The ‘Belt and Road’ Initiative (BRI), commenced by the Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013, has been the most significant and far-reaching project that China has ever put forward. Bangladesh is an important strategic partner with China in this two-dimensional mega-project, comprising of the Silk Road Economic Belt and the Twenty-first Century Maritime Silk Road (MSR). The maritime area of Bangladesh in the Bay of Bengal falls under the sea route of MSR, whereas both China and Bangladesh share common interest of ensuring the free flow of international trade.
However, Bangladesh’s maritime area in the Bay of Bengal has been in the verge of a number of sea-borne security threats, including maritime terrorism, piracy, drug smuggling, human trafficking, and environmental disasters. As for example, in recent times, the use of maritime domain by the transnational terrorist groups has received a wider attention of the policymakers and security experts in the coastal countries. For the last two decades, a series of terrorist attacks on or by the sea, including the attack on French Oil Tanker in October 2012 and terrorist attacks in Mumbai in November 2008, clearly indicate the security exposure of the coastal countries against transnational terrorism. Particularly, the Mumbai attacks had a grave security implication for Bangladesh. The nature of the attack, in which terrorists used small fishing boat to cross the maritime route and landed by sea to launch the attack on the city, introduced a new dimension of sea-borne security threat.
The Bay of Bengal is also one of the hotspots of maritime piracy in the world. The coastal livelihood of Bangladesh is highly dependent on fishing, which merely includes trawlers and other small fishing boats. Fishing in the coastal area contributes about 2.73 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP), e.g. about 4.9 percent of total export earning and about 12 percent of total employment, of the country. Though, the matter of concern is that, Bangladeshi fishermen often become easy targets of the local or regional pirates operating in the bay. An estimation of the Cox’s Bazar District Fishing Trawler Owners Association (DFTOA) of Bangladesh projects that, in between 2010 to 2015, at least 411 Bangladeshi fishermen have been killed and more than 1,000 of them have been wounded by the pirates in the Bay of Bengal.
Apart from these, Bangladesh’s maritime area is located in between the two largest illicit opium producing areas of the world, i.e. “Golden Triangle” (Thailand, Myanmar, and Laos) and “Golden Crescent” (Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran). Almost half of the world’s illicit drugs, produced in these areas, are trafficked through the Bay of Bengal and its littoral countries to different parts of the world. In addition, transnational criminal networks use the bay as a maritime route of human trafficking, mostly Bangladeshi citizens and Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, to Southeast Asian countries, including Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand. According to a report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), around 31,000 people, together with Bangladeshis and Rohingyas, have been trafficked through the Bay of Bengal in the first half of 2015. Regional militant and terrorist organizations in South Asia and Southeast Asia are believed to be benefitting from this channel of human trafficking.
Besides, climate-induced security threats in the coastal areas have been the major concerns for Bangladesh with the largest part of her surface lying less than 10 meter above sea level. Geosciences Australia reported in 2007 that, Bay of Bengal is the most dangerous area for large tsunamis and Bangladesh falls in the second position after Indonesia about the highest number of population threatened by tsunamis. In 2009, another study of Climate Change Cell, working under the Department of Environment, Bangladesh, predicted that, a 45 cm rise of sea level would inundate 10-15% of the country’s land by the year 2050, generating over 35 million climate refugees from the coastal districts.
Given this context, a bilateral cooperation between Bangladesh and China to mitigate these common sea-borne security threats in the Bay of Bengal could serve the interest of both the countries. China has been actively fighting these types of non-traditional security threats in the Indian Ocean for the last two decades. Since the beginning of 2000s, China’s maritime strategy has incorporated the idea of “far seas protection,” which includes the construction of its independent blue water naval strength in the greater Indian Ocean. This strategy was initially formulated to secure the Chinese interests abroad, including “security of overseas energy and resources, strategic sea lanes, overseas Chinese investment, and overseas Chinese citizens and legal entities.” Following these, China’s naval vessels have been navigating in the Indian Ocean since December 2008 and conducting regular anti-piracy operations and exercises. Chinese nuclear submarines have also joined these activities from 2013.
BRI has in fact put more emphasis of China’s fight against sea-borne security threats in the Indian Ocean. For being a part of the Maritime Silk Road, the security of the Bay of Bengal also remains one of the primary focuses of China’s naval policy. For example, in February 2017, two Chinese destroyers, Haikou and Changsha, conducted anti-piracy drills in the eastern quadrant of the Indian Ocean. In April of the same year, a successful joint operation was conducted by Chinese and Indian naval forces in order to rescue a merchant ship hijacked by Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden.
China, with its modern technological support, is also collaborating with Southeast Asian countries for the past several years in this regard. These engagements have been providing China with pragmatic experience as well as expertise on the nature of security threats in the Bay of Bengal and their possible prevention strategies. These policies aside, cooperation with other coastal countries in disaster management has long been a part of China’s naval diplomacy. As a Bay of Bengal littoral state, therefore, Bangladesh has the opportunity to engage in similar kind of cooperative framework with China under BRI.
What Can the Afghan Government and Taliban Learn from Colombia’s Peace Deal with FARC?
The experience of Colombia’s peace with FARC has always been the subject of Western experts working on the war in Afghanistan due to the characteristics of Afghanistan’s war akin to Colombia’s war.
It is argued that the insurgent movement with a political rivalry to mobilize dissenters to enter the community is a substitute order that rebels attempt to fundamentally change the infrastructure of society. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Afghan Taliban insurgents can be put into such socio-political context.
The FARC, with the full name of Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (in Spanish was formed in the 1960s as the armed wing of the Communist Party of Colombia. The FARC officially separated from the Communist Party of Colombia in 1980 but continued its guerrilla war against the Colombian government. The war between FARC and the Government of the Republic of Colombia lasted 55 years and left dead approximately 250,000 people.
Colombia’s Peace Process
The Government of the Republic of Colombia has made three major and important attempts to build peace in the last thirty years, especially in the mid-1980s and late 1990s, but all failed. But peace efforts that began in Havana, the capital of Cuba in 2012, came to fruition five years later. Ultimately, these efforts effectuated in to the signing of a peace agreement between the Colombian government and FARC on November 24, 2016.
The Colombia’s peace agreement with FARC was rejected by less than one percent in a referendum on October 2, 2016. The results of the referendum showed that 50.2 percent of voters opposed the agreement. But later, many Colombians who were anti-FARC rebels became their supporters. To strengthen further the peace and stability in Colombia, the Colombian government allocated 10 seats to FARC in 2018 and 2022 in the Colombia’s Congress elections.
The success of the peace talks between the Government of the Republic of Colombia and FARC is derived from their mutual agreement on key issues. First, they reached a reciprocal agreement on development of rural areas, especially those areas that were damaged more than other areas during the conflict. Second, they talked about the elimination of drugs and reducing high poverty rates in the peace process and agreed mutually. Third, the Government of the Republic of Colombia concurred with political participation of FARC members in the political process. Hence, they could successfully end their chronic conflicts that took many Colombians’ lives.
Afghanistan’s Peace Process
In November 2001, the Taliban regime was overthrown entirely by the United Nation forces led by the US. Subsequently, the Afghan government and the international community stepped up their efforts to support various plans to undermine the expansion of insurgents and ultimately bring them to the peace process. These efforts include programs such as Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR 2003-2006), United Nation supported Afghanistan New Beginning Programs (ANBP) and its successor the Disbandment of Illegal Armed Groups (DIAG 2005.
When US President Barack Hussein Obama put forward the idea of looking for moderate elements among the insurgent groups in March 2009, the official peace talks in Afghanistan became more important. Unfortunately, all the above peace efforts have not been effective in stabilizing Afghanistan and failed to pursue a meaningful engagement of the involved countries in Afghanistan’s war in the peace process.
Recently, the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan declared two truces with the Taliban to encourage them to join the peace process. But unluckily, the Taliban groups not only did not welcome the Afghan government’s ceasefire, except the first truce but also responded with atrocity and intensifying their insurgency. Political experts are inclined to argue that the experiences of the Colombian government’s peace deal with FARC insurgents can aid Afghanistan in reaching a permanent peace deal with the Taliban groups.
The Similarities of Afghanistan’s and Colombia’s War
According to Foreign Policy, the current Afghan war is reminiscent of the Drug War in Colombia and requires a Colombian plan for its termination. The insurgency in Afghanistan is nurtured by an ideological war that is being conducted to bring Afghans under the banner of religion. Conversely, in Colombia, FACR fought with the central government for lucrative sources of money and ways to smuggle drugs. However, it is argued that despite having ideological roots, narcotics is the main financial source of Afghanistan’s insurgent groups.
In 2016, the Global Witness reported that the warlords and Taliban’s earnings from a small Badakhshan region are equal to the total income of the Afghan government’s natural resources sector. The report adds that in 2014, armed groups from two mining areas of Deodarra in Kuran and Munjan districts in Badakhshan province earned about $20 million. It echoes that the ongoing war between the Taliban and the Afghan government is also a war on controlling natural sources like the war between FARC and the Colombian government. Thus, the experiences of the Government of the Republic of Colombia in its peace talks with FARC can help the Afghan government in its peace talks with the Taliban.
The Afghan Taliban groups like the FARC in Colombia, are dwindling in Afghanistan. They still have their local supporters in Afghanistan. Theo Farrell, the professor and executive dean of law, humanities, and the arts at the University of Wollongong, Australia argues that the availability of social resources and the elements that drive and enable military adaptation were the main reasons of Taliban’s successful resurgence after 2001. It projects that still, Taliban groups have a large number of adherents among the Afghan communities. Undoubtedly, they will support the Taliban if the group joins in peace talks with the Afghan government and forms its political faction as did the FARC in Colombia.
The FARC opened negotiations with the Colombian government after decades of armed conflicts. Many of FARC insurgents like the Taliban groups did not believe in the usefulness of the talkswith the Colombian government at the beginning. But they tested their trust and succeeded in this regard. Likewise, the best option for the Afghan Taliban to put into practice their demands is joining the negotiating table with the Afghan government.
The Colombia’s Peace Process Takeaways for Afghanistan’s Peace Process
Perhaps the most important innovation to come out of Colombia’s peace process has been the inclusion of victims. Delegations of victims from both sides of the conflict were invited to come to Havana to recount their experiences. In other words, the Colombian peace process was the first in the world that included a formal role for victims of the conflict—they got to interact directly with the negotiators. The inclusion of victims gave the Colombian government’s peace process its best chance of success. Likewise, Afghanistan’s government can emulate a similar way to succeeding in the peace process with the Taliban. The Afghan government should invite the representatives of the victims of war to the negotiating table so that they can share their stories and gain confidence that their voices are heard in the peace process.
Ultimately, the need for a comprehensive and lasting peace in Afghanistan requires creating a national and international consensus on the peace process with the Taliban. This is what Colombian President; Juan Manuel Santos did about peace with the FARC rebels. Initially, a national consensus regarding the peace deal was created inside Colombia. Then the Colombian government reached an international consensus for peace with the neighboring countries, the regional and international powers. Similarly, the Afghan government should reach a unanimous agreement on peace talks with the Taliban inside Afghanistan, then with Afghanistan’s neighboring countries, regional and international powers. Doing so, the Afghan government might be able to close the war and insurgency chapter of Afghanistan’s modern history.
Geopolitics, the black swan in Saudi-Indian relations
When Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman meets Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi next week, the elephant in the room is likely to be what weighs more: the issues the two men agree on or the ones that divide them.
As a matter of principle, Prince Mohammed and Mr. Modi are likely to take their strategic partnership to a new level as a result of changing energy markets, a decline in American power, the rise of China and the transnational threat of political violence.
Discussions with the crown prince and his delegation of Saudi businessmen on energy and investment will prove to be the easy part. Saudi Arabia is investing US$44 million in a refinery in Maharashtra’s Ratnagiri and supplies 20 percent of India’s crude oil. India, moreover, expects the Saudis to invest in ports and roads while Saudi Arabia is interested in Indian agriculture that would export products to the kingdom.
At first glance, security issues should be a no-brainer. The two countries hold joint military exercises, share intelligence and cooperate on counterterrorism. They are also working to counter money laundering and funding of political violence. Things get complicated, however, when geopolitics kicks in. Prince Mohammed arrives in Delhi on the back of a visit to Pakistan, where he is expected to sign a memorandum of understanding on a framework for $10 billion of investments, primarily in oil refining, petrochemicals, renewable energy and mining.
The memo follows significant Saudi aid to help Pakistan evade a financial crisis that included a $3-billion deposit in Pakistan’s central bank to support the country’s balance of payments and another $3 billion in deferred payments for oil imports.
The tricky part are the investments in the memorandum that include a plan by the Saudi national oil company Aramco to build a refinery at the Chinese-backed port of Gwadar, close to Pakistan’s border with Iran and the Indian-backed Iranian port of Chabahar. Both Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are closely monitoring Chabahar’s progress.
A potential Saudi investment in the troubled Pakistani province of Balochistan’s Reko Diq copper and gold mine would strengthen the kingdom’s hold in the strategic province that both Prince Mohammed and US president Donald J Trump’s hardline national security adviser John Bolton see as a potential launching pad for efforts to destabilise Iran. Taken together, the refinery, an oil reserve in Gwadar and the mine would also help Saudi Arabia in efforts to prevent Chabahar from emerging as a powerful Arabian Sea hub.
Saudi funds are flowing into ultra-conservative anti-Shiite, anti-Iranian Sunni madrassas in Balochistan. It remains unclear whether the money originates with the Saudi government, Saudi nationals of Baloch descent or the two million-strong Pakistani diaspora in the kingdom.
The money helps put in place building blocks for possible covert action should the kingdom or the US — or both — decide to act on proposals to support irredentist action.
Such covert action could jeopardise Indian hopes to use Chabahar to bypass Pakistan, enhance its trade with Afghanistan and Central Asia and create an antidote to Gwadar, a crown jewel in China’s Belt and Road initiative.
Pakistani analysts expect around $5 billion in Afghan trade to flow through Chabahar after India in December started handling the port operations. It could also further strain ties with Pakistan that accuses India of fomenting nationalist unrest in Balochistan.
The funds take on added significance in the face of Saudi concerns about Chabahar and India’s support for the port. The money continues to flow even though the crown prince has significantly cut back on the kingdom’s global funding of ultra-conservative Sunni Muslim groups to bolster his assertion that the kingdom is embracing a more moderate, albeit as yet undefined, form of Islam.
The money started coming in at about the time the Riyadh-based International Institute for Iranian Studies published a study that said Chabahar posed a “direct threat to the Arab Gulf states” that called for “immediate countermeasures”.
Written by Mohammed Hassan Husseinbor, a Washington-based Iranian Baloch lawyer and activist, the study warned that Chabahar would allow Iran to step up oil exports to India at the expense of Saudi Arabia, raise foreign investment in the Islamic Republic, increase government revenues and allow Tehran some muscle-flexing in the Gulf and the Indian Ocean. Noting the expanse of Iran’s Sistan and Balouchestan province, Mr. Husseinbor said “it would be a formidable challenge, if not impossible, for the Iranian government to protect such long distances and secure Chabahar in the face of widespread Baluch opposition, particularly if this opposition is supported by Iran’s regional adversaries and world powers”.
Published in a country that tightly controls the media as well as the output of think tanks, the study stroked with a memorandum drafted a year later by Bolton before he assumed office. The memo envisioned US support “for the democratic Iranian opposition”, including in Balochistan and Iran’s Sistan and Baluchestan province.
Iranian officials believe that Saudi Arabia and the US have a hand in a string of recent attacks by Baloch, Kurdish and Iranian Arab nationalists but have so far refrained from producing anything beyond allegations. Most recently, they point to a rare suicide bombing in Chabahar in December that targeted a Revolutionary Guards headquarters, killing two people and wounding 40.
Writing in the Pakistan Security Report 2018, journalist Muhammad Akbar Notezai said, “to many in Pakistan” concerns about Indian support for the Baloch “were materialized with the arrest of Kulbushan Jadhav, an Indian spy in Balochistan who had come through Iran. Ever since, Pakistani intelligence agencies have been on extra-alert on its border with Iran”.
The journalist warned that “the more Pakistan slips into the Saudi orbit, the more its relations with Iran will worsen… If their borders remain troubled, anyone can fish in the troubled water”.
Mr. Notezai implicitly put his finger on the pitfalls Prince Mohammed and Mr. Modi will have to negotiate to ensure that their ever closer economic, energy and security relations can withstand the challenges posed by the escalating and intertwined rivalries that link West and South Asia.
Author’s note: This article appeared in Firstpost
Tapping potential of connectivity through BCIM-EC
The Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar economic corridor (BCIM-EC) is a sub-regional initiative, earlier known as “Kunming Initiative”, or BCIM Regional Economic Cooperation, was established in August 1999 in Kunming, capital of China’s south-western Yunnan Province by the scholars from China, India, Bangladesh, and Myanmar.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang proposed the BCIM-EC initiative during his visit to India in May, 2013. The Joint Statement between China and India officially proposed the establishment of the BCIM-EC, while later Bangladesh and Myanmar offered strong and positive responses towards the development of economic corridor across the sub-region.
The proposed BCIM economic corridor aims to construct a 2,800-km economic corridor connecting 20 major cities and towns of the BCIM countries. Starting from Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal, the corridor is planned to end in Kunming, capital of China’s Yunnan Province via Bangladesh’s Jessore, Dhaka, and Sylhet; Imphal of Manipur and Silchar of Assam in North Eastern part of India, and Myanmar’s Ka Lay, Monywa, Mandalay, Lashio and Muse.
The BCIM Forum was primarily initiated with the aim of building regional cooperation among the four participating countries as well as integrating the BCIM economies through building overland economic corridor along the routes connecting the sub-region of South Asia, Southeast Asia, and East Asia.
The overland connectivity aside, over the years, the objectives of the BCIM-EC expanded in the areas of poverty alleviation, people-to-people connectivity, cross-border energy trade, tourism, human resource development, sustainable development as well as trans-border security.
Significant progresses have already been witnessed towards the achievement of these objectives. As for example, starting from 1999 to 2015, total 12th BCIM Forums have been arranged by the BCIM countries. The idea of the construction of Kunming-Mandalay-Dhaka-Kolkata (K2K) economic corridor was first proposed in the 9th BCIM Forum held in Kunming, China from January 18 to 19, 2011, which marked significant milestone in the development of the economic corridor across the BCIM sub-region.
The 10th BCIM Forum held in Kolkata, India from February 18-19, 2012 was also crucial for taking the decision about the Kolkata to Kunming (K2K) Car Rally along the BCIM routes. As per the consensus, the historical Kolkata to Kunming (K2K) Car Rally in February 2013 was warmly received in four countries that underscored the construction of BCIM economic corridor across the sub-region.
Subsequent to these developments, strengthening the working relationship between Track II and Track I and the initiation of Track I diplomacy through the consensus in 9th Forum and the 11th BCIM Forum respectively injected noteworthy impetus into the development of multimodal connectivity across the BCIM sub-region.
So far, three Joint Study Group (JSG) meetings have been conducted among the representatives of the four countries to foster physical connectivity, facilitate trade in goods, services, and investment; promote economic integration; and also to enhance people-to-people contacts among the BCIM countries.
The 1st JSG was held in Kunming, China from December 18-19, 2013, while the initiative was undertaken for the official launch of intergovernmental process of BCIM-EC. The 2nd JSG held in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar from December 17-18, 2014 gained momentum after the consensus of the four countries to prepare separate country reports on the concept, scope and elements; principles and modalities of cooperation; and framework of cooperation. And, during the 3rd JSG meeting which held on 24- 25 April 2017, in Kolkata, the four countries agreed on upgrading of the talks on BCIM-EC to the intergovernmental level.
The significance of the BCIM-EC is enormous. Geo-strategically, the economic corridor is the gateway to three sub-regions, South Asia, Southeast Asia, and East Asia. It is also the hub of blue economy and international maritime trade with the endowment of the Bay of Bengal and its adjacent areas, Indian Ocean, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
The geo-economic significance of the BCIM-EC is also immense. The BCIM sub-region with the enhanced transport connectivity can be a zone for international trade and business. The free flow of goods and services as well as cross-border trade and investment through the seamless connectivity will facilitate equitable sharing of benefits among the BCIM countries.
The proposed BCIM-EC attempts to build multimodal connectivity in order to accelerate all round development across the sub-region, goodwill, peace, and the stability in the sub-region based on the principles of mutual interest, trust and respect, and equitable sharing of benefits.
Though there is a prevalence of some security, economic, and political factors remaining as key challenges, the countries need to come up with concrete measures to fully tap the immense potentials of connectivity through the successful establishment of the BCIM-EC across the sub-region.
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