go there.  Their best bet is to pick up the phone and talk with people there whom they trust.  And for more than four decades, for South Asia, that meant Pakistanis. 

Even today, the Indian Congress Party, which ruled India for almost the entire period of the Cold War, maintains at least an overall distaste for the United States.  For instance, the most recent Indian Prime Minister from the Congress Party, Manmohan Singh, along with the Congress leaders in both houses of the Indian parliament, boycotted the state dinner for President Trump.

Things began to thaw a little in 2000 when US President Bill Clinton visited India and its first Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee; the first visit by a US President in 22 years.

Today old animosities seem long forgotten, and the first day of Trump's visit was a daylong love fest between him and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.  One Indian station counted the number of "power hugs" between Trump and Modi, declaring that the number was greater than Modi's hugs for any other world leader and another indication of their close relationship.

More seriously, the world's largest and the world's oldest democracies do share critical geopolitical interests, especially stopping China's aggressive expansion, which includes surrounding India and superseding the United States.

"Regardless," one of your former cabinet ministers asked me, "what does any of that mean for Bangladesh?"  That's the key question, and there are a lot of good answers, beginning with China.  The visit gives Bangladesh a roadmap for navigating its way forward, especially given the Chinese economy's likely collapse that will leave your Prime Minister looking for a new patron.

And, if she didn't know it before, she found out again that her path to one, namely the United States, runs through India.  The first thing that the Trump trip does is to give your Prime Minister a way out of her disastrous decision to hook your country's rising star to China's declining economy.

Even before the coronavirus crisis, China was in trouble.  The government was force to take an increasing number of actions to save business from defaulting on their sizable loans.  Manufacturing demand was dropping with other players entering the market.  And China's trade war with the United States was taking its toll on a fragile economy.

  Moreover, these factors are making it ever more difficult for China to sustain the large number of loans it's been making under the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI).  From a "road to nowhere" in Macedonia to an empty airport in The Maldives, countries are not generating sufficient income from their BRI projects to service their debt to China;

and deals like China's taking control of Sri Lanka's Hambantota port in exchange for debt relief are not enough to fill the gaping hole.  Even Pakistan, which became something close to a Chinse client state thought the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, or CPEC, began canceling some BRI projects to save its struggling economy.

Bangladesh can do the same, and at the same time, leverage its strategic importance to get the best deals from both the United States and China (assuming China still has the ability to do anything after the coronavirus dust settles).  Here are some actions and initiatives that Bangladesh can take, which US-India closeness makes possible.

n Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina can use her good relationship with Prime Minister Modi to have him signal to the United States that she would like to discuss a number of ways the US and Bangladesh can cooperate and extend US and Indian influence in the region.

n She also can signal her desire to give Bangladesh a healthy alternative to China's BRI, which many people term "debt trap diplomacy," to help assure her people's future.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently concluded a tour of Africa where he offered US investment as an alternative to Chinese loans; that is, mutual effort as opposed to a one-sided lender-debtor relationship.  This is a priority for the United States, Bangladesh should seize it.

n Against the backdrop of recent riots in the Indian capital of Delhi around India's Citizenship Amendment Act, signal Bangladesh's desire to help ease intercommunal tensions, based on an understanding that minorities face challenges in all the countries of what was once British India.

There is good reason why the Modi government felt it important to pass a law that provides a refuge for Hindus and others from surrounding countries; and that while Bangladesh is committed in its basic principles to protecting people of all faith, it also recognizes that neither the Indian nor Bangladeshi governments are engaging in these actions themselves. 

There is a solution with which Bangladesh can help itself and India; and it lies in a comprehensive effort that focuses on concrete actions while eliminating the legacy of "divide and conquer colonialism" that continues to fuel the violence.

n Like Bangladesh, India has a history of support for Palestinian aspirations.  Yet, today, India has strong, robust, and mutually beneficial relationship with Israel.  Few countries still maintain a one-sided policy with regard to the Middle East anymore.

In fact, Bangladesh is one of only eight Muslim-majority countries that have no level of relations with Israel; many of them are war-torn and unable to conduct coherent foreign policy (Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen) or radical (Iran and Pakistan).  Algeria, the seventh, is neither and might leave this dubious group after its new reformist government settles into office.

While it's unlikely that Bangladesh would want to have the sort of full-throated relations enjoyed by India, Egypt, and others right away; there are a host of options that will enable slow testing of economic and other ties. It would strengthen ties with both the US and India and bring tangible results to the people of Bangladesh.

n Since its birth, Bangladesh has been committed to democratic ideals.  Unfortunately, things have not always worked out so well in practice.  The US government funds and operates several agencies that can help with things like religious freedom, press freedom, and political freedom, which sometimes face attack in Bangladesh.

Asking for this help would not identify Bangladesh as un-democratic; quite the contrary.  It shows that this democratic nation always looks for help to strengthen its democratic institutions.

n Then there are potential initiatives for reduction of pollution, rodent elimination, water purification, and such that Bangladesh can offer to lead as part of regional efforts, further increasing cooperation with India.  As an American who frequently is in this beautiful country, I can attest to how badly these initiatives are needed.  Israel, by the way, can offer great technical help as well.

These are just some potential projects; there are more.  They can help Bangladesh capitalize on the momentum generated by the American president's South Asian visit, and give Bangladesh options with which to move forward.  As a capitalist, I know that options and competition will serve to get the best for the people of Bangladesh.  And as always, I offer my good offices to help in any way.

The writer is an American scholar and a geopolitical analyst

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