US President Donald Trump shakes hands with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a joint press conference at Hyderabad House in New Delhi on February 25, 2020. Photo: AFP / Prakash Singh

“Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” – Sun Tzu, Chinese military general and strategist, 5th century BC

On September 11, US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper spoke with Bangladeshi Prime Minister and Minister of Defense Sheikh Hasina over the phone. It is reported that during the call, Esper commended Sheikh Hasina on the manner in which she has handled the Covid-19 crisis.

They also discussed, according to the US Embassy in Bangladesh, “their shared commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific that ensures the sovereignty of all nations.” This commitment includes maritime and regional security, modernizing the Bangladesh military and global peacekeeping.

The embassy also said that “both leaders expressed their commitment to continue building closer bilateral defense relations in support of shared values and interests.”

The timing of the decision of the US Department of Defense to call Sheikh Hasina is interesting. The backdrop of the story lies in the US foreign policy, or its absence, toward Bangladesh in recent years. 

The US has spent the last couple of decades entirely basing its foreign policy and strategies on wars in the Middle East, fortifying Israel. In the process, it has implemented policies in South Asia that have been, it is safe to say, failures.

Former president Barack Obama’s “pivot to Asia,” or “Asia-Pacific rebalancing,” did not work. Neither did it fortify ties with China, nor did it help the Middle East. It was, for the most part, mostly political rhetoric and little to no substance.

The Quad

Then came President Donald Trump’s Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, more commonly known as the Quad. This is an alliance of four nations, the United States, Australia, Japan and India. The essential philosophy behind the Quad is establishing a  tangible counterbalance to China’s remarkable growth and dynamism.

The Trump administration, for obvious reasons, did not like the idea of an Asia dominated by an ambitious China, pushing forward with its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and with its constructed South Asia islands. The US felt that trade with China was fine but there was always the looming threat that China’s ever growing presence would lead to domination of the region. 

Thus a secure and safe Asia needed to have a counterbalance to China. Therefore, the Quad coordinated a security strategy, particularly in the maritime sphere. 

This led to the US thinking that India, with the world’s fifth-largest industrial power, must be befriended and supported heavily. The Trump administration’s logic was that to prop up India as a counterbalancing act to China will lead to the Indian domination over the smaller South Asian nations. 

The significance of Bangladesh 

This is where Bangladesh comes into play. It is undeniable that India and Bangladesh have cultural ties. Furthermore, India helped Bangladesh in its Liberation War against Pakistan in 1971, a victory for which in realistic terms, Bangladesh has paid its due many times over. 

The last 12 years, since the beginning of the Awami League government’s tenure led by Sheikh Hasina, India has become for its smaller neighbor an intrusive, hegemonic and opportunistic force, leading to a vastly unequal trade imbalance, water sharing, border killings of innocent Bangladeshis, and false-flag terrorist operations. 

To add to this, Indian dominance and hegemony are hardly assets for Bangladesh. To the vast majority of Bangladeshis, the relationship with India is predominantly is a one-way street, with India taking much more than it gives, despite reserving the right to intervene and meddle in each and every policy decision in Bangladeshi governance. 

China’s role 

China’s investment plans for Bangladesh, which were announced in October 2016, were a game changer. China and Bangladesh signed 27 memoranda of understanding, valued at US$24 billion in investments for Bangladesh. Additionally, Chinese and Bangladeshi companies formed 13 joint ventures, valued at $13.6 billion. 

One of the main points of contention between the governments of Bangladesh and India has been the Teesta River. For years, negotiations have been going on between the two countries, with Bangladesh always hopeful, while India has been either noncommittal or dishonest about its intentions.

In essence, Bangladesh has been suffering for years because the water levels of the Teesta in the country have drastically decreased due to India’s failure to implement its side of a water-sharing discussions. Successive governments in India have failed to honor their part in the discussions. 

China has agreed to invest nearly $1 billion to build, among other things, a reservoir in Bangladesh, which will allow the country to store water for use in the dry season. 

This is an example of the manner in which India has, over the years, consistently and intentionally undermined the interests, sovereignty and national integrity of Bangladesh. China thus shines in a very positive light for Bangladeshis because it does not interfere in political matters of a country while helping to construct its infrastructure. 

The problems with India

While India is heavily involved in Bangladesh for its own benefit, it has its share of problems. These problems have come to the forefront within the last six years under the governance of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. 

Besides the Islamophobic aspects of the BJP, the government in New Delhi has many other problems.

In six years, Modi has managed to damage the economy of India severely, and unemployment is at a peak. India, while continually trying to lure Bangladesh away from China with warnings of “debt traps” set by Beijing, has itself signed a $750 million loan agreement from a bank in which China is the largest shareholder.  

Furthermore, India’s intolerance of Muslims and the BJP’s insults of Bangladeshis such as calling them “termites” do not, needless to say, sit well with Bangladeshis. 

The US 

To come back to the phone call between Mark Esper and Sheikh Hasina, it seems evident that the US is now realizing that it has bet on the wrong horse and adopted the wrong strategies in South Asia. India is hardly the counterbalance to China. All the small nations in the region, whether Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka or Bangladesh, have significant ties with China. 

Therefore, the US may be waking up to India’s failures and reassuring Bangladesh that both countries should be working toward the security of the region and mutual cooperation. This is simply political jargon for “don’t stray away and get too close to China.” 

Thus Sun Tzu’s quote atop this article, as always, rings true even after 5,000 years. The US had utilized neither strategy nor tactics in South Asia, placing all its eggs in the India basket to manage smaller nations in the region, thinking very wrongly and rather foolishly that this could possibly be a counterbalancing maneuver to restrain China.

Clearly the US needs to understand its adversary, and not underestimate it. 

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Sabria Chowdhury Balland

Sabria Chowdhury Balland is a political analyst focusing on the politics of the US and Bangladesh in international publications. She is the co-author and editor of Bangladesh: A Suffering People Under State Terrorism (Peter Lang, 2020), A former elected member of the US Democratic Party Abroad, she is currently a board member of The Right to Freedom, a Washington-based non-profit organization working toward peace and democracy in Bangladesh.