The Indo-Pacific Strategy and Its Connotation to Bangladesh
Commodore Kazi Emdadul Haq (Retd)
When the think tanks were in a discourse of the pros & cons of Bangladesh participating China-led Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the US-led Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS), in its bewilderment, Bangladesh’s diplomacy got dismayed by increasing Russian interest in Myanmar. The complex security scenario developing through converging interests in a single country by China, Russia including India is a matter of intrigue that may endanger the already existing volatile security in the region.
Despite having a good relationship with all countries, Bangladesh has become frustrated for not getting the desired support of leading nations regarding Rohingya repatriation. The US and EU appear to have done routine responsibilities by imposing some targeted sanctions against Myanmar Junta. The burden and consequences of more than 1.1 million Rohingyas confined to the southeastern part of Bangladesh have left the Bay of Bengal (BoB) region in limbo.
People from developing countries have become more aware and begun debating on the justification against both East and West for their unjust wars against Ukraine, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and many more. The effect of the Russian invasion of Ukraine has fallen on Bangladesh and many other countries alike. Being a littoral country to Indo-Pacific, Bangladesh has all the rights to get economically strong by demanding a fair share through participation in various regional forums.
Is the hope of Rohingya repatriation diminishing for Bangladesh, or is Bangladesh expecting a worse situation in the coming days due to the convergence of leading powers in the region? This article will try to address these issues.
Undertone of Indo-Pacific
In 2001, according to former US Secretary of States Hillary Clinton, the Asia-Pacific was pivotal in deciding politics and thus emphasised the need for the United States to engage China economically. Over time, the Indo-Pacific (a bit deviation from Asia-Pacific) has become a vital strategy of the United States, and the most acceptable argument is to counter BRI or the rise of China. It would not be a wonder that IPS is also meant to weaken Russia in this region.
Hillary Clinton said, “a thriving China is good for America”; when Donald Trump became President, he became fed-up with thriving China and said, “China is raping America”; now Biden Administration says the United States is in “competition” with China which otherwise means nothing but to contain China – a significant shift from engagement to containment of China. All good allies of the US needed to adjust their policies with the transformation of the US policy of diplomacy.
Since China launched BRI, its economy has been growing fast, leveraging China to maintain and grow military might, which has posed a challenge to US supremacy in the Indo-Pacific region. China’s forceful claim over almost all South China Sea (SCS) compelled the United States to advocate a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP). To upbeat the US alliance, the United States engaged the littoral countries through various economic investments, training, and programs under the banner of IPS. But IPS lacks the required financial investment compared to BRI.
Many thinkers expressed concerns that China was exerting influence through BRI and trying to change the status quo in the Indo-Pacific region. Most countries became aware of BRI’s debt trap. Under this charade, both BRI and IPS have their nuance objectives to achieve in the Indo-Pacific region, which puts littoral countries into a quandary. Often, countries are caught in the horns of a dilemma in choosing between the two.
Effect of Leading Powers’ Competition
The present international scenario is highly complex and in continuous flux – from complex to highly obscure – mainly due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine that has created an oil and gas crisis in almost all the countries except for some cohorts of Russia. It is ironic to the world how a veteran and seasoned politician like Vladimir Putin threatened the world with great acrimony and said, “the nuclear threat is no bluff”. However, no party can win the nuclear war as all the superpowers have second-strike capabilities. Moreover, the Russian nuclear attack will unite all countries against Russia. That would be the end of Putin’s regime.
Russia has always been accusing the US of pushing Russia to attack Ukraine despite Russia’s warning to Ukraine not to join NATO. To maintain US supremacy in the Indo-Pacific, it is obvious that the US would not lose the opportunity of weakening Russian might. It seems that the US kept on pursuing Ukraine to join NATO. If Ukraine joins, it would be winning for NATO; otherwise, if Russia attacks Ukraine, that would also be in favour of the US because Ukraine, supported by the US, would surely resist the Russian invasion. Why would the US lose this incredible opportunity to weaken Russia without sending its (US) boots on the ground? In both ways, the US is the winner. And now, it appears that this was the US strategy to weaken the Russian threat both to NATO and Indo-Pacific.
It is unfortunate for Bangladesh and other countries alike that they were forced to choose sides in the UN voting despite having good relationships with both the United States and Russia. The forceful American diplomacy, President George W. Bush’s famous address in 2001, “either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists”, compelled the countries to support the US. The legacies of US diplomacy continue today. On the same ground of compelling to choose sides, the Solomon Islands did not consent to sign the recently concluded US-Pacific Island Accord but later signed after removing compelling references. The Solomon Islands dared stand up to a superpower to get a fair deal which could be a lesson for other leaders.
Joe Biden says, “Putin chose this war and he will pay”. Meanwhile, Putin’s specter of war is getting too costly for Bangladesh and alike. Cronies, who took advantage of the war, and helped Putin’s economy to maintain the killing machine, may be dealt with by the United States after the war. Of course, history would be written in favour of the winner, and retribution for war crimes would be awarded accordingly.
The littoral countries are often forced to pay for the United States’ mistakes or wrong decisions. When the United States continued to emphasize the importance of the Indo-Pacific, it closed the embassy in the Solomon Islands in 2019. It has paved the easy excess for China to exert its influence in the Pacific nations through its economic investment and other programs, including 40 bilateral deals. When realized, US Vice President Kamala Harris recognized the lacking on their part and took the initiative to ramp up its cooperation with the pacific nations by establishing new embassies in Kiribati and Tonga.
It would be unjust to attribute pacific nations for improving relationships with China when China remains the biggest investor in the region. Similarly, China also started significant investments in South Asian countries under the banner of BRI. Countries need economic investment - be it from the West or East. Why should the leaders bother as long as it improves the economy?
Of course, leaders also should ensure a fair deal so that it does not bring the countries into the debt trap of China. It is generally believed that China would make such a deal that tends to put the countries into a debt trap. On the contrary, before making a deal, the West will advise whether the nations would be in trouble to pay back. That transparency of nuance needs to understand by Chinese “wolf warrior” diplomats.
The US Interest in Littoral Countries of the Bay of Bengal (BoB)
The BoB is a bay of the Indian Ocean; thus, the IPS policy is equally applicable here. On the issue of cooperation with Bangladesh, the US Department of State’s official statement is “continue to work together to advance a shared vision of a free, open, inclusive, peaceful, and secure Indo-Pacific region”. However, China is so aggressive in the South China Sea (SCS) and West Pacific that it appears the United States finds it hard to give equal importance to all zones of the Indo-Pacific.
The US appears not very happy with India for supporting Putin’s economy during the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The US has threatened India under CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act). The human rights organization Amnesty International closed its operation in India. The US created AUKUS (Australia, the UK, & the US), excluding India amidst mistrust among Quad partnerships. Despite this fact, the geostrategic location of India makes the Indian alliance with the US crucial to implement IPS. Albeit the US placed sanctions on a few Bangladeshi personnel but did not put sanctions against India for the same reasons. However, on 30 September 22, the US Treasury Department imposed sanctions on Mumbai-based Tibalaji Petrochem Private Limited over the alleged Iran oil deal but not for India buying Russian oil. It is challenging to understand where the US interests lie.
Due to the waning trust of the US towards India, the US is less likely to see Bangladesh through an Indian lens, at least for now. For the last 50 years, although ups and downs, the US has maintained good relationships with Bangladesh and continued engagement with Bangladesh Armed Forces and reiterated US’s support to train armed forces by providing defence equipment and training in the recently concluded 8th Security Dialogue in Washington on 06 April 2022.
The US support toward Bangladesh has become further entrenched through participation in the largest land conference in the region, where 23 nations’ senior army officers gathered in Bangladesh on the occasion of the 46th Indo-Pacific Armies Management Seminar (IPAMS) held on 12-15 September 2022. During this session, the delegation got the opportunity to visit Cox’s Bazar Rohingya camps. Hopefully, Bangladesh upheld its diplomatic efforts to repatriate Rohingya people through this conference.
Myanmar is the second most drug-producing country after Afghanistan and the leading cause of illegal migration through the IO. The illegal human and drugs reach Australia, New Zealand, and ASEAN countries using IO. Without resolving this issue, the US cannot expect to build a better Indo-Pacific. If it is not a priority, then what can be more demanding interest for the US in the Indo-Pacific? Unless the United States takes an effective policy on Myanmar, the latter will keep posing threat to IPS.
Present Concerns of Bangladesh
Among a few concerns of Bangladesh, the Rohingya crisis is one of the main issues that might lead to severe consequences in the future, as the Myanmar Junta did not show any positive attitude toward taking back Rohingyas. Moreover, recent Russian involvement in Myanmar may give Junta a bit of enthusiasm to be more aggressive in discharging his dictatorial leadership.
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Myanmar junta leader Min Aung Hlaing on the sidelines of the 2022 Eastern
Economic Forum in Vladivostok on September 7, 2022. (Photo Valery SHARIFULIN SPUTNIK AFP
When ASEAN barred the Myanmar coup d’état leader from attending ASEAN meetings, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov visited Myanmar in the first week of August and said Russia backed Myanmar Junta’s efforts to ‘Stabilize’ the country. What an excellent exchange of greetings between the “axis of evils” when the only country in Southeast Asia, Myanmar, openly supports the Russian invasion of Ukraine. North Korea, another axis of evil, is already supplying military equipment to Myanmar.
Myanmar has already received two of six Sukhoi Su-30SME multirole combat jets from Russia, and more energy cooperation is expected. Consequences upon more blood will likely be shed from ongoing fighting between ethnic groups and Tatmadaw. Moreso, the two authoritarian cronies will bring more disaster to the supporters of the National Unity Government (NUG), who wants to restore democracy in Myanmar. As many strategists speculate, a failed country in the neighbourhood of Bangladesh is likely to invite disastrous consequences in the whole region. It would seriously hinder even India’s “act east” policy.
Russian Multirole Fighter Su-30SME
Due to the above facts, Bangladesh cannot expect any support from Russia in resolving the Rohingya crisis. It has already been seen that China, Japan, and India are not interested in resolving the Rohingya crisis. The reasons are almost similar – it’s the economic benefit and realpolitik. All these leaders have found more benefits in resourceful Myanmar over Bangladesh. Although Bangladesh plays a vital role in geopolitics, solving the Rohingya crisis has become no concern to them, at least for now.
Although the US Ambassador said that one of the US’s goals in Bangladesh is to support Bangladesh’s efforts to host the Rohingya refugees until their repatriation to Myanmar, but the question is how long these Rohingyas will remain in Bangladesh. The vulnerability in BoB has significantly increased as it has become a suitable drug trafficking route for Myanmar. The Rohingya refugees have already been involved in drug and arms smuggling and human trafficking in BoB.
A slim hope Bangladesh may expect from the US and EU. However, the effect of covid-19 and the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war made the world economy flattened, pushing the inflation rate unusually high. The US and EU imposed targeted sanctions on Myanmar Junta. However, sanctions are ineffective when Myanmar gets support from two giant powers – China and Russia.
Important to note that sanctions are mainly given against the military Junta for taking power unlawfully and throwing Aung San Suu Kyi into jail. It is not to resolve the Rohingya crisis. Restoring democracy rather than solving the Rohingya crisis is more priority for the West. However, Bangladesh hopes for a better relationship with a democratic Myanmar than an autocratic regime.
Some Myanmar-related issues concerning Bangladesh are Russian increasing military cooperation with Myanmar; ethnic groups in Chin and Rakhine States, bordering Bangladesh, intensifying their fighting with Tatmadaw; Rohingya people getting involved in all kinds of security issues in Cox’s Bazar. Moreso, the foreign reserve of Bangladesh has fallen below USD40 billion from 48 billion last year, and people fear a further decrease in reserve in the coming days. United efforts by all parties seem lacking to face uncertainties that Bangladesh foresaw.
While China-led investment continues, the United States will continue to engage Indo-Pacific littoral countries to maintain its supremacy over China and Russia. It is better to accept training and programs, and participate in seminars and conferences related to Indo-Pacific.
Bangladesh and countries alike should make all possible endeavours to avoid compelling references from contesting competition in the Indo-Pacific. Without fear of acquiescing to great powers, efforts should be made to get the best benefits when dealing with the West or the East.
The Rohingya crisis has opened the eyes of Bangladesh and may steer its course carefully within the blurring zone between friend and foe where the realpolitik lies. Amidst worldwide recession, Bangladesh is getting at least some support from the US and EU to resolve the Rohingya crisis. China, Russia, and India have considered authoritarian Myanmar geopolitically more crucial than Bangladesh. Within the converging great powers in a single country for their diverging interests, hopes for Bangladesh are getting limited.
Fortunately, the gamut of diplomacy is interminable; Bangladesh’s hope to resolve the Rohingya repatriation will remain alive. 17 crore people’s united voices should be more than enough to create chasm within the brutal dictatorial regime in Myanmar. Bangladesh needs the consensus of all parties to compel Junta to bow down to the invincible united people of Bangladesh.
Commodore Kazi Emdadul Haq, BSP, ndu, psc (Retd). Founding Member, BIMRAD.