Foreign Relations at the Crossroads: a Triangular Game for Bangladesh -Md. Ahmad

Cover Story

After the independence in 1971, in the context of the Cold War, there was no alternative for Bangladesh to think other than the Indo-Soviet axis. Though it went as it was but few years later, the tragic events of August 1975 changed the foreign policy equation of Bangladesh. Eventually, it had then joined the US axis, which is called a ‘paradigm shift’ in the terminology. On the course of time, things have changed downturn. The Soviet Union of that time does not exist either and the new superpower China takes the place. The antagonist of the liberation war, United States is no more foe now. And the regional geopolitics got new dynamics too on the face of new regional powers.
The geographical location of Bangladesh with Superpower China & regional power India and their rivalry in South Asia is a new dimension of discussion. Considering this, Bangladesh is gaining importance in recent times to other global powers including the United States. Despite the change of power and political instability, the progress that Bangladesh has made in the economic and social fields in the last few decades has also managed to attract the attention of the international community.
Bangladesh was once considered as a small poor country surrounded by India and located between India and Myanmar. As much as this identity of Bangladesh gained prominence immediately after independence, changes in foreign policy in the mid-seventies and major shifts in global politics in the 1990s brought changes to this identity. In the last decade, that scenario has also changed for many reasons. The rise of China as superpower, decline of the US hegemony in the global arena, India’s clear attempt to dominate South Asia and the US Backup are among others.
Economic and security ties between Washington and Dhaka, while not currently lacking, have gone through ups and downs since independence. Relations between the two countries were cold due to the former’s opposition to Bangladesh’s independence for its Cold War policies and Bangladesh’s closeness to the Soviet bloc. The cold ties between the two countries somehow improved during the Ziaur Rahman’s government, which was also maintained by his subsequent military and civilian governments.
Three years of raging Covid pandemic and seven months of Russia-Ukraine war have plunged the world into a deep crisis. As a country intimately involved with globalization, Bangladesh’s foreign relations are definitely influenced by world politics and economic events.
However, Bangladesh’s current relationship with western countries is going through ups & downs. USA & European nations are concerned about four issues of Bangladesh. They are labor rights, human rights, human trafficking and democracy. There is no room for us to ignore them, as almost all of Bangladesh’s exports go to these countries. The US has imposed sanctions against the RAB and some of its officials over human rights concerns. GSP benefits have already been revoked over labor rights issues. Disagreements continue abated with Europe over human trafficking and the return of illegal immigrants. But the immediate issue that is becoming important is democracy. As the national Assembly elections are on the headways, the direct and indirect message coming from the West is to make a free, fair and participatory election unlike the past.
Indeed, after the 1/11 attacks, US interest in Bangladesh augmented due to its perception as a Muslim-majority country.
Given their mandate to so-called ‘war on terror’, the issue of security cooperation has been linked to bilateral trade. Since the George W. Bush era, the USA has mainly seen Bangladesh through the lanes of India. A big reason is that it wants to avert the new superpower China by ensuring Indian supremacy in the region.
Meanwhile, with China’s rise as a global superpower, its investment in Bangladesh’s various development projects are daylight reality. China is not only Bangladesh’s largest arms supplier, it’s also Bangladesh’s largest trading partner. The two countries signed a memorandum of understanding in 2016, in which the former pledged a loan of $24 billion, the highest loan commitment in the history of Bangladesh.
Needless to say, India’s attempt to influence the internal politics of Bangladesh is clearly noticeable. For almost a decade, it has helped the current government to maintain a regime in Bangladesh through unparalleled supports from Indian diplomats and state officials. However, as much as India’s demand has progressed over the time, Bangladesh’s account has not been met yet. Public intensify the anger due to incessant border killings, Partisan Tista & Faraqqa barrages. There is a sour experience as the Bangladeshi Prime Minister’s recent visit to India was void of proper protocol, with no signs of state felicitation ought to be for foreign state heads.
Although the current government is a close ally of the neighboring country, their door is not closed to China either. The reason for this is not only economic benefit. It has other motives too in background. The government wants to keep China as an alternative in case the ties with Western countries deteriorate over issues of human rights or democracy crisis.
There is more upsetting puzzles for Bangladesh. India is Bangladesh’s closest friend and China is a distant neighbor. A distant but very important reliant friend is the USA. Political observers concern whether the three-dimensional equation of Bangladesh makes it complicated in near-far. On the 15th of last month, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Laura Stone, in a video call, sought the participation of Bangladesh in the implementation of its vision in India and the Pacific region. Few days ago, the US Defense Secretary telephoned our Prime Minister. According to the US defense circular, he sought Bangladesh’s cooperation in the Indo-Pacific vision & in combating Covid-19. It is well learned that USA envisions to keep China out of the fray in the Indo-Pacific Region.
On another spectrum, the way China is involved in Bangladesh’s development and security is obvious to worry about. It should be noted that India has a special position in the United States’ vision of India and the Pacific and it aims to deter China with India. Everyone knows well that Sino-Indian enmity is very old but the Sino-Indian tensions have surfaced in recent times. On the global hegemony question, USA is applying its trump cards every way possible to thwart China’s the Belt and Road Initiative – BRI. On the line, it has largely increased military cooperation with ASEAN countries.
There is a saying that big powers continue to expand the influence on neighboring small countries. In that case, small countries should gain economic power and remain independent or at least attain the feat to bargain strongly for national stakes. Even if the country is small, it is rarely possible yet for anyone to report. As long as Internal political strife spells no bound, foreign powers gets the momentum and makes the best use of the ‘strike the iron while it’s hot’.
To sum up, the challenges of Bangladesh in foreign relations are mainly three fold. First, mending unbalanced relations with India and China, Secondly, a positive settlement of the Euro-American position on human rights and democracy, and thirdly, finding a way out of the Rohingya crisis.
Bangladesh has maintained a kind of balance in its relations with India and China, although neither is entirely satisfied with it. Military cooperation with India has been expanding somewhat recently. Again, India is concerned about the implementation of the recently proposed Teesta project with the help of China. Bangladesh has to take necessary decisions to protect its own interests without making any party too irritated.
One thing to note is that the public interest and the ruling party’s interest may coordinate with each other and it’s presumably very natural to conflict. On top of everything, national interest should overlpay the political party’s interest. It is to be seen what steps the government will take in the years to come to deal with the internal and external pressures home and abroad.
One thing is crystal clear about Rohingya issue; Bangladesh is completely alone, there is no one by her side. Western countries did not take any strong action. China, Russia and India are on Myanmar’s side for their self-interests and even are unwilling to at least voice in favor. Even after the military coup, Japan, Singapore and Korea continued to invest in the country. Both of China & Myanmar are dependent on each other. China imports oil, minerals from Myanmar. Similarly, in Myanmar’s oil and gas exploration and extraction, China plays a big role
As such, Bangladesh can do few important things for the long term solution. In view of the recent successes of the Arakan Army, a formal channel of communication should also be opened with them which shall last long till the Rohingya crisis gets completely unabated. The second issue is internal. In view of the inadequacy of Bangladesh’s military power in contrast to Myanmar, it is necessary to take necessary steps to establish a minimum balance of power. Self Sufficiency in Military power is needed not only to fight but also to avoid war.
The responsibility of the Ministry of External Affairs as an institution to face such huge challenges is manifold and complex. Even if there are political differences, it is essential to work unitedly for the national interest regardless of party affiliation.
Every country in the world has a policy of national unity. We also have to fix that. In terms of foreign policy, it is not a question of domestic politics or staying in power, but the long-term national interest needs to be prioritized
The writer is independent analyst on international & social affairs.