Thursday May 23, 2024 07:17 pm

Foreign Policy of Bangladesh: Navigating a Challenging Path

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🕐 2023-12-31 13:25:29

Foreign Policy of Bangladesh: Navigating a Challenging Path


Air Vice Marshal Mahmud Hussain (Retd)

Retired air force officer. He served as High Commissioner of Bangladesh to Brunei Darussalam from November 2016 to September 2020. He served as the Chairman, Civil Aviation Authority of Bangladesh (CAAB). Presently, he is working as the Distinguished Expert at Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman Aviation and Aerospace University (BSMRAAU).



One of the great choices of foreign policy is the range of issues that it deals with. Most harbor the idea that it deals with issues that relate to external affairs in international relations. Even Henry Kissinger gave a very simplistic definition by saying that “Foreign Policy begins where domestic policy ends.” However, the reality is not so tidy. It is a complex and dynamic political course that a state needs to adopt in the face of its survival. Foreign policy and national security are interdependent.
So, navigating foreign policy course is not only a challenging but also a dynamically unstable paradigm. It is now more of an intellectual exercise to assess the disruption both in domestic and international politics. For practitioners, it is the professional trend to quicken, ease or counter new directions.
With this very short introduction to foreign policy standard, let me look at the foreign policy challenges that we feel Bangladesh faces today.
Like any other state, Bangladesh operates at three levels of politics as “referent objects”. Bangladesh as a “domestic” actor, Bangladesh as a “South Asia” actor and Bangladesh as an “international” actor.
Let us start with foreign policy challenges emanating from domestic politics.
It is not unusual in Bangladesh for political parties to seek support of the foreign diplomats to resolve political impasse. This initiative is usually started by the opposition, and when the foreign diplomats make statements about the internal affairs of Bangladesh, it breeds anger to the party-in-power. There is now argument and counter-argument running to and from between the diplomats and the foreign office representing the government.
The International Law, codified in the Article 41 of Vienna Convention 1966, states that Heads of Missions must not interfere in the internal affairs of the host country. The diplomats, particularly of western powers counter this principle by emphasizing few reasons: that their taxpayers’ money is involved in their aid program, so the proper utilization of their money can only be guaranteed through political stability; that their countries are the major recipient of Bangladesh’s exports, particularly garments, therefore political stability ensures industrial growth; that as the guardian of universal human rights and democracy, it is imperative on diplomats’ part to forewarn Bangladesh of their respective country’s intention on these normative issues.
But the problem is not with the diplomats only, the norm of getting them involved into domestic politics is also the work of the political parties. Both the ruling and opposition parties have called the diplomats and presented their grievances as though expecting them to resolve the stalemate. In 1994, Sir Stephen Ninian came as a Commonwealth facilitator to advance a political consensus between the ruling and the opposition parties by mutual agreement but the effort failed producing even greater hostility among them.
In recent times, domestic politics of Bangladesh has turned into a hotbed for great power politics. The United States, the United Kingdom, European Union, Russia and China all are involved in making statements about its internal affairs. Russia has termed the letters of US and European politicians to hold free and fair polls in Bangladesh arrogating “neo-colonialism” and “blatant interference”. So is the case with China opposing external interference into Bangladesh’s domestic politics.

The state of domestic politics is also a product of the prevalent governance and the rule of law in Bangladesh. There is a growing distance between the Bangladesh government and the US because of the latter’s sanctions on the members of security forces for human rights violation and political oppression of the opposition. US Ambassador Peter Haas’s utterances are clear intervention into the domestic politics of Bangladesh but they have an impact on the foreign policy of Bangladesh.
Media and public opinion on international relations bring pressure to bear on the foreign policy making. It is the role of the public sphere that poses serious challenge to the image of the independence of the foreign office. Any statement made by a public office in relation to Bangladesh’s relation with a foreign country that is considered undermining to its self-image and political integrity will be picked up by television news, newspapers, and social media to the damage of foreign relation. The result is a serious demoralization of the home front, raising the question whether political parties would ever again be able to neutralize external influence with unity and strength of purpose at home.
The second level of challenge to foreign policy relates to Bangladesh operating as a “South Asia” actor. This challenge entangles Bangladesh into thefold of regional geo-politics.
There are three external actors in South Asia that impinge upon Bangladesh’s foreign policy: India, China and the United States.
Bangladesh’s geography is significant for the international players in terms of regional geo-politics. Bangladesh commands the Bay of Bengal abutting into the Indian Ocean. It is the confluence where South Asia ends, and South East Asia begins. This region has always been historically dynamic for being a vital commercial sea route having strategic importance. That is why China included Bangladesh in Belt-and-Road Initiative (BRI). The proposed BRI corridor for Bangladesh begins at Kunming, passes through Myanmar, then enters the Indian northeast and through Bangladesh terminates in Kolkata. China sees South Asia as an outlet to dominate Indo-Pacific. In terms of geo-political aspects, the BRI has triggered a conflict of interests with India and the US. India is highly sensitive to Chinese strategic advantage to encircle India from the Himalayas in the north, to Pakistan in the west, Myanmar in the east, and Indian Ocean in the south.
Indo-Pacific is the grand chessboard for America’s overall competitive strategy vis-à-vis China. The US released its first document on Indo-Pacific Strategy in 2019. It clearly identified China as a revisionist hegemonic power bent on eroding the rules-based order in the region. The US wants to prevent Chinese influence not only in the Indian and Pacific oceans, but together with India want to limit its influence on the South Asian states including Bangladesh. The narrative the US produces intends to prevent China from establishing new, illiberal spheres of influence. China is now America’s top national security challenge.

It is against the above backdrop that Bangladesh has to steer its foreign policy. Being a developing state, Bangladesh cannot afford to play either pro- or anti- of any of the great powers. With three of them, Bangladesh needs to think of two distinct aspects of bilateral relationship: one is based on economic, and the second one is based on spiritual.
China is Bangladesh’s biggest exporter. Bangladesh imported US $26.81 billion during 2022 against its export to China of US $981.51 million. It was a total trade of about US $28.0 billion. So, China is Bangladesh’s a most important economic partner. However, its friendship is commercial, and not so much inspired by mental attraction borne of feelings for another culture and country in spiritual sense. We need to maintain a balanced relationship with China because of Myanmar. If China feels that Bangladesh is playing the “western card”, it may use Myanmar to destabilize Bangladesh. China’s support for keeping Myanmar contained is a vital foreign policy challenge vis-à-vis the West’s support in international diplomacy for the repatriation of Rohingya refugees to Myanmar.
India is Bangladesh’s neighbor. It is central to South Asia’s geo-strategic significance. Three sides of Bangladesh’s land border are shared with India. India and Bangladesh share 4096.7 km. of border, which is the longest land boundary that India shares with any of its neighbors. India fought for the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971; so, Bangladesh occupies a key place in India’s Neighborhood First Policy. Bangladesh is India’s sixth largest trading partner. Bangladesh imported US$ 13.8 billion during 2022 against US$ 2.0 billion exported. It was a total trade of US$16.0 billion. Bangladesh’s major foreign policy challenges with India are the disputes on Teesta River water sharing, and claims of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants in India. Bangladesh imports Chinese military equipment, including submarines, in the defense sector that is a major concern for India’s national security. Bangladesh is an active partner in the Belt-and-Road Initiative (BRI) which India is not. China’s occasional infiltration into Arunachal Pradesh of India vis-à-vis its presence in Myanmar for development projects has strategic implications for India’s eastern states with associated security challenges for Bangladesh. India’s lukewarm support to Myanmar immediately after its expulsion of Rohingyas into Bangladesh caused major concern to its foreign policy goal. India also gifted a submarine to Myanmar, probably in response to Chinese sale of two submarines to Bangladesh. Though India’s commercial links to Bangladesh compared to China is far less, this deficit is more than made up for many factors that unite the two countries on the spiritual realm. India’s links with Bangladesh are civilizational and cultural with a shared history and common heritage of linguistic, music and fine arts. National anthems of both India and Bangladesh are created by one poet Rabindranath Tagore, the Nobel Prize winner. This civilizational analogy perhaps should give Bangladesh a leeway in dealing with foreign policy issues with India than China.
Bangladesh’s position as an international actor is contingent upon how America sees Bangladesh as an important player in its geo-political canvas. The United States is the largest importer of Bangladeshi products, importing $US8.3 billion during 2021 against exporting $US2.3 billion. So, it was a total trade of $US 11.0 billion. Compared to China and India, total trade for Bangladesh with the US is less. But the US has other financial and moral advantages. U.S. companies are the largest foreign investors in Bangladesh, making the United States the top source of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in 2021. US companies have made $US 4.3 billion in investments as of 2021, which accounts for 20 percent of the total FDI stock in Bangladesh. The United States is the largest donor with more than $US121 million to COVID-19 related assistance to Bangladesh. Over the past 50 years, the United States has invested over eight billion dollars to improve the lives of Bangladeshis. It now stands as the largest recipient of U.S. assistance in Asia. The US appreciates Bangladesh for its positive contribution to US Indo-Pacific Strategy through its participation in organizations such as the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal (BBIN) Initiative, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), and the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA). In one issue, the United States’ support to Bangladesh in latter’s recent foreign policy efforts ranks above all. It has appreciated and supported Bangladesh strongly in international fora for hosting nearly one million Rohingya refugees who fled genocide and crimes against humanity in Myanmar. The United States is the largest donor to the Rohingya refugee crisis response, providing humanitarian support to both refugees and host communities in Bangladesh. It has declared openly that it stands with Bangladesh in working toward the safe, voluntary, dignified, and sustainable return of Rohingya refugees to their home. Despite the positive linkages between US-Bangladesh relationship, recent sanctions by the United States on Bangladeshi nationals for human rights violation and insistence on holding a free and fair election in 2024 is a challenge to Bangladesh’s foreign policy vision of the United States in the immediate future. With the United States, Bangladesh’s ties are not only based on economic gains but also on spiritual dimension. US insistence on human rights, democracy and freedom of individual citizens is also the aspiration of common people in Bangladesh. Spiritual connectivity is also reflected in the travel of large number of Bangladeshis to the United States every year, far more than to China and India for the purpose of higher studies, employment and immigration. America’s soft power appeal is second to none, and needs to be factored into framing Bangladesh’s foreign policy.
So, it is clear from the foregoing discussions that Bangladesh needs different approaches for dealing with the West, China and India. It is no simple task. It requires specialized skills to deal with specialized situations. The Foreign Office with its limited staff have conducted its tasks with appreciable success. One of its top accomplishments has been to lead the forum of the Least Development Countries (LDC) with competence in different international meetings and conventions. The guideline provided immediately after independence by Bangabandhu still remains our touchstone in dealing with foreign countries. However, in dealing with others, we must guard against placing Bangladesh along the weak and small states. Bangladesh is neither small nor weak. It is the eighth largest population in the world. In the present age of digital revolution, its youth possess an advantageous demographic dividend. Diplomats’ responsibility is to bring in discussion with political masters their specialized knowledge gained through years of experience and learning. The issues of diplomacy are always topical and dynamic. So, the challenges are also multidimensional, and demands constant reading of the forces of geo-political landscape. Not every point of foreign policy issue can be accommodated in a single article.
This article, however, has tried to delineate few but strategically important insights for future navigation of Bangladesh’s foreign policy. Foreign policy has to be visualized in a holistic manner including both domestic and external factors. In doing so, there must be presumptions derived from insightful reasoning of state behavior in international relations. In my presumptions, I have taken a state, first operating as a referent object as domestic, regional and international actor, and then, placing the state in international relations with other states on two aspects of mutual closeness, namely, economic and spiritual. This process may provide a good meaning to foreign policy practitioners to navigate through the challenging path in coming days.
Bangladesh recently announced its Indo-Pacific outlook with a firm commitment to its foreign policy dictum, “Friendship to all, malice to none”. This outlook is guided by few determinants: Article 25 of the Constitution, trust in the UN Charter and the UN Convention on Law of the Sea and strengthening regional and international cooperation. This outlook, according to the Foreign Minister, emphasizes three Ps: peace, partnership and prosperity.
So, the fine question is how to make Bangladesh’s foreign policy reconcile to its policy statement, ‘Friendship to all, malice to none’ without being undermined by the Realpolitik of international politics. There is but one truly philosophical question to our foreign policy, and that is no enemy. This is an idealism in theory, and a commitment to liberal approach in practice. If we are to judge how to make both ends meet without considering the essentials of Realism than we are at a point of no return. The statement must not be seen at its face value rather its profundity must be critically examined.
A state cannot function without the elements of power. Power is defined in terms of its national interests. Bangladesh wants to be friends with a country that seeks its friendship without prejudicing Bangladesh’s national interests. This is an ideal approach. Often states with high democratic values would prefer friends with similar domestic institutions. In such situation, the ideals of universal friendship in foreign relations are placed in discord with the existing domestic environment of a fractious state. Therefore, for Bangladesh democratic principles and human freedom have become constitutional imperatives that must substantiate its foreign policy conviction through its home rule. This obviously makes Bangladesh susceptible to the pitfalls of idealism. In order to come to terms to western style of home rule, Bangladesh must display palpably that its dealings with citizens as individuals is above exogenous reproach.
The other aspect of its foreign policy must guard itself against too much reliance on liberalism whose overdose may turn it into a non-abiding rhetoric. The missing point in the foreign policy is the inclusion of the importance of military defence. Singapore is a small country. One of the principles of Singapore’s Foreign Policy states, ‘Singapore must always maintain a credible and deterrent military defence as the fundamental underpinning for an effective foreign policy’. Friendship to all without malice may lead us to an ambiguous position unless defended by a realist penchant. If peace is the ultimate goal, then it will always be there if we surrender to others. If it is done at the cost of national interest, then the state power becomes weak. So, it is extremely important to push on the shield of military deterrence for one of the Foreign Policy’s line of defence.