The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Talks hope in Bangla row

Washington, Feb. 5: Even though defence minister George Fernandes said today that “things have gone out of control” on the border with Bangladesh, India has not given up hope of a diplomatic solution to the crisis.

Foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal, who is winding up his visit to Washington today, said on the penultimate day of his talks with American officials that it would be improper to compare Bangladesh with Pakistan.

What Pakistan is doing to India in actively promoting cross-border terrorism is very different in scale to what Bangladesh has been engaged in.

Dhaka is hosting insurgent groups which are active in India, Sibal alleged at a press conference, as opposed to Pakistan that gives active support to groups infiltrating into India.

“We hope Bangladesh will discuss this problem with us,” Sibal said, hinting that a diplomatic solution to troubles between India and Bangladesh was not being ruled out in South Block.

Earlier, addressing a prestigious gathering of strategic analysts, defence experts and academics at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Sibal said Bangladesh was not cooperating with India, especially in terms of access, in dealing with the security needs of the northeastern states.

Answering a question from a supporter of democracy in Myanmar, he defended India’s growing ties with the military junta there on this ground, arguing that the security needs of the Northeast were paramount, and since Bangladesh was found wanting in help, New Delhi had to turn to Yangon.

The cooperation with Myanmar was dictated by geography and security interests, he added. “With South East Asia, India is rapidly developing close economic links as part of its “Look East” policy, which include Free Trade and Economic Partnership Agreements with Thailand and Singapore, respectively, east-west transportation links connecting, to begin with, India, Myanmar and Thailand and India’s summit-level dialogue with the Asean.”

He surprised the audience by candidly acknowledging that India welcomed US military presence in its neighbourhood, a far cry from the days when South Block used to rail against US presence not only in South Asia and the Gulf but almost anywhere the Americans chose to send their forces to.

It was both an unequivocal enunciation of a policy shift that New Delhi has been going through in recent years and a coming to terms with a fait accompli.

“The US, as a global power, has a powerful presence in this region. It has now a military presence in Central Asia which is likely to be long term not only because of Afghanistan but also because of the oil and gas resources.… The US intends to stay in Afghanistan in the foreseeable future and barring, perhaps, Pakistan whose ambitions have been thwarted, all other neighbouring countries, including India, believe the US presence in Afghanistan is required to ward off instability and revival of conflict there.”

Sibal amplified this at his press conference when he said continued American presence can prevent destabilisation of the area though he added that diplomatic “ifs” and “buts” to the idea when he said “we have to look at” the longer term perspectives in which that policy is implemented.

He freely acknowledged that in the light of the understanding sought to be developed between India and the US, New Delhi now has less reason to be concerned about an American presence in Asia.

In his presentation at the Carnegie Endowment, Sibal, in fact, hinted that Washington could look to New Delhi to nurture this presence.

“India and the US have a larger canvas in Asia to work on in terms of dealing with various security challenges,” he said.

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