On 18 March 2023, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina jointly inaugurated the India-Bangladesh Friendship Pipeline (IBFP) via video-conferencing. Built at an estimated cost of INR 377 crore, of which the Bangladesh portion of the pipeline was built at a cost of approx. INR 285 crore, the IBFP is, according to India’s Ministry of External Affairs, the second cross-border energy pipeline between India and its neighbours, yet the first cross border energy pipeline between India and Bangladesh.
This 131.5 km-long pipeline will have the capacity to transport 1 Million Metric Ton Per Annum (MMTPA) of High-Speed Diesel (HSD) to Bangladesh. In emphasizing the importance of this newly inaugurated cross-border energy pipeline, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi suggested that the IBFP ‘will further accelerate the development of Bangladesh, and will be an excellent example of increasing connectivity between the two countries’.
Indeed, cooperation on energy and electricity transmission lines between India and Bangladesh have continued to gather pace since Shiekh Hasina’s government in Bangladesh came into power in 2009. The Baharampur-Bheramara cross-border power transmission link between India and Bangladesh, for instance, has already been operational since October 2013. This cross-border transmission line is not only the first South Asian high voltage direct current (HVDC) interconnection but also the first electricity grid interconnection among SAARC countries.
On the surface, the operation of the IBFP can be considered as New Delhi’s attempt to further enhance energy cooperation between India and Bangladesh and strengthen people-to-people linkages between the two countries. Yet, in view of its closer ties with the United States and its allies, its growing rivalry with China, and China’s growing presence in India’s neighbourhood and the Indian Ocean, India’s foreign policy, and particularly its neighbourhood policy, are at crossroads. The operation of this Friendship Pipeline, therefore, is crucial for four reasons.
First, the Indian government’s initiative to help Bangladesh meet its growing energy demands through the construction of this Friendship Pipeline is a manifestation of New Delhi’s security-centric approach towards Bangladesh. In the overall relationship with Bangladesh, security has long dominated New Delhi’s outlook towards Dhaka. With India taking an active part in contributing to Bangladesh’s Liberation War in 1971, New Delhi needs to ensure that an independent Bangladesh (which was part of Pakistan and was known as East Pakistan before 1971) is friendly and not hostile to India. Then, if India’s endorsement of Bangladesh’s 1971 Liberation War could make Bangladeshis (almost) always grateful for its support and sacrifices, then it stands to reason that facilitating energy cooperation between the two countries would further encourage Bangladesh’s government and its people to maintain a posture of gratitude and thankfulness towards India. As a result, providing Bangladesh with access to a reliable source of natural gas would help allay India’s security concern: the emergence of an unfriendly (or even hostile) Bangladesh which would constitute a threat to India’s eastern flank.
Second, the Friendship Pipeline, which is aimed to export oil products from India to Bangladesh, is a logical extension of India’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy, which can be considered as the anchor point of New Delhi’s foreign policy in general since its independence in 1947. As the largest country in South Asia by size and economic and military strength, India under the Narendra Modi government has actively pursued regional governance and regional-building vis-a-vis its neighbours, including Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal (BBIN), the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) and the Indian-Ocean Rim Association (IORA). In line with the Gujral Doctrine (as spelt out by Inder Kumar Gujral since the 1990s), this regional connectivity push by India is largely attributed to the ethnic, religious, and geographic linkages between India and its South Asian neighbours and Modi’s aspiration for ‘seeking a peaceful and stable neighbourhood’.
Third, the Indian government’s willingness to provide grant-in-aid for constructing this Friendship Pipeline can be understood as the attempt made by the Modi government to use soft power diplomacy in India’s diplomatic encounter with Bangladesh in particular and other smaller South Asian countries in general. Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi came into power in 2014, New Delhi has been trying hard to create a perception of its rising soft power by formally incorporating soft power projection as an important dimension of the Indian foreign policy doctrine. Modi’s tendency to act as a soft power enthusiast is reflected in his government to export vaccines to many low-income countries through its Vaccine Maitri Programme during the Covid-19 pandemic and provide financial aid to India’s economically devastated neighbours such as Sri Lanka. While India has long been perceived by its neighbours an overbearing ‘big brother’, New Delhi’s friendly outreach of soft power in South Asia may help, potentially, allay anxieties among India’s neighbours, and transform India from the ‘dominant big brother’ into a ‘caring older sibling’.
Fourth, India’s efforts to further contribute to enhancing the energy security of Bangladesh (when Bangladesh’s economy is under stress) via this Friendship Pipeline is part of India’s strategy of dealing with a rising China, New Delhi’s foremost foreign policy challenge. Along with Chinese encroachment across the Line of Actual Control (LAC), China’s growing economic and military presence in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), particularly its cross-border strategic infrastructure projects (ports and bases) and deepening linkages with India’s South Asian neighbours (including Bangladesh) has alarmed India, which traditionally views South Asia as its strategic backyard. Against the backdrop of China’s expanding power, growing geopolitical ambitions and increasing collaboration with countries in the region, India needs to further strengthen its efforts to expand ties with its extended neighbourhood. The operation of this Friendship Pipeline, therefore, might help India regain lost ground by offering Bangladesh the necessary energy assistance, and perhaps most importantly, stop the trend of its neighbouring South Asian countries to reject/ challenge Indian primacy by playing the ‘China Card’ against New Delhi.
All these reasons combined made this India-Bangladesh Friendship Pipeline a significant move by New Delhi to impart fresh momentum to the relationship between India and its extended neighbourhood in the region. In many respects, India, through the construction of this Friendship Pipeline, has constituted an important first step towards rectifying the somewhat negative perception of its South Asian neighbours, counterbalancing China’s growing influence in the region and revitalizing its role as the ‘only security manager in South Asia’.