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Strategic talks held between Indian foreign secretary Shringla and Bangladesh army chief?

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Bangladesh Army Chief Lieutenant General Aziz Ahmed

While the recent Dhaka visit of Indian foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla seems to have caught everyone by surprise, the significance of the meeting has been lost on none.  According to Indian media, it seems strategic issues dominated the discussions between the Indian foreign secretary and the Bangladesh side.

According to the Indian newspaper Swarajya, quoting unnamed sources in India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), Shringla held virtual meetings from his suite at the Pan Pacific Sonargaon Hotel in Dhaka with Bangladesh’s army chief and other top functionaries.

Though ostensibly the Dhaka trip was a part of the much-touted ‘vaccine diplomacy’ which seems to be the latest game in global politics, analysts read much more into the visit. The unseen yet very palpable presence that loomed large over the trip, was none other than that of China. 

Swarajya reported that Beijing has significant development assistance lined up for Bangladesh. The MEA sources said that China is especially interested in investing in projects in northern Bangladesh that borders North Bengal.

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China is believed to be planning a number of investment proposals ranging from river ports along the Teesta to townships, economic zones, hydel power plants, roads and bridges, tourism projects and factories, especially in Bangladesh’s Rangpur division. 

Swarajya quotes MEA sources, indicating that the reason of the visit, “was to preempt Beijing’s plan to expand its footprint in Bangladesh. China is already financing infrastructure projects worth US$ 22 billion in Bangladesh and is planning to extend a fresh line of credit to Dhaka.”

China’s investments particularly in Rangpur’s strategic location, in close proximity to the ‘Chicken Neck’ corridor to India’s volatile northeastern states, seem to have worried New Delhi. That is why observers feel the virtual meeting between foreign secretary and the Bangladesh army chief is significant. 

Another Indian newspaper, The Print, also highlights the waxing and waning relations between Bangladesh with India and China, the latter seeing to be gaining over the former. It writes, “When Foreign Secretary Shringla’s plane landed, no senior official of any consequence came to receive him, or see him off. In sharp contrast, when a team of 10 Chinese doctors arrived in Dhaka to help Bangladeshis combat the coronavirus in June, foreign minister AK Abdul Momen came to the airport to welcome them.”

Swarajya also points to China using its hard and fast ally in the neighbourhood, Pakistan: “Moreover, China has been prodding Pakistan to boost its ties with Bangladesh as part of Beijing’s sinister plan to isolate India in its neighbourhood. Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan called up Sheikh Hasina in the third week of July and raised the Kashmir issue with her.” This set alarm bells ringing in Delhi.

The paper continues about the Pakistan overture, “The development indicated that Pakistan, which has its share of sympathisers in Bangladesh’s political, bureaucratic, diplomatic and military establishments as well as in civil society, will aggressively woo Dhaka.

Also Read: Shringla's airdash: Did Bangladesh put its cards on the table?

“A senior official in the MEA said that Beijing is also very keen in stepping up military ties with Dhaka. Beijing is especially keen on forging close links between the navies of the two countries with the objective of gaining greater access to the Bay of Bengal.

“The People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy has already established close ties with Myanmar and Thailand and its warships visit naval facilities in those two countries on a regular basis.”

There was a general feel of concern that if the PLA Navy could secure a foothold in Bangladesh, it will be able to keep a watch on Indian Navy’s activities and facilities in the Bay of Bengal, especially the strategically important Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

Swarajya reported that “all these developments prompted New Delhi to, as the senior MEA official put it, “inject a booster dose” in Indo-Bangla ties. Hence, Shringla was dispatched to Dhaka with a basket of proposals and promises.”