India Seeks to Mend Bangladesh Ties With Vaccine Diplomacy

Modi and Hasina discuss trade, agriculture and energy ties.

India reassured Bangladesh it will prioritize the supply of Covid-19 shots to its South Asian neighbor, part of its vaccine outreach to counter China’s rising influence in the region.

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bangladesh’s Sheikh Hasina met in a virtual summit Thursday -- the first high-level meeting of the leaders from the two countries since relations nosedived when India passed its controversial religion-based citizenship law late last year.

“India and Bangladesh are cooperating well on the Covid vaccine,” Modi said at the summit’s inauguration, adding that New Delhi “will pay special attention” to Bangladesh’s immunization requirements.

Hasina said the two countries can move up global value chains by further integrating their economies. She also announced the inauguration of the Chilahati-Haldibari trans-border railway link between the countries that had stopped functioning in 1965.

Last December Bangladesh’s foreign minister AK Abdul Momen and home minister Asaduzzaman Khan had both called off visits after nationwide protests erupted in India against its new citizen law. The new law fast-tracks Indian citizenship for non-Muslims from three neighboring nations including Bangladesh.

New Delhi has since been making overtures to smoothen relations with Dhaka, with whom it has a long history of cooperative ties.

Indian foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla visited Bangladesh twice this year. The second visit in August came amid rising border tensions with China, which has committed $40 billion in investments in Bangladesh.

On Thursday the two countries signed seven agreements relating to trade, energy and agriculture. Annual trade between India and Bangladesh stood at $10.25 billion in the fiscal year ended March 2019, Indian government data shows.

A joint statement released after the meetings said that Hasina highlighted the need for the early signing of an interim agreement on sharing the waters of the Teesta river. Modi too reiterated India’s “sincere commitment and continued efforts” to reach an agreement on the dispute that has lingered since the 80s.

Indian foreign minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and his counterpart Momen had committed to finalizing an interim deal in September.

The “long-drawn failure to sign the Teesta river water agreement” and the new citizenship law have together “unsettled public opinion in Bangladesh” against New Delhi despite decades of close ties, said Delwar Hossain, a professor of international relations at Dhaka University. “Now Covid-19 has brought the two nations together once again.”

Bangladesh’s Beximco Pharmaceuticals Ltd. signed an agreement with Serum Institute of India Pvt. in November for 30 million vaccine doses, shortly after India’s Jaishankar committed supplies to Dhaka during his meeting with Momen.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.