Monday, February 09, 2009

Bowring: Neighbors who should be friends


PHILIP BOWRING

A GOODWILL visit by a foreign minister to a neighboring country is not normally noteworthy, but the Indian foreign minister's trip to Bangladesh on Monday could mark a turn toward better relations between the neighboring countries, with benefits for all South Asia.

The immediate occasion for Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee's visit was the victory of Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League in the recent Bangladesh election, which was very warmly received in Delhi.

The Awami League has always been friendlier to India than the opposition parties, and Hasina has personal links to the Gandhi family. Beyond that is an alignment of forces telling both sides that they need to stop sniping and start cooperating.

At the broadest level, there is a growing recognition in India's leadership that a rising India needs to foster cooperation with its neighbors, and not to view their weaknesses as its advantage.

In the long run, India's relationship with its eastern neighbor of 150 million people may become as important as the relationship with Pakistan, not least because Bangladesh is crucial to resolving the isolation and insurgencies in India's seven North-East states.

More immediately, if India cannot have cooperative relations with a moderate, secular and democratic Muslim country with which it has no insoluble conflicts of interest, it has scant hope for coexistence with Pakistan or wider cooperation in a South Asia notorious for its lack of economic integration.

Given its growing global stature, India should seek to be a benign rather than overbearing regional leader, especially since security infections can spread from unstable and unhappy neighbors into India.

For Bangladesh, there are pressing economic reasons to escape from old notions that cooperation will lead to Indian dominance. Bangladesh may deem it unfortunate that it is surrounded by India on all sides except for a small border with Myanmar, a far from ideal neighbor.

But with garment exports and worker remittances - the props of Bangladesh's economy - now vulnerable to the global crisis, realism needs to supplant the politicking which has frustrated economic relations with fast-growing India.

For India, security issues have taken top priority in the wake of the Mumbai bombing. While Indians have often exaggerated the dangers of Islamic fundamentalism in Bangladesh, Dhaka has sometimes been complacent in the face of a small extremist fringe which is known to have overseas links.

Hasina has herself been the target of terrorist bombs, so she is more willing than previous governments to discuss security cooperation. Bangladesh could also become more proactive in preventing Indian insurgents from using its territory as a safe haven. But India must accept that the 4,000-kilometer border will remain porous, and that it cannot blame others for all its security problems.

On the economic front, Bangladesh, which has a huge trade deficit with India, badly needs India to remove a host of tariffs and other barriers to its goods. Given the relative size of the two economies, these barriers are a political tool, not an economic necessity.

In turn, Bangladesh must end its resistance to the transit of goods to India's northeastern states. An agreement on this has never been implemented, depriving Bangladesh not only of transit fees but of an opportunity to become a hub for trade with northeastern India and Southeast Asia. The World Bank and other agencies are eager to support road, rail and port projects if political obstacles are removed.

Fear of Indian domination has also led Bangladesh to refuse to allow Myanmar gas to be piped across its territory to India and to export its own gas and coal to India. A mix of Bangladeshi fears and Indian trade barriers have also deterred Indian investment in Bangladeshi manufacturing, and general lack of cooperation has prevented Nepal and Bhutan hydro power from being harnessed for sale to Bangladesh and India.

For the long term, Bangladesh badly needs a more cooperative attitude from India if the damage inflicted by climate change - most notably rising sea levels - are to be addressed. Lying at the downstream end of the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers, Bangladesh is uniquely exposed. But as the headwaters of these and other major rivers are controlled by China, India too is vulnerable to lack of international cooperation.

Years of mutual distrust are not easily erased. But there are plenty of tradeoffs that can be made now. A change of attitude in Dhaka has already been reflected in official speeches, but Bangladesh will probably need some generous gestures from India, notably on trade, if Hasina's government is to overcome nationalist opposition to substantive progress.

As for India, it would do well to devote a quarter the energy its spends on Pakistan and Kashmir to the issues of Bangladesh and the northeast states. #
First published in the International Herald Tribune, February 5, 2009 Philip Bowring reporting from Dhaka, Bangladesh