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Bangladesh’s Indo-Pacific balancing act

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Bangladesh’s Indo-Pacific balancing act​


Bangladesh’s Indo-Pacific Outlook attempts to allay concerns about any tilt or perception of a tilt towards Chi
Published: 27th May 2023 12:38 AM | Last Updated: 27th May 2023 12:38 AM | A+A A-
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Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustration | Soumyadip Sinha)
By Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty

Bangladesh released its Indo-Pacific Outlook [IPO] in late April, ending speculation about its posture vis-à-vis the Indo-Pacific. Bangladesh’s IPO is a significant yet nuanced geopolitical move. India has welcomed this. India’s External Affairs Minister Dr S Jaishankar, attending the recent Indian Ocean Conference in Dhaka, said, “I am truly glad that Bangladesh has joined the company of those (countries) who have done so.” India had outlined its Indo-Pacific (IP) strategy in 2018 in the speech delivered by PM Modi at the Shangri La Dialogue in Singapore.

China’s influence in Bangladesh has grown exponentially across defence, trade and investment sectors. China tried to seduce Bangladesh into a Hambantota model of deep sea port construction in Chittagong but Bangladesh backed out. This was despite China supplying it with two refurbished Ming-class Type 035B diesel electric submarines and building a submarine maintenance facility in Chittagong. Huge loans from China for various projects have led to growing concerns about Bangladesh going the Sri Lankan way—getting sucked into a debt trap and aligning with China’s strategic objectives that include anti-India ones.

Bangladesh has been under some pressure from the USA, UK and Japan to come out of the closet regarding its IP posture. The USA has reportedly asked Bangladesh to join the QUAD. On January 10 this year, in an unprecedented move, newly appointed Chinese foreign minister Qin Gang visited Dhaka in his first-ever foreign trip, which broke a 32-year record wherein a Chinese FM’s first foreign trip has always been to Africa. Clearly, China was pressing Bangladesh not to join the QUAD. China’s ambassador in Dhaka has accused the USA of ramping up pressure on Bangladesh to join the QUAD. There has been a spate of statements from the USA, UK and the EU about free and fair elections in 2024, as if to give notice that if unfair means are adopted, consequences would follow. The US imposed sanctions on senior officials of Bangladesh’s Rapid Action Battalion [RAB] for human rights violations and questioned Bangladesh’s utilisation of bilateral aid. Bangladesh foreign minister Dr A K Abdul Momen has rejected any suggestion that his country has acted under external pressure. He said, “We are not following anyone. Our IPO is independent.”

There are several interesting features in the 15-point IPO, which reflects the vision of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s father and the country’s first president and PM who firmly believed in non-alignment and neutrality. He was determined to stay away from big power rivalry and emphasised the principles of peaceful coexistence and of “friendship towards all, malice towards none”.

The timing of the IPO’s announcement was on the eve of PM Hasina’s visits to Japan, the USA and UK, signalling clearly that Bangladesh wanted to avoid any more pressure. The choice of calling its IP policy “Outlook”—the same word used by the ASEAN—projects a softer and aspirational view and avoids any linkage to security objectives. There are several other similarities with the ASEAN document, like the emphasis on expanding and engaging in constructive regional and international cooperation, which is expected to contribute to regional as well as Bangladesh’s sustainable development and prosperity.

Bangladesh’s IPO includes boilerplate references to the UN Charter and international treaties. The UNCLOS is specifically mentioned. Apart from a “free and open” IP region, Bangladesh has added “peaceful, secure and inclusive”. It emphasises building a “culture of peace” and includes “women, peace, and security” and supports a rules-based multilateral system. Predictably, there is no mention of the QUAD.

Bangladesh has an abiding interest in the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean, having accomplished peaceful settlements of maritime disputes with India and Myanmar. Currently, Bangladesh is chairing the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) and has announced its blue economy plan. It cannot ignore that its largest export markets are in the USA, EU and India. It has developed extensive economic and military ties with all major powers, including the US, UK, Russia, China, Japan and India. The EU, India, Japan, South Korea and the US are also major investors in Bangladesh. Some Western observers have viewed Bangladesh’s posturing vis-à-vis the IP as a step closer to current American and Indian policies on the IP. They have interpreted the support for freedom of navigation and maritime safety as a counter to China’s claiming sovereignty over the South China Sea.

In a new economic partnership agreement, Japanese PM Fumio Kishida has called for a “new plan” for the region and collaborations with Bangladesh. Japan has invested in the Matarbari deep sea port in Bangladesh which will have an industrial zone in the hinterland. PM Kishida said the industrial value chain from Matarbari in the Bay of Bengal and the hinterland of landlocked northeastern states in India which neighbours China, Myanmar and Bangladesh, will be immensely benefited from “the growth of the entire region”. The incentive for economic integration via supply chains between Bangladesh and India’s northeastern states, to access a bigger market, is a strong incentive. Bangladesh’s strategic location can serve as a gateway to both South and Southeast Asia.

The IPO attempts to allay concerns about any Bangladeshi tilt or perception of a tilt towards China. Bangladesh needed western support for its loan from the IMF to buttress its falling foreign exchange reserves. Balancing and hedging have become the default policy options for countries seeking new partners in the IP. Even as Bangladesh embraces the IP, it is signalling to China that it seeks to avoid rivalries and has no security goals. ASEAN, whose members have deep economic ties with China, had opted for similar language in its Outlook on the Indo-Pacific.

Bangladesh clearly believes its interests aren’t compromised by the IPO. As it navigates the strategic competition in the Indo-Pacific, its IPO appears to be a hedging strategy seeking to balance western powers and China. Whether Bangladesh can continue to navigate big power contestation successfully is a moot question. Black Swan events like a conflict over Taiwan or an India-China conflict would require a rethink in Bangladesh’s current strategy.

Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty

Former Secretary in MEA, and served as India’s Deputy High Commissioner and High Commissioner to Bangladesh. Visiting Fellow at ORF, Delhi

(pr.chakravarty@gmail.com)

 

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