ADVERTISEMENTREMOVE AD

China's Interest in Bangladesh Teesta River Project: What's at Stake for India?

Foreign Secretary Vinay Kwatra concluded a two-day visit to Bangladesh on Thursday, 9 May.

Published
World
5 min read
story-hero-img
i
Aa
Aa
Small
Aa
Medium
Aa
Large
Hindi Female

"Bangladesh is India's leading development partner and its largest trade partner in the region," India's Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) said after Foreign Secretary Vinay Kwatra concluded a two-day visit to the country on Thursday, 9 May, during which he met the country's foreign minister Hasan Mahmud and also called on Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

Kwatra is said to have discussed a range of issues with the Bangladesh government, ranging from trade and investment to defence ties, according to the MEA. One of the purposes of the visit was also to lay the groundwork for Hasina's expected state visit to India this year.

The discussions come in the backdrop of a strategically decisive period as China has been in talks with Bangladesh to construct a multi-million dollar development project along the Teesta River which is expected to accrue economic benefits for Dhaka.

In the months leading up to the Bangladesh elections in January this year, the Teesta River Comprehensive Management and Restoration Project had been put on the backburner. However, China is said to have been pushing forward the possibility of its role in the project with renewed vigour after the re-election of Hasina and her Awami League.

China's Interest in Bangladesh Teesta River Project: What's at Stake for India?

  1. 1. Should India Be Worried About the Teesta Project? 

    India's major ground for objection against the project being handed over to China would be that it would give the latter a "foothold" in a strategically important region.

    The project is scheduled to be built near the Siliguri Corridor – also called the "chicken's neck", which is the only land link between India's northeastern states and the rest of the country.

    Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty, the former Indian High Commissioner to Bangladesh, told The Quint that the level of India's objection will depend on the extent to which the planned project would allow China's ingression into the area.

    "I think it's important to know how many Chinese workers will be deployed in Bangladesh to work on the project," he said. "China's deployments don't comprise of only civilians – they may use a lot of their ex-army personnel because they will be looking for a strategic opportunity and would want to monitor the situation near the Siliguri Corridor."

    The stationing of Chinese officials close to India's northeastern states will also gain prominence due to the Xi Jinping government's incessant claims of Arunachal Pradesh being the southern tip of Tibet, and hence part of China's territory. In April this year, Beijing released its fourth list of 30 new names of various places across Arunachal Pradesh – which was vehemently denied by the MEA.

    Furthermore, the state of Manipur remains to be "destabilised" due to ethnic clashes between Meiteis and the Kuki-Zo community since May last year.

    In addition to these concerns, Chinese officials may get the opportunity to access data on water flow, trade routes between India and Bangladesh, and other sensitive information which might be detrimental to India's security.

    During a state visit to India in 2023, Hasina had said while addressing the press that Bangladesh is not required to consult the Indian government for the development of projects along its side of the Teesta.

    In December last year, China's Ambassador to Bangladesh Yao Wen had also publicly announced that Beijing had received proposals to develop the Teesta Basin. However, in the same month, a spokesperson of the Bangladesh foreign office had conceded that the government would take into account "geopolitical issues" before deciding whom to award the project to.

    "While Bangladesh’s promise of considering the geopolitical situation before ascending to China’s offer is reassuring for India, it also indicates the need to resolve the long-pending Teesta issue before it assumes more traditional security connotations," Observer Research Foundation Associate Fellow and Bangladesh expert Sohini Bose told The Quint.

    Expand
  2. 2. Teesta: A Major Bone of Contention Between India & Bangladesh

    Ever since the formation of Bangladesh in 1971, the Teesta has been a major bone of contention between New Delhi and Dhaka.

    While it is only one of 54 cross-border rivers shared between India and Bangladesh, it is the only river regarding which a formal water-sharing agreement has not been inked.

    The Teesta is the fourth largest river in Bangladesh and is vital for 14 percent of its total crop production. Additionally, the river supports around 10 million people across the country's Nilphamari, Lalmonirhat, Kurigram, Gaibandha, Dinajpur, and Bogra districts.

    Bangladeshi officials have consistently maintained that the construction of dams by India along its side of the Teesta has given the latter an unfair advantage and impaired the required discharge of water into Bangladesh, especially during the lean period.

    The Teesta water-sharing agreement had gained renewed focus after Hasina's government came to power in 2009. In 2011 an agreement was put on paper between Hasina and the then Manmohan Singh-led Indian government that would give 37.5 percent of the river water to Bangladesh and 42.5 percent to India. However, the agreement did not come to fruition due to West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee's objections, citing a decline in the flow of the river.

    According to the Indian Constitution, rivers fall under the purview of states, and hence any agreement over the Teesta will need to be greenlit by the government of West Bengal – where 142 km of the Teesta flows out of a total length of 414 km. In comparison, 121 km of the river flows through Bangladesh.

    Expand
  3. 3. Is Bangladesh Playing a Diplomatic Game Over the Teesta Project?

    Considering that there hasn't been any headway regarding water-sharing agreements over the Teesta in the last 13 years, it would not be a stretch of the imagination to presume that Dhaka may award the project to Beijing due to growing impatience with New Delhi.

    However, despite a few thorns in ties, Bangladesh is known to be the greatest beneficiary of India's "Neighbourhood First" policy over the years, and hence cannot afford to alienate its neighbouring country.

    It was no secret that the Narendra Modi government wanted Hasina in control of Bangladesh's reigns following the elections earlier this year. Ever since her first term in 1996, Hasina has forged close ties with India and has consistently maintained her stance over the years.

    The Awami League has time and again acted against ethnic insurgent groups operating from Bangladesh to harm the interests of India's northeastern states. As opposed to the Khaleda Zia-led Bangladesh Nationalist Party, which has been accused of nurturing hardline Islamists which are critical of many of India's policies and accuse the Modi government of acting against the interests of Muslims.

    However, experts suggest that Bangladesh's decision to dangle the Teesta project in front of China and keep India guessing may be part of a larger diplomatic game.

    "Bangladesh is letting India know that they always have the option to get closer to China," Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty told The Quint. "Dhaka has done this several times before – playing off two big powers against each other to extract benefits from the balancing act."

    (At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

    Expand

Should India Be Worried About the Teesta Project? 

India's major ground for objection against the project being handed over to China would be that it would give the latter a "foothold" in a strategically important region.

The project is scheduled to be built near the Siliguri Corridor – also called the "chicken's neck", which is the only land link between India's northeastern states and the rest of the country.

Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty, the former Indian High Commissioner to Bangladesh, told The Quint that the level of India's objection will depend on the extent to which the planned project would allow China's ingression into the area.

"I think it's important to know how many Chinese workers will be deployed in Bangladesh to work on the project," he said. "China's deployments don't comprise of only civilians – they may use a lot of their ex-army personnel because they will be looking for a strategic opportunity and would want to monitor the situation near the Siliguri Corridor."

The stationing of Chinese officials close to India's northeastern states will also gain prominence due to the Xi Jinping government's incessant claims of Arunachal Pradesh being the southern tip of Tibet, and hence part of China's territory. In April this year, Beijing released its fourth list of 30 new names of various places across Arunachal Pradesh – which was vehemently denied by the MEA.

Furthermore, the state of Manipur remains to be "destabilised" due to ethnic clashes between Meiteis and the Kuki-Zo community since May last year.

In addition to these concerns, Chinese officials may get the opportunity to access data on water flow, trade routes between India and Bangladesh, and other sensitive information which might be detrimental to India's security.

During a state visit to India in 2023, Hasina had said while addressing the press that Bangladesh is not required to consult the Indian government for the development of projects along its side of the Teesta.

In December last year, China's Ambassador to Bangladesh Yao Wen had also publicly announced that Beijing had received proposals to develop the Teesta Basin. However, in the same month, a spokesperson of the Bangladesh foreign office had conceded that the government would take into account "geopolitical issues" before deciding whom to award the project to.

"While Bangladesh’s promise of considering the geopolitical situation before ascending to China’s offer is reassuring for India, it also indicates the need to resolve the long-pending Teesta issue before it assumes more traditional security connotations," Observer Research Foundation Associate Fellow and Bangladesh expert Sohini Bose told The Quint.

ADVERTISEMENTREMOVE AD

Teesta: A Major Bone of Contention Between India & Bangladesh

Ever since the formation of Bangladesh in 1971, the Teesta has been a major bone of contention between New Delhi and Dhaka.

While it is only one of 54 cross-border rivers shared between India and Bangladesh, it is the only river regarding which a formal water-sharing agreement has not been inked.

The Teesta is the fourth largest river in Bangladesh and is vital for 14 percent of its total crop production. Additionally, the river supports around 10 million people across the country's Nilphamari, Lalmonirhat, Kurigram, Gaibandha, Dinajpur, and Bogra districts.

Bangladeshi officials have consistently maintained that the construction of dams by India along its side of the Teesta has given the latter an unfair advantage and impaired the required discharge of water into Bangladesh, especially during the lean period.

The Teesta water-sharing agreement had gained renewed focus after Hasina's government came to power in 2009. In 2011 an agreement was put on paper between Hasina and the then Manmohan Singh-led Indian government that would give 37.5 percent of the river water to Bangladesh and 42.5 percent to India. However, the agreement did not come to fruition due to West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee's objections, citing a decline in the flow of the river.

According to the Indian Constitution, rivers fall under the purview of states, and hence any agreement over the Teesta will need to be greenlit by the government of West Bengal – where 142 km of the Teesta flows out of a total length of 414 km. In comparison, 121 km of the river flows through Bangladesh.

0

Is Bangladesh Playing a Diplomatic Game Over the Teesta Project?

Considering that there hasn't been any headway regarding water-sharing agreements over the Teesta in the last 13 years, it would not be a stretch of the imagination to presume that Dhaka may award the project to Beijing due to growing impatience with New Delhi.

However, despite a few thorns in ties, Bangladesh is known to be the greatest beneficiary of India's "Neighbourhood First" policy over the years, and hence cannot afford to alienate its neighbouring country.

It was no secret that the Narendra Modi government wanted Hasina in control of Bangladesh's reigns following the elections earlier this year. Ever since her first term in 1996, Hasina has forged close ties with India and has consistently maintained her stance over the years.

The Awami League has time and again acted against ethnic insurgent groups operating from Bangladesh to harm the interests of India's northeastern states. As opposed to the Khaleda Zia-led Bangladesh Nationalist Party, which has been accused of nurturing hardline Islamists which are critical of many of India's policies and accuse the Modi government of acting against the interests of Muslims.

However, experts suggest that Bangladesh's decision to dangle the Teesta project in front of China and keep India guessing may be part of a larger diplomatic game.

"Bangladesh is letting India know that they always have the option to get closer to China," Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty told The Quint. "Dhaka has done this several times before – playing off two big powers against each other to extract benefits from the balancing act."

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

Read Latest News and Breaking News at The Quint, browse for more from news and world

Topics:  China    India-Bangladesh 

Speaking truth to power requires allies like you.
Become a Member
3 months
12 months
12 months
Check Member Benefits
Read More
×
×