Nepal lessons for Bangladesh on defence pact

Published : 1 July 2022, 09:42 PM
Updated : 1 July 2022, 09:42 PM

Bangladesh's prudence in selectively accepting development projects that do not burden it with unmanageable debt should come into play when it sits down to consider defence pacts with the US, which is less keen to fund infrastructure projects in developing countries like Bangladesh and more interested in drawing them into their ambit of military alliances ever since the days of the Cold War.

This push seems to be now part of its global strategy to contain Russia and China and other regional powers like Iran. But countries like Bangladesh must weigh their interests carefully before going ahead with such defence pacts that may draw them into the vortex of geopolitical rivalries.

Bangladesh and the US have already passed a draft defence agreement on the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) during their eighth partnership dialogue earlier in 2022. The US is hoping to finalise the signing of GSOMIA soon and negotiate another defence agreement, Acquisition Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA).

Bangladesh Foreign Secretary Masud Bin Momen has however clarified that arms procurement from the US is not under consideration at the moment as the country focuses more on economic development. He said the GSOMIA negotiations have only cleared the third stage of the five envisaged while ACSA is not really on the table.

The US says the GSOMIA and ACSA are "essential" to enabling a closer defence relationship, expanding opportunities for defence trade, information sharing, and military-to-military cooperation between the two countries. They call these "foundational agreements".

That Bangladesh is taking its time getting into defence agreements with the US is a step in the right direction.

This becomes more evident from Nepal's recent experience when the tiny Himalayan country got into deep trouble by first going into the State Partnership Program (SPP) with the US and now trying to back off from it. The country's Home Minister Bal Krishna Khand recently said in parliament that Nepal will never be part of any defence pact. This statement came in response to a massive controversy involving the State Partnership Program after US Pacific Commander General Charles A Flynn's visit to Nepal.

During his recent visit to Kathmandu, the top US general, who also visited India, raised the issue of Nepal's participation in SPP during his meetings with Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba and army chief General Prabhu Ram Sharma.

But PM Deuba, who as defence minister has been under pressure from legislators and intellectuals to come clear on the SPP issue, skipped the parliament session when Khand made the statement.

Nepal's government has been deeply embarrassed by the debate over the SPP that erupted just before PM Deuba's planned visit to the US.

Amid controversy over the SPP, the US embassy in Kathmandu said that the United States accepted Nepal's participation in 2019 after its two requests in 2015 and 2017.

The Nepal Army, however, refuted the embassy's claims, saying there has been no agreement on SPP.

The US embassy statement has considerably embarrassed Deuba's ruling Nepali Congress because it was in power when the offer to join the SPP was apparently made by Nepal in 2015 and 2017. But it has also raised doubts about the country's once ruling communists and Maoists.

A leaked Nepal Army letter to the United States made it evident that Kathmandu made the SPP offer first in 2015 and then in 2017.

But when the US decided to accept Nepal into the SPP in 2019, the government in Kathmandu was run by a coalition of the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist) and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist).

Why the communists and the Maoists quietly accepted the American acceptance, instead of backing off from the SPP, is open to question. Neither the Nepali Congress makes it clear why they offered to join the SPP arrangement with the US in 2015 and then in 2017 nor do the leftists come clean on why they did not back off from the SPP when they came to power. It was during their tenure that the US says it finally agreed to take Nepal into the SPP.

Since defence pacts are a priority with the US, Bangladesh quickly signing into the GSOMIA and ACSA may ease bilateral relations strained by US sanctions against seven top Bangladesh security officials, including police chief Benazir Ahmed. Washington may go easy on the human rights issue in Bangladesh which led to the sanctions if the defence agreements were signed. But despite these uncertainties, Dhaka will be ill-advised to rush into defence agreements. The lessons from Nepal are writ large.

Toufique Imrose Khalidi
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher