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Defence Diplomacy in the Bay of Bengal Region: Bangladesh Perspective

🕐 2023-05-13 12:53:41

Defence Diplomacy in the Bay of Bengal Region: Bangladesh Perspective

Major General Sheikh Pasha Habib Uddin

Defence diplomacy, in addition to traditional methods of diplomacy, has been recently emphasised by scholars and practitioners for achieving a country’s national interests. Although not a new concept, there are various discourses about defence diplomacy in the existing literature. Throughout human history, many of the great strategic thinkers recognised the far-reaching effects of the military beyond the battlefield. Centuries of debate on military theory and practice illustrate not just the military’s ability to function outside of pure combat but also the need to employ their talents wisely throughout the range of national power. Defence diplomacy is an idea employing both old and new instruments, measures and strategies of diplomacy. Many of the world’s great powers have utilised defence diplomacy to pursue their goals and grow their global influence across decades and centuries.

Origin and Development of the Concept:          
The origins of defence diplomacy may be traced back to ancient times. The Roman Republic used to invite sons of neighbouring rulers to come to Rome to get educated. At the same time, the Greek Ptolemaic dynasty built Alexandria’s Great Library for similar purposes. Defence diplomacy in the later years had been revived in the Napoleonic era. However, its evolution witnessed little substantial modifications until the end of the Cold War, since it was centred on military relations and hence restricted to the typical military sphere. The start of a new era in international relations in the 1990s, the gradual increase of interdependence, the emergence of new actors on the global stage, and the advent of public diplomacy - all allowed a place for new conceptualisation of defence diplomacy. 
In 1998 the British strategic defence review was the maiden official source that specifically cited the ‘defence diplomacy’ as one of its ‘new missions’. The study also noted that it was, intended to “dispel hostility, build trust, and take part in developing armed forces under democratic control, thus helping conflict prevention and resolution”.
Glimpses from Literature:         
However, scholars like Juan Emilio Cheyre defined defence diplomacy as an example of network diplomacy, which connects the implementation of foreign policy aims to those of the defence sector. He argued that defence diplomacy fits at least partially under the broader concept of public diplomacy, and also more widely under the notion of network diplomacy, and may play a significant role in achieving a country’s foreign policy aims. Moreover, as Peter Viggo Jakobsen noted, “the military has traditionally been a means for achieving a government’s foreign and security policy either through the threatened or actual use of coercion in diplomacy.”
Therefore, in broadest sense, defence diplomacy is a set of all peaceful and non-violent foreign-policy activities and initiatives of a state in order to ensure its external security. The defence wing of the government, through other means, can have a direct influence on foreign policy. Furthermore, defence connections among countries can provide a base for future relationships between countries. 
Regarding various tools, techniques and strategies of defence diplomacy; Cottey and Foster, in their research, have come up with outlining the various parameters and contours of defence diplomacy activities. According to them acts of defence diplomacy range from bilateral to multilateral interactions between senior military officials to defence cooperation agreements, exchange of training for foreign civilian and military personnel, the appointment of defence attaches to foreign missions, and bilateral and multilateral military exercises or training. 
A significant part of the literature on defence diplomacy also focuses on confidence building measures and conflict prevention. It is considered a less expensive and risky mechanism for building cordial defence and security relations, diminishing the possibility of international conflicts. Evan A Laksmana, a Southeast Asian expert on defence diplomacy, highlighted that this notion of confidence-building and conflict prevention role of defence diplomacy finds its relevance in cases of “relatively weaker” countries who conduct defence diplomacy for different rationales and policy directions. Hence, Cottey and Foster also referred to defence diplomacy as a “strategic engagement” process for conflict prevention that includes a range of military collaborative arrangements that work in multiple ways and operate on different levels.
However, contemporary scholarship of defence diplomacy has also highlighted some new strategies of defence diplomacy, such as: acknowledging defence diplomacy as a component of national soft power, expanding ‘outreach’ to regional collective security and stability, recognising it as a component of national diplomatic manoeuvring and finally, also acknowledging it as an area of expertise.

Trends of Defence Diplomacy in the Bay of Bengal:          
The revitalised importance of the Bay of Bengal region is manifested in the contemporary trends of defence diplomacy. The littoral states are engaged in different types of bilateral and multilateral defence relations among themselves as well as with different extra-regional powers who have their presence across the Bay. These manoeuvres incorporate elements of both strategic competition and strategic convergence to secure the national and collective interests of the states.
Over the last few years, defence diplomacy in the Bay of Bengal has been reinforced by large-scale defence trade agreements, high-level visits, dialogues, joint exercise and training programs. 
In 2022, Bangladesh and India signed their first defence contract under the US$ 500 million Line of Credit (LoC), which secured the procurement of Bridge Layer Tanks, portable steel bridges and Mine Protective Vehicles. Recently, India has also asked Bangladesh to jointly produce defence equipment. Nevertheless, the partnership remains vibrant with the fourth round of annual defence dialogue and the 10th round of joint military exercise between the two countries. Both Bangladesh and India also maintain strong diplomatic ties with other states in the region. The ten-day military exercise “Shantir Ogroshena” comprising Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Sri Lanka in 2021 illustrated the impact of multilateral defence diplomacy in the neighbourhood. 
The current trend of defence diplomacy in the region cannot be explained without considering the changing global order. The strategic posture of global powers like the USA and forums or pacts like QUAD and AUKUS signifies the trends of defence diplomacy in the region. Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka became part of the US Department of Defense’s Maritime Security Initiative since 2019. At the same time, China’s growing interest in various forms of defence cooperation also demonstrates the geostrategic significance of the region. It includes diverse arrangements, ranging from defence procurement deals to high-level visits. In this respect, new realities of the region emphasise that the states of the region need to promote a framework where they can consult the issues of concern and address the non-traditional security threats jointly. 
Over the years, the idea of defence diplomacy has become more multidimensional and comprehensive. Now it emphasises issues beyond the traditional security paradigm, including climate change, counterterrorism and disaster management. Initiatives like the annual Pacific Resilience Disaster Response Exercise and Exchange organised by US Army Pacific (USARPAC) and Bangladesh’s Armed Forces Division are examples of those changes aimed at safeguarding humanitarian needs. Moreover, participating in the United Nations Peacekeeping Operations is another important trend of defence diplomacy that nations perceive as an opportunity to enhance their reputation and influence on the world stage. 

Bangladesh and Defence Diplomacy:
In the context of Bangladesh, Father of the Nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, realised that in a world of realpolitik that was stained by war, conflict and competition - it would be essential to defend multilateralism. Since then it has remained Bangladesh’s diplomatic forte, where Bangladesh has been engaged as a proactive actor in numerous normative and policymaking platforms and initiatives. As a responsible actor in the community of nations, Bangladesh has upheld its commitment by promoting international peace, stability and security through participating in peacekeeping and peace building engagements and started to practice defence diplomacy to strengthen its ties with many countries from the region and beyond. 
Over the last few years, as part of its defence diplomacy, Bangladesh armed forces have participated in bilateral and multilateral military exercises, provided training to foreign military personnel, and participated in post-disaster relief efforts in many regions of the world. We shared our sage and expertise in defence, peacekeeping and disaster management through our centres of excellence, such as the Bangladesh Institute of Peace Support Operation Training (BIPSOT), the National Defence College (NDC), Defence Services Command and Staff College (DSCSC) and so forth. 
Indian Defense Minister Shri Rajnath Singh inaugurated the conference.

The realm of non-traditional security issues such as violent extremism, drug trafficking, human trafficking, transnational crimes, piracy and natural disasters, pandemics, among others, have acquired increased attention within the purview of security studies and global politics. On the other hand, states understood the value of multilateral cooperation and, conversely, the price of non-cooperation to face these challenges. In other words, non-traditional security has reinforced the neo-liberal faith in institutions as the guardians of international norms and values. In this respect, there is a growing expectation that, the countries of the Bay of Bengal region can play a more active role in ensuring peace and stability in this region. As one of the littoral state, Bangladesh believes in a peaceful and prosperous coexistence. Therefore, the country focuses on a stable Bay of Bengal as well as a peaceful Indo-Pacific region. In this regard, Bangladesh promotes peace and cooperation through practicing multilateral arrangements and committed to address the growing geopolitical uncertainties of the region. 

Way Forward:       
In this backdrop, Bangladesh’s defence diplomacy is focused to create a conducive environment for generating trust and friendship among the regional and global powers for achieving peace and stability. The country also tries to engage all the stakeholders bilaterally and multilaterally to counter the non-traditional security challenges of the region. In addition, Bangladesh believes that defence diplomacy can facilitate understanding and deepen the confidence among the defence forces of the region to work together. Since the Bay of Bengal region’s security and stability is deeply connected with Bangladesh’s national interest; the country seeks to extend its relations with the neighbouring countries. In this regard, I believe the promotion of peace and cooperation through practicing multilateral defence diplomacy is a necessity to face today’s growing geopolitical uncertainties of the region. No need to mention that India is one of the vital partners of Bangladesh in the Bay of Bengal region and here, the interests of Bangladesh and India have a strong convergence. Both countries have many common grounds to facilitate defence diplomacy in the region. Therefore, Bangladesh and India can take the lead in the region since both of them have shared history and common stakes in the Bay of Bengal. 

[The author presented the article at an international conference on defense, finance, and economics held in New Delhi.]
Major General Sheikh Pasha Habib Uddin, OSP, SGP, BAMS, afwc, psc, Director General, Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies (BIISS).