‘No permanent friends, only interests’

Afsan Chowdhury
Thursday, October 26th, 2017

State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, right, with the Bangladesh Minister for Home Affairs Mr. Asaduzzaman in Nay Pyi Taw. Photo: Courtasy


The term is often used in politics and increasingly heard in geopolitics.  This refers the most to India, our friend and ally in 1971 and whom some of us thought was our friend for life.  This is absurd and doesn’t apply to reality. There is no permanent enemy either and if this idea was understood, policy and media life would be easier for all.


In international relations, the platform is self interest as it should be. The interesst of India and Bangladesh converged in 1971 as both had a common enemy Pakistan and thus fought together on one side. However, that war is over and new realities have emerged so it’s only natural that new equations would be noted. To know and understand and act accordingly are signs of maturity, the only ingredient that can help us survive in today’s highly volatile international world as the Myanmar crisis shows.


The idea of permanent friendship unfortunately affects both countries creating undue expectations. Bangladesh thinks that come what may, India will always choose to be on its side though there is no reason to think so. Part of that comes from thinking that India’s support to Bangladesh was an act of pure friendship, morality and sacrifice in 1971.


What we don’t remember is that India had major political, economic and strategic reasons of her own in supporting Bangladesh against her arch foe, Pakistan. If anything, Bangladesh did India a favor by responding with its nationalist radicalism that helped end Pakistan. Thus it was matter of mutual benefit to both. It always has to be if it works the way it did in 1971.


The Myanmar Test


Bangladesh’s disappointment with India on Myanmar is based on this permanent relationship fallacy. This is the error, which our decision makers made and our public and media are making on India’s position on Myanmar. 2017 is far away from 1971 and both countries have moved on and changed. India’s priorities have also shifted and Bangladesh is one of the allies, not its primary one.


Just as the US has replaced Soviet Union as the Big Friend, its allies are several and Myanmar is one of them. India therefore needs Myanmar and it’s not going to choose Bangladesh over it. It will treat both equally and in the best interest of India not the countries concerned.


It was this lesson that Bangladesh forgot not remembering that both China and India are grown up nations who don’t sacrifice their own in the best interest of another. The result was over dependence on both. Bangladesh had thought that  new found friend China was not going to choose Myanmar over Bangladesh due to the new found coziness which left Bangladesh vulnerable.


Not that India behaves very maturely on occasions. When Bangladesh did get close to China it made India very unhappy. Media has been particularly virulent and the result has been a greater reaction in Bangladesh over India’s permanent friendship type thinking. Obviously, the old diplomacy has to leave South Asia and bring in fresher minds to work here.


Given this reality check, Bangladesh needs to grow up quickly and assess new friendships and old allies. The move with China should not be seen as an opportunity to make India sweat but taking advantage of what China has to offer. China is also not a great liberator but a vendor and a strategic ally and no more. We should make professional analysis of what it offers and how good that is for us.


Nor should we try to distance ourselves from India as its one country with which we have land boundaries + everything else. Compared to Bangladesh, India is so overwhelmingly powerfully that it can make life difficult to the extreme for us at a short notice and in many sectors.  Which is why we should hope that our decision makers know how to play the diplomatic game well and in the process keep matters stable?


The Myanmar test has shown that while China and India are in charge we have some way to go. And we ourselves are our only permanent ally. To end with the quote from the 19th-century British prime minister, Lord Palmerston (sometimes misattributed to Kissinger, who came much later): “Nations have no permanent friends or allies, only interests.”

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