Sunday, May 31, 2009

With friends like these...

A BBC correspondent visiting Dhaka reported some interesting comments from an ethnic Chinese Bangladeshi restauranteur residing in Dhaka:

"They [Bangladeshis] are slow, lazy, and dull in the head." "It takes three Bangladeshis to do the work of one Chinese."

Interestingly enough, the intrepid Chinese nationalist has taken a new name and converted to Islam. I believe this would qualify as 'dull in the head'.

A discussion on the various links between China and Bangladesh, legal and illegal, follow with the final observation that "however, for the Bangladeshis, the Chinese offer of a deep and long-term friendship seems sincere."

Bangladesh is home to over 150 million people in one of the most closely packed countries in the world. The difference between urban and rural is stark and the country itself is young. None can deny that it has significant problems in corruption and dealing with Islamist extremism, but are these problems endemic to Bangladeshis or Bengalis? Of course not.

The U.S. should play a more clear and visible role in Bangladesh, as should India. In India's case, its government should take a measured and careful approach to Bangladesh. It is no secret that India's neighbors are wary of its influence. However, no one should forget that it was India (not Communist China), that assisted Bangladesh in its independence struggle in 1971.

The influence of China can be derived from this point, particularly the former-ruling party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (in coalition with the Jamaat-e Islami Bangladesh). Naturally, a conservative party based on nationalism and a staunchly Islamist party would take issue with India, especially when it (India) is portrayed as overwhelmingly Hindu nationalist.

Moreover, China's foreign policy is based purely on raw resource acquisition and economics. (Sound familiar? This is leveled at the U.S. fairly regularly). Take a look at China's cozy relationship with Burma or the Sudan as evidence. To be fair, India has often courted less than savoury partners, particularly Ethiopia, and has a smaller presence than China in the Sudan and Burma. As touched upon in the article, the Chinese probably do see a golden opportunity to unload their "goods" ("cheaps", really) on the Bangladeshi market. There may be some opportunity for the Chinese to tap into the Bay of Bengal natural gas supply, which is currently in dispute between Bangladesh and Burma.

China is perfectly fine dealing with the worst of the Bangladeshi political system. It is not certain how highly China figures Bangladesh into its grand strategy, but it must be fairly prominent given that an unstable Bangladesh would hurt China's economy, as well as destabilize much of eastern and northeastern India.

Turning to the U.S., a more clearly defined role and policy is necessary. Its clearest role would be in partnership with the Bangladeshi government, civil society groups and NGOs - fostering efficient and sustainable socio-economic development, good citizenship and effective governance. Currently there is ample opportunity for the U.S. and India to work with Bangladesh through the Awami League, which is generally pro-West and pro-India. While this is a gross generalization, it should be noted that a careful and measured approach towards Bangladesh would achieve long-term rewards in regional stability, economic development, and democratization.

In particular, a stable, democratic and economically developing Bangladesh is in the interests of the U.S. and India as much as the current Bangladesh is for China.

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