India’s Act East policy under stress

Mrinal K. Biswas

Final answer to the question of to be or not to be is before India on striking a Teesta river water sharing pact and approaching for the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar road connectivity, both being important parts of Modi government’s Act East policy. A breakthrough in these areas, to start with,  will no not only emphasize India’s capability of deliverance on toxic international issues but will at the same time diminish the air of inevitability about a future Sino-centric Asia.
The 1983 India-Bangladesh agreement for sharing of its water resources could not be given the seal of approval within two years and hence lapsed. The Teesta water is flowing down from India’s Sikkim to West Bengal and then goes into Bangladesh. The bilateral sovereign understanding was to share the Teesta river water in the ratio of 39 per cent for India, 36 per cent for Bangladesh while the remaining 25 per cent of the water would freely flow down the river. Bangladesh was calling for an agreement on the issue but India’s past Prime Minister Manmohan Singh failed to sign a pact because of West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s intransigence. The New Delhi summit meet between Prime Ministers Narendra Modi of India and Sk. Hasina of Bangladesh on 09 March 2017 resulted in a bouquet of agreements but a Teesta pact eluded them this time also. Only relief for the river water seeking Bangladesh Prime Minister was Modi’s open commitment for an “early” closure to the Teesta water sharing agreement, despite unending shadow opposition by Mamata Banerjee. The maverick Bengal leader maintains shrinking Teesta water practically was not possible for share.
Next day addressing at the India Foundation Sk Hasina commented, “we asked for water and got electricity instead. Still, it’s good to get something.” The summit did yield some positive results for Bangladesh, though. The agreements covered defence pacts including the security relationship between the two countries and nuclear deals, training of Bangladesh scientists in designing reactors. A $5 billion Indian soft loan would enable Bangladesh to use the fund for 20 years with provision of extension of the same for five years carrying an interest of 1 per cent only. Immediate benefits would  be setting up of a power generating project at Paira port in Bangladesh, rail port and road constructions in that country with India’s help. A year back Exim Bank of India signed an agreement to extend $2 billion line of credit to Bangladesh for use in a wide range of areas including the social sector while a previous $1 billion 2010 credit line for Bangladesh was mostly concentrated on communication infrastructure. All these efforts will meet up to a level the Chinese challenge which signed 27 agreements lasting 30 years worth billions of dollars boosting Bangladesh infrastructure. These were signed during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Dhaka visit in October 2016.
Bangladesh’s involvement in the making of a stress-free Bay of Bengal assumes importance as undersea resource mobilization, sea fishing, environmental balance; natural calamity damage control measures will gather momentums in course of time. A little over the bay, Indian Ocean is an important sea route for international trade and business. India is keen to see all the coastal countries, Bangladesh as a matter of course, ensure free sailings in this vast waterway. Incidentally, China has given two submarines to Bangladesh.
In the circumstances, India stretched its financial power to meet Bangladesh economic needs as a kind of compensation package, which will to an extent .help in the latter’s domestic politics  as well as substantially override China’s calculated overreach in South and South-east Asia. India has a stake in the continuation of the power that is in Bangladesh. Sk Hasina is giving a hard look in her country’s general election next year in which her ruling Awami League is to overcome the challenge of the BNP-Jamait combine, the latter being inclined to pan-Islamism and not much enamoured of India. The failed Teesta venture was a setback for her government though the electoral battle would not be insurmountable for Sk. Hasina considering the gestures Modi government has bestowed upon her. And of course the lethal actions Awami League government have adopted to incapacitate extremists has weakened the Islamite opposition in Bangladesh and brought relief to India because Bangladesh is no longer a safe haven for ISIS-inspired terrorists targeting India, Pakistan is still encouraging anti-India campaigns there in various forms and directions though. If positive features go on developing from the current Modi-Hasina bonhomie and a Teesta river water sharing pact is signed in the foreseeable future India will be better equipped to apply a brake to China’s ambition of casting a large sphere of influence in Asia.
The present round of discussions at Kolkata among the top level officials of Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar (BCIM) for a connectivity project is indeed a follow-up of earlier such meetings in 2013 and 2014. BCIM is entertained by India because of its once highly gainful viable trade route connecting Kolkata to China’s Kunming. Chinese proposal to include this project in the far more ambitious One Belt, One Road (OBOR) venture will sure be a new agenda If China wants a discussion on this new element. India has reasons to be suspicious about the whole OBOR project as this will open up the sensitive north-eastern parts of the country to prowling elements which are sure to operate at other countries’ behalf.
China has excited the imagination and romanticism of the continents by announcing a new Silk Road Economic Belt and a Maritime Silk Road, together named OBOR.  Modern Silk Road OBOR is the brain-child of Chinese President  Xi Jiping who and his government are pushing hard  for the venture by inviting other countries at a meeting in May next, to be partners in the project with a huge $4 trillion corpus to be raised from the China-led Asian Infrastructure Bank and the New Development Bank. At one end of OBOR would be China while India, Persia, Arabia and Europe will have, first, a unified road connectivity, as the modern manifestation of the 13th century Silk Road. Xi believes globalization will get a boost in the new world order, but it will ostensibly under Chinese hegemony. Nepal and some other countries have already supported the Chinese move which is gaining ground. India has raised doubts.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi twice this and the earlier year questioned the compelling logic of regional connectivity for peace, progress and prosperity. More provocatively he said the proposed connectivity could not “override or undermine the sovereignty of other nations.” India’s objection to the $50 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is based on the fact that the corridor passes through Gilgit/Baltistan in the Pakistan-occupied Kashmir en route to Gwadar port in Baluchistan. OBOR being a unilateral Chinese initiative India fears that this could be a part of China’s plan to encircle India and build up the economies of neighbouring countries as future markets for Chinese products.
India cannot ignore OBOR venture at its face value. The neighbouring countries support for this move is under India’s close watch. India is presently making a risk-benefit assessment about OBOR. The current Kolkata BCIM conclave will be testing ground for India to see whether there will be any leeway for her and other countries in the Chinese initiative.

Monday, 24 April, 2017