Changing Dynamics in Bangladesh Foreign Policy a small developmental state’s dilemma -Imran Nazir

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Foreign policy is subject to constant change due to internal and external forces of a country. Bangladesh foreign policy has also undergone unique changes varying from time to time. Notably we have observed a new vigour in Bangladesh foreign policy lately given a wider dynamic exposure to many non-traditional entities. May be this foreign policy diversification is the reflective indication of the changing perceptions among current decision makers as new strategic needs are emerging in the face of global political changes.
Constitutionally Bangladesh has pursued a policy of peace in its foreign policy since its inception in 1971. Bangabandhu had chosen a policy where war-time aides were given the position of paramount importance in Bangladesh’s foreign policy initially. But Bangabandhu had to create a little bit of distance from ideologically closer India and former Soviet Union to get closer with war time adversaries for economic consideration. And his predecessors also understood the crude reality and moved to the capitalist world and aligned with the Muslim world for greater benefits. So, the common trend of Bangladesh foreign policy has become either closely tilting towards India and Russia or USA and the Western countries plus China. Current political regime in Bangladesh is used to choosing India and Russia while another prominent political party is traditionally comfortable with the Western alliance and China while maintaining normal relations with Pakistan to balance India. One should not forget that national interest plays a decisive role in determining foreign relations of a country but we should not also underestimate the regime interest which often supersedes national interest for the sake of a ruling political party.

A country’s external orientation depends on many internal variables where international system extorts a level of influence. Notably internal variables may range from its geographical features, national power, in-group solidarity to leadership be engage in international issues. While position of a country in international system has also a consequential bearing in its policy undertaking Bangladesh, being a relatively small but potential in human resources, is geographically India-locked. This geographical vulnerability has always been reflected invariably in Bangladesh foreign policy behaviour under all governments. Living with neighbouring giant countries always exposes dilemma for geographically small countries. One author succinctly remarked that, ‘the deepest fears of the smaller units in the global system are their larger neighbours.’ However, there are theoretically three options left to small countries to counter this situation: First strategy is being very closer with big neighbour to avoid itspossible aggression. It is famously known pilot-fish behaviour where a small fish tries to stay closer to the shark so that shark cannot swallow it up. This strategy resembles to bandwagoning which has also potential risk of becoming enclave of big neighbour. Second strategy involves relatively small neighbour toemphasis on creating political deterrence by involving itself in a wider array of international links which would create global stakes and interests and eventually reduce the pressure of relative power gap with big neighbour. Third and the last strategy is all about staying out from international system and moving on its own. Myanmar used to stay out of international system so that none went to bother it. However, from these theoretical discussions, we can locate Bangladesh practising the second strategy where it engages itself with actors inside and outside of the Asia and ensures vibrant presence in the United Nations so that India cannot arbitrarily disobey the sovereignty of Bangladesh. Though we have also seen bandwagoning syndromes occasionally in one of the major political parties in the history of Bangladesh.

Bangladesh foreign policy is clearly having two broader objectives to attain from international relations. One is the preservation and securitization of sovereignty and another is mobilizing resources (trade, aid, grants, technologies, etc.) for economic development. Evidently Bangladesh is about to graduate from the list of the Least Developed Countries by 2024 after preterminal performance completion in this year. Despite various drawbacks, Bangladesh is emerging as a developmental state eager to prosper has widely been recognized and applauded. For this reason, Bangladesh needs to connect itself with diverse countries to convert its vision of economic development in reality. Even strategically Bangladesh needs to establish a strong alignment with both superpowers and other regional powers to have a balanced relation in its foreign policy.
However, let us trace the picture of Bangladesh’s diversified relations and interactions in recent time. Traditionally Bangladesh keeps strong relations with developmental partners like USA, the European Union (EU) and Japan. Especially USA and the EU are combinedly the major destination of Bangladeshi exports. But Bangladesh has incorporated Russia in its developmental process recently. Rooppur nuclear power plant project under Russian supervision is the latest example of the warm relations between Moscow and Dhaka. Even Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has struck arms deal worth 1 billion USD in 2013 with Russia. Obviously this historic arms deal bears strategic message for regional powers as well. Additionally, Bangladesh is also fostering economic and security cooperation with western European countries. Especially the efforts at the front of economic diplomacy are noteworthy in Europe in the context of BREXIT.
Muslim countries have always been given a greater extent of exposure in Bangladesh foreign policy. It maintains good relation with the Middle Eastern countries for its religious affinity with them and prioritizes this region as it provides overseas employment for millions of Bengalis providing millions of dollars annually. Recent engagement of Bangladesh in Saudi led Islamic Military Alliance in 2015 and bilateral security pact with it in 2019 gives a unique impression of Bangladesh’s thrust to align with Muslim countries. Besides, Bangladesh is trying to strengthen its relations with Turkey which in return is eager to tighten its security and economic activities with Bangladesh. Historically we have observed a level of attachment in current ruling party to emphasis on secularism due to the pressure from its regional ally. But domestic forces coupled with developmental pressure are compelling Bangladesh to reshape its ideological principles. It can be said that these dynamic changes are fueled by the core objectives of Bangladesh foreign policy. Evidently Bangladesh is looking for overseas destinations where surplus manpower can be exported to earn additional currency which is the heart of Bangladeshi development. On the other hand, Bangladesh is facing immense threats from both traditional and non-traditional sources. Traditionally Bangladesh is residing with a giant neighbour which poses constant threat for Bangladesh. We have seen continued border killings along with provocative statements despite being a so called ‘friendly state.’ On the other hand, there is a burden of nearly one million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. Response of international communities regarding to solve this crisis is very negligible except Turkey’s bold position and west’s rhetoric pleas. So, Bangladesh may benefit from accumulating Muslim world’s consensus to solve this immediate problem.
Regional political rivalry directly influences the foreign policy priority of Bangladesh. Current Bangladesh government was used to pursuing a pro-Indian foreign policy due to its overwhelming geographical influence in the domestic factors of Bangladesh. Hardly any political party can negate the India factor as potential pressurizing element in Bangladesh politics. However, current ruling regime had to popularize the ideas of ‘development’ and ‘modernisation’ to earn its domestic legitimacy as there is virtually no opposition party. Despite own development, India still lacks behind to support Bangladesh at its developmental aspects. So naturally China superseded the position of India being the largest import source of Bangladesh. Even China is currently working on multiple developmental projects in Bangladesh. Given the Indian geographical encirclement and Chinese overwhelming developmental engagement in consideration, Bangladesh has no way but to keep a balanced relation between India and China in the face of their regional rivalry for now. Most of the political analysts have tended to applaud this prudent strategy of Bangladesh while none unboxes the Blackbox of this strategy.

Recent auspicious attempt of Dhaka to liberate its foreign policy from the direction of New Delhi has attracted wider hope and aspiration among foreign policy observers that this time current regime is taking policies objectively. Specially the phone call between Pakistani PM Imran Khan and our PM Sheikh Hasina has spurred talks regarding the changing nature of Bangladesh foreign policy. Additionally, Bangladesh’s prioritization of China in giving development projects over India also indicates its attempt to reduce dependency on neighbour. These changes may also be the result of perception change among top leaders in Bangladesh. We have seen how Bangladesh has given transit and port facility to India with utmost benevolence while India has failed to resolve long due disputes like water sharing, border killings, trade deficit even in this uninterrupted friendly environment. Bangladesh government may have understood that citizens are not happy about India’s arbitrary role in sacrificing the national interest of Bangladesh. Even India abstained from voting in favour of Bangladesh on Rohingya issue in UN. Current government is perhaps trying to come out from one-sided love since its political grip at domestic level is very high.

Maintaining friendly relations with every country confirms the constitutional principle of friendship to all, malice to none. But the arena of world politics is very nasty and vicious place where peace is not a permanent condition rather the absence of war. Bangladesh is likely to face problems keeping good relations with both India and China in near future. China is unlikely to tolerate Delhi’s deep engagement with Dhaka as it has liberated nearly all countries of South Asia from the area of Indian influence sphere. So, Bangladesh will face terrible choice in its neighbourhood issue. Historically we have seen that nearly none comes to help in crisis for a non-aligned country. Same thing goes with Rohingya issue where none of our development partners including India, China and Russia is siding with us rather they vote against Bangladesh in United Nations. Bangladesh chose balance in its relations rather than balance of power. It is horrible fate of us that India and China are putting aside their rivalry, they are working against our interests despite being common friends to Bangladesh. This event indicates how the regional balance of power went against Bangladesh as it wanted to become a potato with every curry. Siding with any stronger party may have prevented this poor outcome. However, it is time to see how current regime can reshape Bangladesh foreign policy with diversification efforts to meet the upcoming challenges it faces.

The author of this article is an independent analyst in
International Relations.