Lady diplomacy

Written by Sudipta Datta | Indronil Roychowdhury | Updated: May 13 2012, 07:10am hrs
Hillary Clintons recent visit to the region connects the dots between Aung San Suu Kyi, Sheikh Hasina, Mamata Banerjee and the business opportunities they represent to the US

Last July, at a speech at Chennais Anna Centenary Library, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the reason why US administration officialsPresident Barack Obama had visited in 2010 and Clinton twice in two yearswere visiting India so often was because we understand that much of the history of the 21st century will be written in Asia, and that much of the future of Asia will be shaped by decisions not only of the Indian government in New Delhi, but of governments across India... After meeting Tamil Nadus powerful chief minister J Jayalalithaa and civil society last year, Clinton followed it up with another visit to India, this time to Kolkata in Bengal, interestingly, also on the east coast, to meet another woman leader Mamata Banerjee, who has to her credentials the feat of toppling the Left after 34 years.

With the Left in power, the US had watched as China increased its stranglehold over the region. Now, say experts, the US is slowly trying to gain back controlthe first steps being a visit by a secretary of state no less, the first time a top-ranking US official has set foot at the state secretariat or Writers Buildings.

While Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee may have harped on the fact that Hillary Clinton told her she had come to see the leader of the masses, someone who had gone through the fire of electoral politics and defeated the Left, experts claim there is more to the visit than meets the eye.

With the American economy in trouble and Europe, too, headed that way, the geographical location of India is vital to the US, and states like West Bengal and Tamil Nadu crucial for its proximity to countries like Bangladesh, incidentally also ruled by a woman, and Myanmar, where Aung San Suu Kyi has just managed to usher in a semblance of democracy after years of military rule, and other south Asian countries.

In Chennai, Clinton had said: There is no better place to discuss Indias leadership in the region to its east than here in Chennai. In this port city, looking out at the Bay of Bengal and beyond to the nations of east and south-east Asia, we are easily reminded of Indias historic role in the wider region. For thousands of years, Indian traders have sailed those waters of south-east Asia and beyond. ...And today, the stretch of sea from the Indian Ocean through to the Pacific contains the worlds most vibrant trade and energy routes linking economies and driving growth.

In Bengal, she drove the point harder, and stressed on the US new Silk Route strategy through the north-east, that would connect countries like Bangladesh and Myanmar.

Says economist Prof Ratan Khasnabis: The US is aware that China is closer to the south-eastern part of Asia. China has a competitive advantage if the route opens up, for, to give just one example, it has already built a road to Myanmar. This region has been under Chinas control for at least a decade and a half. Now, the US wants to gain control of the area, and with the Left out and Mamata Banerjee in, Hillary Clinton wanted to assess the ground situation herself.

Khasnabis says the US is also aware that to make this Silk Road strategy work, India and Bangladesh relations should improve, now hanging in the balance because of Mamata Banerjees opposition to the Teesta water sharing pact. Everything from FDI in retail to Teesta were discussed at the Clinton-Mamata meeting. The US is keenly interested in the region, he adds.

The success of the new Silk Route project would depend much on Indias opening up FDI in retail since the US will need to use Bangladesh, east and north-east India as a supply ground if it has to tap the south-east Asian market.

Says Lt Gen VM Patil (retd), chairman, Balaji Institute of Modern Management, Myanmar has been kept as the focal point for American investment since it would be a link between ASEAN and SAARC and also help the US in the long run to park its navy in the Asia-Pacific region, which has been its long-time target, to contain Chinese influence in both SAARC and ASEAN countries. Besides, controlling Myanmar could help the US gain control over its huge reserves of oil and natural gas.

Seshadri Chari, director, geopolitical studies, Forum for Strategic and Security Studies, feels Mamata Banerjee is a new-found facilitator for the Obama administration, because her idea of striking a balance between agriculture and industry and promoting agro-based industry in the state calls for getting a market for the agricultural produce, which is not possible unless she looks beyond the borders. Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos are very good trading economies and consumption in those markets is growing primarily due to a flourishing tourism industry. But those economies cannot be developed as manufacturing centres because of the pattern of the human resources and the orientation (mainly tourism-based economy) those economies have. And so West Bengal can be a most fertile ground for supplying any fast-moving consumer goods to the region and Bangladesh with its Chittagong Port can take care of the logistics, he says.

Interestingly, months before Clintons visit, the US had sent a business delegation to Kolkata comprising heads and top officials of US shipping lines to look into the facilities available at the Kolkata Port Trust (KoPT). While the delegation showed interest in participating in various infrastructural projects, it gained a firsthand knowledge of how the Haldia port operated for trading with south-east Asia. After talks with Clinton, Mamata Banerjee said the US was interested in helping Bengal build a deep sea port. If such a port comes up, which Mamata Banerjee has proposed, it too can take care of logistics, though the US would favour a synergy between West Bengal and Bangladesh in supporting its new Silk Route project.

According to a KoPT official, a lot of container traffic moves between Haldia and Chittagong. The south-east Asia bound mainline vessels transport cargo to Chittagong and Haldia with feeder vessels. There are a lot of feeder services between Haldia-Chittagong and up to Singapore.

Chari feels sharing Teesta waters between India and Bangladesh has been an issue, on which Bangladesh has sought US intervention since the US wants to supply FMCG products manufactured and stored in West Bengal and also agri-commodities warehoused in West Bengal using the Chittagong port. The dry dock facilities in Myanmar could complete the entire logistics chain.

Hillary Clinton in her interaction with Kolkatas civil society said the US was keen to be at the backend of the supply chain and would focus on logistics solutions if FDI in retail was allowed. This makes clear the direction US investment in West Bengal is headed.

The other aspect, which the US is looking at, is containing the Chinese influence in the region, which is already dominant. The Chinese have already bought huge tracts of land in northern part of Myanmar and are even getting married to Burmese people, pushing in a demographic change. This has a huge impact in the long run, which the Americans want to prevent, says Chari. He adds that while the Left Front government had reasons to protect Chinese interest in the Asia-Pacific, Banerjee would rather be interested to put a check on Chinese interests to cut CPMs supply line.

With Mamata Banerjee at the helmand calling shots at the Centrethe US is increasingly looking at Kolkata for a springboard in gaining access to the south-east. Lending a friendly hand to Jayalalithaa, Mamata, Sheikh Hasina and Aung San Suu Kyi will serve US interests well.