Bangladesh Foreign Policy: Constraints, Compulsions and Choices National Defence College
Dr. A. K. Abdul Momen
Bangabandhu had put the foreign policy pursuit in the highest law of the land, i.e. our Constitution and his successful diplomatic engagement in line with the principles he had set out. Please keep in mind the plight of a war-torn country and Bangabandhu’s efforts to sooth the sufferings of his nation by alleviating poverty using the means of economic diplomacy and high political engagement without explicitly siding with any polar powers.
Father of the nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman said: ‘We are a small country, we want friendship to all and malice towards none.’ Based on this underlying principle, our foreign policy pursuit, priorities, and prerogatives have developed.
Officially, the Foreign Policy of Bangladesh emanates from Article 25 of the Bangladesh Constitution, which reads: Promotion of international peace, security and solidarity-The State shall base its international relations on the principles of respect for national sovereignty and equality, noninterference in the internal affairs of other countries, peaceful settlement of international disputes, and respect for international law and the principles enunciated in the United Nations Charter, and on the basis of those principles shall–
(a) Strive for the renunciation of the use of force in international relations and for general and complete disarmament;
(b) Uphold the right of every people freely to determine and build up its own social, economic and political system by ways and means of its own free choice; and
(c) Support oppressed peoples throughout the world waging a just struggle against imperialism, colonialism or racialism.
In a war-torn country with almost no economic structure, Bangabandhu prioritized his foreign policy pursuit by striving to obtain recognition of a newly born country whose birth was opposed by significant world powers of that time. He felt the need for recognition as an underpinning criterion in order to commence economic pursuit of the country. State recognition, therefore, drove our efforts towards build up of relations with countries and regions.
Bangabandhu had laid equal importance to the membership of Bangladesh to major global fora such as, the United Nations, Organization of Islamic Cooperation, Non-Allied Movement etc. He felt that Bangladesh, with its weak economic structure and an urgent need for major societal adjustment, cannot pursue economic diplomacy alone. He pursued Bangladesh’s membership and active role in multilateral platforms in order to get our voices heard and felt.
During the first decade of Bangladesh’s independence in the years led by Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Bangladesh pursued and won recognition from all the countries of the world as an independent and sovereign country. Simultaneously, it also became a member of the United Nations and all other major world organizations such as the Commonwealth, the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), and the Non-Aligned Movement. It also became the natural leader of the group of Least Developed Countries (LDCs). Bangladesh’s foreign policy triumphs were also visible in the way the developed countries came to its aid with economic assistance. USA that had viewed Bangladesh’s emergence with contempt came around to meet Bangladesh’s economic needs together with Japan, the United Kingdom and a number of other developed nations known at that period as Bangladesh Aid Consortium that used to meet those days under the joint chairmanship of the World Bank and the Government of Bangladesh.
For a newly born state, as Bangladesh was in 1971, the most pressing problems are often domestic. Bangladesh’s position was no exception; starting with almost no export receipt and nigh zero reserve, Bangladesh now has a booming economy, a robust export trade, and human development indicators that outpace even its runaway growth. During the periods of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Bangladesh has boarded the superhighway of development. This development links back to the very successful foreign policy pursuit of the Bangabandhu governments.
The Mujibnagar Government maintained liaison with foreign powers in order to garner support for the nation’s struggle for independence. There is a strong connect between the foreign policy pursuit beginning from 26 March to 16 December 1971, and its impact on the conduct of foreign policy after the emergence of a new sovereign country on 16 December 1971. The global power interplay had significant and painful bearing on the emergence of Bangladesh and at the same time, on the course of foreign policy our diplomats pursued; A global transformation of power marked the Indo-Soviet axis vis-a-vis Sino-American rapprochement which not only had its influence on the emergence of Bangladesh but also had an impact on the foreign policy of the country that was emerging. The priority of Bangladesh foreign policy at the outset was to get recognition from the outside world as an independent state as it was essential to obtain foreign aid and assistance for economic reconstruction. After the birth of Bangladesh, recognition came quickly from the Soviet bloc communist countries. But the western countries were slow in recognizing Bangladesh compared to the East European communist countries. The Islamic world and African countries took their own time to recognize Bangladesh.
Following the independence of Bangladesh, the government deliberately took the policy of socialist democracy. Bangabandhu’s philosophy always reflected on societal equality and equal and just societal system. The concept of socialism was enshrined in the Constitution of Bangladesh in 1972. The first Prime Minister of Bangladesh Tajuddin Ahmed refused to accept aid from any country which opposed our liberation struggle. With the return of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman to independent Bangladesh on 10 January, 1972, he set the tone for the country’s foreign policy by declaring that ‘I would like it (Bangladesh) to become the Switzerland of the East’. This declaration itself had characterized our foreign policy in two strong terms: neutrality to the maximum possible extent and strong socio-economic development. Till today, we adhere to these principles, albeit in different connotations of constructive engagement and economic diplomacy.
The main principle of the foreign policy of Bangladesh was eloquently expressed at the UN General Assembly on 17 September 1974: by the following words: “Bangladesh has consistently pursued an independent non-aligned foreign policy promoting friendship with all countries of the world on the basis of mutual respect for sovereignty, equality, territorial integrity and non-interference in the internal affairs of other’ states’.
This laid the foundation of our foreign policy and defined our guiding principles as well as our pathways. Our current ‘Deeper and broader engagement with key international actors and regional allies’ adopted by this government led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has solidified our relations with Europe, Americas and the Middle-East.
With this background, I want to impress upon you that Bangladesh’s foreign policy discourse is no different from carrying our national objectives beyond the limits of our own jurisdiction. And the state that we relish today is a summated outcome of multifarious efforts including successful foreign policy pursuit by the government. Our international engagement has guaranteed and then paved the way for economic partnership with key development partners of the likes of the USA, the EU, World Bank, IMF and others. Let me make an effort to visualize before you the intricacies of relationship between foreign policy and development by presenting some statistic:
In terms of economic indicators, Bangladesh has been identified as one in five global economies. On the basis of GDP, Bangladesh ranks 44 and in terms of Purchasing Power Parity, we are number 32. Price Waterhouse Coopers reports attest that by 2030 Bangladesh will be 29th largest economy and by 2050 we will elevate to 23rd position in the world. We are the second largest garment manufacturer, 4th largest rice producing country and one of the largest remittance earning countries. Our dependence on foreign aid has lowered to as minimum as 2 percent of our GDP. We are ahead of many south Asian countries in terms of UN Human Development Index. We have achieved constant GDP growth at a rate higher than 6%. Our foreign reserve has exceeded 32 billion USD.
In 47 years, we have successfully graduated from LDC to a lower middle income country, which belied the assumptions of Just Faaland and Parkinson in 1976, who encapsulated Bangladesh’s trauma in the phrase ‘Test case for development’ and argued, “If development could be made successful in Bangladesh, there can be little doubt that it could be made to succeed anywhere else. It is in this sense that Bangladesh is the test case for development”.
This is how we pursue our foreign policy: accept challenges to our prosperity and do whatever it takes to serve and safeguard our national interest and simultaneously, keep our partners on board. Please notice that I have underlined the dominance of national interest in the formulation of our foreign policy. Traditionally, the main objectives of foreign policy of Bangladesh have been self‐preservation, maintenance of territorial integrity, economic advancement and augmentation of national power. International trends and priorities, however, undergo continuous changes and our foreign policy pursuit tends to address these changes effectively and successfully to the benefit of our people.
We are making strenuous efforts to change the economic fate of our peoples, to change the face of poverty into freedom of economic choice. There is, of course, politics and other major forces that influence our endeavor for economic freedom and prosperity. Economic cooperation should be an exclusive Vann diagram, yet we struggle hard to keep external but overlapping dominant factors out of our efforts. Our foreign policy ventures to strike a balance of political and economic priorities of the country.
Bangladesh has made significant stride in alleviating poverty, attaining food security, education, health and sanitation, gender mainstreaming, social safety nets, human rights and so on. Bangladesh is now widely recognized as a ‘role model’ for development.
Bangladesh is fast making an economic transformation. From subsistence agriculture, it is becoming a mechanized, process oriented, diversified and value added one. Technology and innovation are the hallmark of the present day agriculture in Bangladesh. The manufacturing and the service sectors occupy four-fifth of Bangladesh GDP.
We have the most liberal investment policy in South Asia. It includes protection of foreign investment by law, generous tax holiday, concessionary duty on import of machinery, remittances of royalty, 100% foreign equity, unrestricted exit policy, full repatriation of dividend and capital on exit and many more. Other advantages include the young, industrious and easily trainable abundant workforce with competitive wages, cheaper costs of establishing business and duty free quota free access to the EU, Australian, Canadian, Indian, Japanese and New Zealand markets.
Bangladesh made tremendous success in the Ready-made Garment (RMG) sector. We are now the 2nd largest garment exporter in the world. The industry employs five million workers, 90% of whom are women from the vulnerable group. Their employment has been an instrument for women empowerment as well as keeping our society liberal and progressive. A responsible business conduct for sustainable supply chain is in operation in Bangladesh.
Like the RMG sector, other sectors are making significant progress. Pharmaceutical is such a sector. After meeting up 97% of our domestic requirements, our pharmaceutical products are exported to 83 countries. The industry is now equipped to produce bio-tech products and Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients (API). Bangladesh is fast emerging as a major global hub for high quality, low-cost generic medicines.
Our knowledge industry, ICT and related industry is also expanding rapidly. Gartner has billed Bangladesh as one of the top 30 global destinations for software and IT services. Thousands of made in Bangladesh applications are running on I-Phones, Samsung Galaxy, and other Android and Blackberry phones. Last year our IT companies and freelance IT professionals earned over US$ 360 million. Every year, around 20,000 young IT graduates are joining the sector.
Ship-building is another fast emerging industry in Bangladesh. Our builders have drawn global attention by making world-class light to medium size ocean going vessels. The industry now commands 1% share of the US $ 200 billion global market.
We welcome entrepreneurs to invest in the emerging sectors like textiles, leather, jute, ceramics, petrochemicals, pharmaceuticals, shipbuilding, agro-processing, plastic goods, light engineering and electronics, telecommunications and IT, power, energy, water and marine and other infrastructure projects, hi-tech manufacturing and microprocessors.
We have eight fully operational ‘Export Processing Zones’ (EPZs) exclusively for 100% export-oriented industries. We are now working to establish 100 ‘Economic Zones’ (EZs) in different parts of the country as part of our new plan to industrialize Bangladesh. We are also developing a number of Hi-tech Parks in Bangladesh for IT industries. We offer competitive incentive packages for the investors in these Zones and Parks. Anyone can come as a ‘developer’ and ‘operator’ of an entire Zone or an investor in these Zones and Parks.
At the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, we are projecting Bangladesh as a country of opportunities for business and development. We have engaged our missions abroad in extensive economic diplomacy and I have instructed all our envoys to focus on building economic partnership. Our Embassies and High Commissions are making strenuous efforts to expand trade investment and commerce. We have been making continuous efforts to engage development partners in our infrastructure development and investment in economic zone as well as hi-tech parks.
We have taken lead in 4th Industrial Revolution. We are working in close tandem with key global partners and national stakeholders to come up with human-technology balance so that our huge human capital can be effectively utilized.
Following the dream of the Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman to make our country a “Sonar Bangla”, free from hunger, poverty and deprivation, we are on the way to becoming a digitalized, knowledge-based middle income country by realizing our ‘Vision 2021’ and a developed country by 2041 through the ‘Vision 2041’. In the same line our “Delta Plan 2021’ reflects the far reaching vision of our Prime Minister for the development of Bangladesh even into the next millennium. We have already graduated to a Lower Middle Income Country. Our economic diplomacy has made a significant impact on the country’s development pathway. We do not, however, contend ourselves on these achievements: we look ahead and prepare our strategies to face with worst possible circumstances.
At this stage, I wish to briefly focus on our approach at sub-regional, regional and global levels.
Bangladesh pioneered regional co‐operation in South Asia and considers the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) to be a vital instrument for the consolidation of peace in the region, accelerated development, establishment of cooperative links and the harnessing of resources for our common good. As a founder member of D‐8 and BIMSTEC, Bangladesh played important roles in the formation of these two regional organizations. Bangladesh has also strengthened ties with its East Asian neighbors. Bangladesh is a member of Asia Cooperation Dialogue (ACD), and the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). It continues its endeavors to develop closer ties with ASEAN and has signed the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in South East Asia. In‐spite of modest resources, Bangladesh maintains a robust presence in the Non-Aligned 6 Movement (NAM), the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) and the Commonwealth. Now a days, we are working intensively in the OIC platform to establish and develop some funds which will help countries in need in post-COVID circumstances. I will elaborate our diplomatic efforts in the post-COVID world later in my lecture.
Playing an active role at the UN, UN Specialized agencies and in all the international organizations that Bangladesh is today a member, including taking initiatives, remains central to Bangladesh’s diplomacy. We adhere to our constant policy of multilateral engagement.
The UN remains important for Bangladesh both for safeguarding our independence and sovereignty as also for sustained economic development. Bangladesh maintains active presence in UN fora. It is the second largest contributor of troops to UN Peacekeeping operations.
Bangladesh has been widely hailed for its constructive and leadership role as an elected State in record number of UN specialized agencies and bodies including at the UN Peace Building Commission, the Economic and Social Council, Human Rights Council, the Executive Boards of UNDP/UNFPA/UNOPs, the UNICEF, UNESCO, UN Women, UN Population Fund, CEDAW Committee, Commission of Social Development, International Telecommunication Union, International Maritime Organization and many. At the same time, it has secured a distinct place as contributor of the highest number of troops and police personnel to the UN peace keeping missions. During this period Bangladesh has also actively pursued peace diplomacy beyond peace-keeping through its leadership as NAM Coordinator at the UN, Peace-building Commission, Advisory Body for the Peace-Building Fund and at the Department of Peace Keeping Operation (DPKO), which is a distinctive achievement in the country’s foreign policy priorities. At this point, I would like to pay my respect to our military as well as civilian forces, who have contributed immensely to the success of the activities of the UN DPKO.
Apart from peace, Bangladesh is also actively making its mark at the UN Human Rights Council as a country committed to human rights and freedoms. Its pro-active involvement, particularly in enacting new human rights instruments, norms and standards has given Bangladesh greater visibility perhaps than many larger countries at the Council. This has also helped Bangladesh’s image to contribute responsibly for the global common good.
During this period Bangladesh has been widely acclaimed for its leadership role among the LDCs as the LDC Coordinator at all UN fora in 2009 and at the WTO negotiations in Geneva during 2011. Its successful negotiation at the WTO in securing the services waiver for LDCs for all non-LDC markets was the highlight of the period. Beyond that Bangladesh today has also emerged as the leading voice among countries most vulnerable to climate change and assumed the Chairmanship of the Climate Vulnerable Forum, and coordinated a common position in the international climate negotiations, including its assertion for ‘Climate Justice’.
On the basis of Bangabandhu’s ideology and her own 30 years’ political struggle and experience in strengthening democracy, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina presented a “People’s Empowerment” model at the 66th session of the UNGA that reaffirms that all people should be treated equally and emphasizes the enhancement of human capabilities for people’s true empowerment. The model was adopted as a resolution at the 2nd committee of the General Assembly on 23rd November 2011 and was finally adopted by the UNGA on 22 December, 2011 unanimously.
Bangladesh has earned appreciation from all corners as an active, responsible and contributing member of the international community in the pursuit of development, establishment of peace in distant lands and in responding to the challenges of climate change effectively with its limited resources. Bangladesh today has emerged as a role model for many countries to emulate.
Allow me to focus on our diplomatic pursuit in the post COVID-19 world. You know, the global discourse has taken a tectonic shift in the face of Corona pandemic. This has a particular bearing on us. This pandemic has directly affected movement of labor vis-s-vis remittance and our export receipt as proceeds from garments sector has shrunk a record low.
The fatal outbreak of coronavirus has already created negative impact on the global economy. The supply chain has broken due to severe disruption of movements emanating from the closure of international borders. I conceive that many companies and factories are at the verge of closure all over the world including GCC countries. Many are thinking of relocating their establishments. In this situation, I apprehend that many Bangladeshi workers working mainly in the Middle East may lose their employment from their respective workplaces. Their unemployment will have serious impact on our foreign remittance.
Politically, the world may take new polarization in the face of the corona outbreak. The growth of the world economy is seriously disrupted. Due to restrictions on international borders, supply chain has been cut-off. As a result, production of the factories is badly hampered. Export-oriented industries are at risk of closure. While many countries will have negative growth in the coming year, Bangladesh has a forecast of achieving 3.8% growth instead of 7.9% in 2020 due to corona outbreak (IMF). On the contrary, Japan -5.2%, Indian 1.9%, South Korea 1.2%, and Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Philippines collectively contract by 1.3% of growth. The Emerging and Developing Asia could decline from 5.5% to 1.0% between 2019 and 2020, projecting a sharp ‘V-shaped’ recovery up to 8.5% in 2021.
As per the forecast of World Health Organization, there might be a potential threat of food shortage around the globe due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The only way to ensure food security is to increase agricultural farming. Presuming the consequences of the food shortage, I wrote to all my counterparts in the GCC countries to engage our workers in agriculture sector instead of sending them back. I also requested them to import quality halal beef and chicken from Bangladesh. As an alternative, I proposed to encourage their public and private investors to invest in the livestock sector of Bangladesh to produce halal beef and chicken and subsequently transport them to their local markets. I instructed our envoys to pursue local authorities to make it happen.
Due to corona virus outbreak around the world, petroleum price has faced tremendous downturn, which caused severe negative impact on the industries and the service sectors of the GCC countries. Many companies have already closed down creating huge number of surplus workforce. Bangladeshi workers are the primary victims of this unfortunate situation. Earlier they were hit by the nationalization system of some GCC countries. As a result, many are returning to Bangladesh. Initially, we tried to slow down the repatriation process by restricting commercial flights and it apparently worked well. Meanwhile, Foreign Ministers of Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain called me and requested to bring back Bangladeshi workers, who have no works there. I also wrote letters to all my counterparts of the Middle Eastern countries to retain Bangladeshi workers during this critical juncture. I don’t think it will work much.
Around 5 million Bangladeshi citizens are working in this region. A major share of our remittance comes from these countries. The situation seems to be alarming. We have already received 14,776 Bangladeshi workers from six GCC countries till 24 June 2020 (Saudi Arabia-1394, UAE-5208, Kuwait-4783, Qatar-919, Oman-1768 and Bahrain-704). The number of returnees seems to increase day by day.
At this critical moment, our envoys are working day and night to retain Bangladeshi workers in their respective workplaces. At the same time, they are instructed to work harder to re-generate employments in their country of accreditation/s in the post-corona era.
On the other hand, we have problems with Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. We are hosting about 1.1 million Displaced Myanmar citizens in Bangladesh since 2017. We are facing threat to our environment, society, and moreover, to our economy due to this Rohingya crisis. It may also destabilize our borders with Myanmar. Drug smuggling and human trafficking may increase in Bangladesh-Myanmar border due to the influx of Myanmar citizens. Recent border conflict between China and India may also destabilize South Asian region having adverse impact on the economy of this region as a whole.
Whatever I was narrating or discussing, might sound or give a picture little bit gloomy of our future. But remember that we pursue our foreign policy under the guidance of the daughter of the father of the Nation Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who takes every hurdle as a challenge to overcome with zeal and optimism and consequently Bangladesh would definitely continue in its path towards development with the same pace if not faster facing the new challenges created by the covid19 outbreak.
If we try to wrap up our discussion so far, we can say that since assumption of office on 6 January 2009, the present government has reinstated a dynamic foreign policy based on the spirit and values of the War of Liberation.
This has added a new dimension and dynamism in our foreign relations. Domestic and international priorities are now well-integrated to preserve and promote national interest. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s pro-active diplomatic engagements at different summit level interactions have helped the country earn a respectable place among the members of the international community.
In line with the present government’s Vision-2021, the Ministry’s multifaceted diplomatic activities are being carried out under the guidance of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. In pursuing its diplomatic objectives, the government has been consistent in upholding the principle of “Friendship to all, malice towards none”, as enunciated by the Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Imbued with this value Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s skillful leadership and diplomatic acumen helped secure a unique position for Bangladesh in the global mainstream both bilaterally and multilaterally. Consequently, enhanced outreach and interactions with all parts of the world and new and re-energized partnerships contributed to significant exchanges of high profile visits. Bangladesh’s lead role in promoting peace and harmony in South Asia in particular, earned appreciation worldwide leading to close bonding not only with regional countries but also with the countries beyond the region and with international organizations. Multilateralism, and promoting country’s national interest and image through high profile diplomatic leadership and visibility as elected members in highest numbers of multilateral forums at the United Nations, was a hallmark of the period.
The Prime Minister has maintained an active interest in foreign policy issues since assumption of office. As a result, summit diplomacy has emerged as one of the priority areas in Bangladesh’s diplomatic agenda. The Prime Minister’s active involvement in all issues from climate change to women empowerment, development, peace and human rights has contributed to creating extensive visibility for Bangladesh.
Our dynamic and energetic foreign policy engagement reinvigorated stalemated bilateral relations with immediate neighbors both political and economic, and her high visibility and leadership voice at all multilateral fora, have brought Bangladesh back at the diplomatic centre stage on issues such as human rights, regional security and counter-terrorism, disarmament and development, migration and anti-trafficking, climate vulnerability, and many more. Enhancing bilateral trade and investment, specially exports and FDI, and expanding Bangladesh’s labour markets globally was a priority foreign policy agenda.
Bangladesh’s foreign policy works to give government more economic choice and offer our people better living through peaceful means of trade and economic activities. The foreign policy of Bangladesh takes into account the changing realities, both in the domestic and international scenes. Our foci in foreign relations are to promote multilateralism, regional cooperation and security, combating terrorism, increasing remittances, mobilizing international support for debt reduction, market expansion, and promotion of trade. We continue to work with the major powers in pursuing these goals and objectives. Bangladesh Government’s foreign policy is geared towards a comprehensive policy framework that accommodates financial support and foreign assistance in boosting agricultural productivity, training for civil servants, improving the infrastructure, combating corruption and terrorism, and expanding employment and labor productivity.
Dr. A K Abdul Momen is a Bangladeshi economist, diplomat, politician and the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Bangladesh.