ECONOMYNEXT – In December of 1971 as the war in then East Pakistan was reaching a turning point the United States, at the time allied with Pakistan sent in the Seventh Fleet with an Aircraft carrier to the Bay of Bengal. The objective was to intimidate the Indian-backed Mukti Bahini rebels fighting for the independence of East Pakistan to create the new country of Bangladesh.
However, the then Soviet Union sent in a flotilla inclusive of a cruiser and several submarines. This caused the US Navy to withdraw allowing the Indian forces to liberate East Pakistan.
That is part of South Asia’s complex history why the countries of the region have refrained from the outright condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, although they agree Russia’s actions goes against the accepted world order a webinar hosted by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF) was toldon March 31.
The webinar entitled “The War in Ukraine and its implications in South Asia” drew speakers from India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka as well as representatives from the German Bundestag (Federal Parliament.)
At the webinar Member of the Bundestag Dr Markus Faber called on the South Asian countries to support the stance taken by Germany and NATO against the Russian aggression. Faber, who is a member of the Defense Committee of the Bundestag asked the countries of South Asia to support the sanctions imposed on Russia and the security architecture that exists in the Indo-Pacific region.
“Democracies must support each other,” he said adding that democratic countries make more reliable allies as they are dependent on the support of the people.
Faber said that his country as well as the NATO alliance were phasing out dependence on Russian oil and gas and beefing up its defense spending.
For India, the biggest and most influential country in the region, the main concern was that the Western powers, the United States and the European Union taking a hostile position against Russia would change the world order.
“We are concerned that this war would weaken Russia, make it a Pygmy and drive it into the arms of the Chinese Dragon,” India’s former Ambassador to the Netherlands Bhaswati Mukherjee told the webinar.
India, the veteran diplomat said, considers China its biggest concern and this conflict may make the country’s contentious neighbor stronger. She pointed out that India is “anchored to the West” and isstrategically allied with the United States.
She says India “views with alarm at the possibility of Russia becoming weaker and weaker” due to the conflict and sanctionsand drawing closer to China.
“This will change the world order and it will leave India having to confront China alone.” She said after the Russian invasion of Ukraine India is concerned that China would attack Taiwan and also make incursions into the disputed Himalayan regions on the Indo-Chinese border.
She also pointed out that India remains dependent on Russia for armaments and spare parts for military hardware. Much of India’s fighter aircraft are Russian. It also needs Russian petroleum to come out of the Covid pandemic caused recession.
She also quoted from the writings of former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger who had written in 2014 that “far too often the Ukrainian issue is posed as a showdown: whether Ukraine joins the East or the West. But if Ukraine is to survive and thrive, it must not be either side’s outpost against the other — it should function as a bridge between them.” She said she agrees with Kissinger although she has no admiration for him.
Moderator Saikat Dutta, Founding Partner of the think tank Deep Strat India,acknowledged the request made by Dr Faber for the South Asian democracies to support the West in isolating Russia, but he said that may be more complicated because of historical events.
Those events are specifically related to the 1971 conflict between India and Pakistan that eventually saw the birth of Bangladesh. Mukherjee said that in the case of India, it had found the former Soviet Union a reliably ally during that conflict with the then US backed Pakistan.
She recalled that when the Bangladeshi armed liberation movement, the Mukti Bahini were fighting the Pakistan Army with Indian military support to create Bangladesh in December 1971 the US sent the Seventh Fleet to the Bay of Bengal. It was a threatening move. However, a Soviet Naval Task Force comprising Cruisers and two submarines reached there first and after a tense standoff in December of that year the Americans withdrew.
At that time, Mukherjee said, Moscow gave the Indians a deadline to complete the mission. The primary issue was the fight for airspace and Indian Pilots flying Soviet-made MIG 21s fighter-bombers cratered the airfields in what was East Pakistan and declared air superiority in four days.
For the Bangladeshis also, the Russian connection is still strong ever since. Prof Lailufar Yasmin of Bangladesh’s Dhaka University said the incident is etched into the Bangladeshi psyche. In more recent times Bangladesh has also enteredinto technology partnerships with Russia, including the building of a Nuclear-powered electricity generating plant.
Yasmin agreed that that the world is not in a post-Second World War era, andcountries like Bangladesh have moved on and charted their own course. However, she pointed out that neutrality does not mean the country has no policy. She pointed out that Bangladesh does strongly believe that the sovereignty of a country is “sacrosanct”, and that aggression in the manner of Russia’s cannot be condoned.
Bangladesh has also improved economically and with a relatively large population of 170 million people is attracting investment from around the world, particularly Japan. The economic ties with China have also grown, she said.
In the case of Sri Lanka, which also along with India and Bangladesh did not vote against Russia at the UN Resolution condemning the invasion of Ukraine, a neutral stance has been a continuation of its foreign policy.
At the same time the US and the EU are the biggest markets for Sri Lanka’s exports, particularly apparel, but at the same time Russia continues to support Sri Lanka at international fora where resolutions have been proposed to punish Colombo’s record on Human Rights and alleged War Crimes.
Imran Furkan who was the Sri Lankan representative at the Webinar said that however Sri Lanka always stresses the importance of the Rule of Law as it is a very small country and keeping its independence and territorial integrity is of paramount importance.
Furkan, a management accountant who advises businesses in the Asia Pacific region, also said that Sri Lanka’s ties to the Soviet Union and thereafter Russia go back many decades with many Sri Lankans studying in Russian Universities on scholarships, particularly administrators and Civil Servants.
Mukherjee went on to say that while India is “firmly anchored” to the US and the West, it also has a relationship with Russia which cannot be broken. She said the West understands India’s position. She also said that in history the Russians have shown a lot of resilience in war, taking massive casualties in the battle of Leningrad for instance in WW2.
She also agreed with some Western commentators who have been critical of the “demonization” of Russian President Vladimir Putin saying that it was counterproductive.
Datta pointed out that in the case of the West it treats India differently when it comes to engagement with Pakistan and Afghanistan, while maintaining the closeness with India. “This is a duality that we need to understand and negotiate,” he added.
The webinar also discussed why the former Soviet Union and now Russia has engaged with South Asia. In response Prof Yasmin said “international relations are not conducted due to altruism. In international relations there is anarchy because each country is acting on its own interests.”
In the case of the Ukrainian refugee crisis, she said that Bangladesh has voted to support their plight, as it is battling the Rohingya refugee issue.
The Rohingya are a Muslim minority in Buddhist majority Myanmar who have fled their country in their millions to Bangladesh due to persecution by Myanmar’s military. “The reaction from South Asia to the current conflict is therefore very complex as it is very inter-connected,” she added.
China’s relations with the rest of South Asia have shown that it has been mostly a development partner. Prof Yasmin said that China had lent her country cash for infrastructural development, but Bangladesh has also receivedassistance from other countries such as Japan, the EU and the US.
In the case of Sri Lanka, Furkan said that Sri Lanka has a good record of balancing the powers around it but during the past ten years or so came closer to China. “China came with development aid after the (Civil) war ended in 2009,” he pointed out. Many new post-war infrastructure projects were completed with Chinese loans.
Furkan also said that the older generation of Sri Lankan leaders have a good impression of Russia. However, as this current war has broken out in the age of Social Media, the younger Sri Lankans would possibly not have such a favorable view of Russia as it is portrayed as aggression against a sovereign state, he said.
Yasmin and Furkan both concluded that in the case of Bangladesh and Sri Lanka as their exports go to the EU, the US and Japan it s vital that they keep good relations with the West, while retaining “strategic continuity and autonomy” in its dealings with Russia.
Moscow has been a long-standing partner to South Asian countries before and after the fall of the iron curtain on key defense, economic and energy-related issues; partnering with India, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka amongst others.
The ongoing invasion of Ukraine by Russia has wide-reaching geo-economic, geopolitical, and strategic implications for South Asia. The complicated balance of priorities for countries in South Asia has led to vastly muted reactions on the international diplomatic stage.
The session would cover these implications for countries in South Asia and the broader implications of the war in the wider Indo-Pacific region.