The begums and the two giants
Jan 9th 2013, 10:24 by T.J. | BANGKOK
SITTING squarely in the most densely populated part of the planet, the extent of Bangladesh's physical isolation is staggering. The country shares a 4,100km (2,550-mile) border with India, the world's fifth-longest. Yet the militarised, two-metre-high fence on the Indian side ensures that one half of Bangladesh's 64 districtsthose bordering Indiaare also its poorest. Matters are even worse in Bangladesh's south, where watchtowers and a security fence built by its other neighbour, Myanmar, make the border as impenetrable as the one that once separated the two Germanys during the height of the cold war.
One would think that overcoming this isolation might long have been a political priority in Bangladesh. It has not. The Awami League, which now runs the government, has longstanding friendly ties with India. But in a country with a strong tradition of anti-Indian sentiment, the sympathetic view of India has always been a hard sell with the voters. And so, for far too long, Bangladesh's political parties have been unable to keep the India question from spoiling domestic politics.
Where it was once seen as the benevolent midwife of independent Bangladesh, India has somehow come to look more like an evil stepmother, decades after it helped what was then East Pakistan break away from West Pakistan, in 1971. For its part, India has often treated Bangladesh with negligence and high-handedness. Might the rise of China be enough to change old habits?
For much of the past four decades, foreign policy in Bangladesh meant simply: relations with India. Foreign policy never mattered a great deal in electoral contests between Sheikh Hasina of the governing Awami League (AL) and Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the leading ladies who have taken turns at running Bangladesh since 1991.
Voters still do not care much. But for the first timethe fifth round of Hasina v. Zia, which is to be held by January 2014, the arch-rivals appear keen to use Bangladesh's strategic location on the Bay of Bengal to connect their nation to the neighbourhood.
In practice that means securing concessions from China and India. The diplomatic thaw in Myanmar, which had seemed like a permanently missing link between South Asia and South-East Asia, has raised the worry that it might steal a march on Bangladesh in the ongoing race to connect the vast crescent of land that stretches from the Indian state of Assam all the way to Singapore.
If history were to be the guide, Khaleda Zia would be the next prime minister and her party, the BNP, would form the next government; no government in Bangladesh has ever won a second term. But Mrs Zia faces an uphill battle: She faces corruption charges (a conviction would bar her from running) and her exiled sonwho is also her party's heir-apparentfaces criminal charges. The outcome of war-crimes trials in Dhaka, which are expected to be wrapped up before the end of the year, might conceivably result in the execution of the entire leadership of the Jamaat-e-Islami, Mrs Zia's main electoral ally. And yet the BNP's popularity has risen sharply since mid-2010, with 39% of respondents saying in a recent opinion poll they would vote for the BNP (nearly twice as many as in mid-2010, compared with 42% for the AL).
Last year Mrs Zia made weeklong visits to China and India, which her supporters have been keen to trumpet as a sign of things to come. The AL government of course regards the opposition leader's flying about with derision.
In China, Mrs Zia and Xi Jinping, then China's leader-in-waiting, vowed to establish closer links between the Chinese Communist Party and the BNPa curious relationship, which had Western diplomats in Dhaka speculating long before the local press heralded the full-scale arrival of the Chinese in Bangladesh. China's relations with the BNP do not carry the same baggage as those with the AL, which claims responsibility for winning secession from Pakistan, which has been a Chinese ally since before 1971. China refused to recognise Bangladesh as a sovereign country until August 1975, when Sheikh Mujibur Rahmanthe country's independence leader, its first president and the father of the Sheikh Hasinawas assassinated).
China has already pledged to help build the world's longest river-crossing, to span the Padma, and a deep-sea port at Sonadia island, off the coast of Cox's Bazar in south-eastern Bangladesh. The port could serve the landlocked parts of India, Myanmar and China. China is also keen to establish a road- and rail-link to connect Chittagong in Bangladesh with the Chinese city of Kunming, via Myanmar. Despite the long border with India, China is Bangladesh's biggest trading partner and supplier of arms.
Connecting China with Bangladesh via Myanmar is rather tricky though. The high-security fence that separates them has the distinction of being the only fortified international border that suits the purposes of both sides. Bangladesh and Myanmar are unified in their desire that the fence must stand tall and prevent the exodus of Rohingyas from Myanmar, as happened in the 1990s. (While Myanmar seems none too hospitable towards its Rohingya population, it does want to retain control over their movements.)
India is sure to wonder where this is going. Could Mrs Zia revive the "Look East" policy of her previous term as prime minister, in 2001-06? In an article published by the Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis, a think-tank in Delhi, Mrs Zia wrote that benefits of her policy could "not be overemphasised", noting that it was in Bangladesh's strategic interest to look for allies and economic opportunities in fast-growing South-East and East Asia.
Sheikh Hasina, on the other hand, has placed Bangladesh firmly under India's (and, by extension, America's) security umbrella. India views Bangladesh through a trio of security concernsillegal migration into India of Bangladeshis, cross-border terrorism and territorial disputes along the 4,100km border. Sheikh Hasina has been a willing partner in attempting to address these issues. Most notably perhaps, her government has cracked down on a fringe of Islamic extremists that flourished under the BNP government. India must fear that under Mrs Zia Bangladesh may yet again strike dubious alliances and upgrade political ties with China.
The stakes are high. India's unspoken nightmare is that Mrs Zia may take action where Sheikh Hasina has not, by offering China the use of an airbase and coastal access in Bangladesh. Sheikh Hasina's government did agree last October to let China disburse a $200m soft loan to build an airport at Cox's Bazar. But it appears unlikely that Sheikh Hasina will risk alienating her traditional ally, India, by using China for anything more than building stuff.
Meanwhile India has found it hard to make real progress on its thorny bilateral issues. Water-sharing, land demarcation and the killing of Bangladeshis by Indian border forces have remained problems beyond resolution (India's Border Security Forces killed 48 Bangladeshis in 2012). Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of West Bengal, an Indian state with which Bangladesh shares a 2,216km (1,377-mile) border, rejects the kind of compromises that would be needed to resolve most border-related issues.
Sheikh Hasina has agreed to allow India to use its territory for transit. But the absence of proper roads makes the concession meaningless. And so India has been making plans without Bangladesh to secure access to its landlocked north-eastern states, via Myanmar. It is developing a deep-sea port in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine state in Myanmar. The port is 500-odd km from Kolkata, India's main port on the Bay of Bengal and part of India's so-called Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Projecta gateway to India's landlocked north-eastern states. Rather conveniently, Sittwe is also close to Myanmar's massive Shwe gasfield. The idea will be to run a canal, highway and possibly a pipeline from Sittwe to a newly constructed river port in Myanmar's Chin state, and then on to the border with the Indian state of Mizoram. The project is expected to become operational by mid-2013. And so Bangladesh looks likely to be left in its isolation.
In a bid to boost economic co-operation, connectivity and "shared prosperity" with the ASEAN states, India's foreign ministry flagged off a three-week car rally in Jakarta late last year. The rally ran through Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and re-entered Thailand before following the route of an Indian-sponsored highway through Myanmar to enter the Indian state of Nagaland and then reach a finish line at Guwahati, the capital of Assam.
Bangladesh, the route would suggest, is not part of the Indian plan. And so it stews, between West Bengal and the curl of the north-east, like an appendix to the region's new prosperity.