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Dhaka reluctant to ink long-term defence pact with India

Ashok Tuteja | New delhi |

Seeking to offset the growing Chinese military influence in Bangladesh, India is keen on signing a long-term comprehensive defence pact with the neighbouring country during Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s visit to India from 7 April, but Dhaka appears reluctant.

Indications are that Dhaka would prefer to ink an MoU without a time-frame as that would be less formal. It is learnt that the proposed pact is still being discussed by top officials and military experts on the two sides.

On the sharing of Teesta waters, Bangladesh would like the contentious issue to be settled during Sheikh Hasina’s visit but New Delhi has told Dhaka that a breakthrough on it was unlikely at this stage when the Mamata Banerjee Government in West Bengal is on the war-path with the BJP-led regime at the Centre over demonetisation and other issues.

Intense speculation has been going on in both New Delhi and Dhaka over the shape of the proposed defence accord. India has been quite worried over the increasing Chinese involvement in the military affairs of Bangladesh and nudging Dhaka for quite some time to balance its defence relationship with the two Asian giants. Recently, there was a sense of disquiet in Indian circles over reports that China plans to develop seaports with a base for submarines in Bangladesh which may hold Chinese submarines in future.

Bangladesh and China had signed an umbrella agreement on defence cooperation in December 2002 during then Prime Minister Khaleda Zia's visit to Beijing but Dhaka does not have such a comprehensive accord with India. Under the Bangladesh-China military cooperation agreement of 2002, Bangladesh is buying arms, equipment, tanks, frigates and fighter jets.

The agreement that India has proposed would cover greater military-to-military cooperation, sale and supply of military hardware from India to Bangladesh and coordinated operations against mutually perceived threats.

During Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Dhaka in October last year, the two countries had elevated their relationship from comprehensive partnership to strategic partnership. It was then that then Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar air-dashed to Dhaka and proposed a comprehensive defence pact to Bangladesh. Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar again pitched for it during his talks with Sheikh Hasina when he visited Dhaka in February.