India and Bangladesh signaled deepening ties Saturday as New Delhi committed a $4.5 billion line of credit to Dhaka for development projects, and the two countries signed their first-ever pact on defense cooperation.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced an additional $500 million in credit for Bangladesh to buy military equipment from India during the visit to New Delhi by Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
Calling India a “long standing and trusted development partner,” Modi said that the new credit lines “bring our resources allocation to Bangladesh to more than $8 billion over the past six years.”
Both leaders reaffirmed their close ties during the Bangladeshi prime minister’s first visit to India in seven years, with Modi speaking of a “golden era” in their friendship and Hasina saying their friendly ties would benefit South Asia.
The two countries signed 22 agreements, including one on civil nuclear cooperation that aims to help Bangladesh develop its civilian nuclear program.
Many in New Delhi see the deal for defense cooperation over the next five years as the key breakthrough that will help reduce Bangladesh’s reliance on China for its military needs.
Worried by the growing Chinese influence in its neighborhood, New Delhi has made a concerted push in recent years to grow strategic ties with neighboring countries. Bangladesh’s purchase of two submarines from China last year deepened those concerns in India.
Calling the defense pact a feather in India’s cap, Sukh Deo Muni, a South Asia expert at New Delhi’s Institute of Defense Studies and Analyses, said,“India does not want China to consolidate defense ties just next to its belly, that is true.”
Although the political opposition in Bangladesh has denounced the pact, independent analysts in Dhaka was optimistic that it will help achieve balance.
“Approximately 80 percent dependency at this moment you see on China, so it should be brought down. That actually reduces our vulnerability,” said Abdur Rashid, Executive Director of the Institute of Conflict, Law and Development Studies in Dhaka. “If one is interrupted we can depend on the other.”
A new rail link between the Indian city of Kolkata and Khulna in Bangladesh, and a bus link between Kolkata and Dhaka also were inaugurated, while another old rail link was restored to coincide with Hasina’s visit. The Bangladeshi leader said the greater connectivity is vital for the region’s development.
A key water-sharing agreement that Dhaka has long pushed for, however, eluded Hasina.
Although New Delhi favors such an arrangement, opposition from West Bengal state in India, through which the Teesta River flows into Bangladesh, has prevented the two countries from clinching a deal.
As Modi assured her of his commitment to conclude a deal, the Bangladeshi leader sounded a note of optimism. “I believe we shall be able to get India’s support in resolving these issues expeditiously,” said Hasina.
The two countries have had a close relationship since 1971, when India helped Bangladesh gain independence from Pakistan following a bloody nine-month war.