Saturday, April 9, 2005
DHAKA, Bangladesh The current 10-day, four-nation tour of South Asia by China’s prime minister, Wen Jiabao, is at one level a triumphal affair. Here is the outwardly modest Wen basking in China’s success, spreading the gospel of good will to these neighbors whose combined populations equals that of China. Here is a China that will give aid, help them escape from poverty, make Asians proud and speak up for multilateralism and the United Nations system – articles of faith throughout the subcontinent.
But Wen’s tour is also a reminder that China’s global economic influence is now a factor in relations between the states of South Asia in a way that China’s ideology never was. It thus presents India, anxious both to develop its strategic relationship with the United States and be the leader of South Asian economic integration, with awkward balancing acts.
Wen will visit India last but longest, flattering Indian egos with a trip to high-tech Bangalore and hearing eloquent Indian rhetoric about a new era of Asian cooperation driven by mutual economic interests. Trade has indeed been increasing rapidly as China sells manufactured goods and buys iron ore from India. Commerce may keep border disputes and Beijing’s ambiguous attitude to enlargement of the UN Security Council – which India hopes to join – in the background.
But Wen’s visits to Pakistan and Bangladesh may be at least as significant in suggesting to India that a new attitude to its immediate neighbors is needed if the subcontinent is to get back on a par with China. Wen reaffirmed the strength of relations with Pakistan despite its improved relationship with Washington and past support for the Taliban. He was keen, too, to emphasize that South Asian countries should “treat each other as equals,” a jab at India that went down well in Pakistan and in Bangladesh – which feels that it is treated by India as the United States used to treat Mexico.
Bangladesh is particularly in need of China’s moral support. There is an impression among diplomats here that India’s recent rapprochement with Pakistan has caused New Delhi’s propaganda and intelligence machines to turn more attention to the alleged misdeeds of its eastern neighbor. On scant evidence, Bangladesh is accused of harboring insurgents in India’s long-troubled northeastern states and of flooding these states with illegal migrants.
India has endeavored – without success – to persuade the United States that Bangladesh is on the way to becoming a failed state of Muslim fundamentalists and assorted gunmen. There is a belief here, not confined to nationalist Bangladeshis, that India does not want Bangladesh to be successful as it would demonstrate the potential for relatively small homogenous states on the subcontinent and would show up the failures of Bihar and other adjoining Indian states.
Bangladesh cannot escape dependence on India, which almost entirely surrounds it. It needs more Indian investment and cross-border trade to integrate markets. Links to Myanmar, Thailand and China will grow but are no substitute. Many Indo-Bangladeshi disputes are petty or over matters that neither government fully controls, such as smuggling of goods and people. But one big issue could drive Bangladesh to seek much closer links with China – the rivers that are its lifeblood.
India’s plans to link river systems include diverting water from the Brahmaputra, Bangladesh’s single largest water source, into the Ganges. Although India is being urged – most recently in a World Bank report – to cooperate with its neighbors in sharing waters and developing hydroelectric potential, it has a tendency to treat Bangladesh as at best a little brother and at worst a vassal state. That’s where the Chinese come in. The headwaters of the Brahmaputra are in Tibet. Should China thus not also be party to water-sharing talks? That is not on New Delhi’s cooperation agenda.
It is clearly not in China’s interest to be drawn deeply into South Asian disputes. But its prestige and its appearance of benevolence, magnanimity and success suggest that the newly confident, outward-looking India needs new approaches to its neighbors. Can India learn from Wen’s triumphant progress through the region that it claims to lead?
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