By Michael Kugelman 1 April 2023
Bangladesh has long pursued a nonaligned foreign policy. But it appears to be moving closer to a full embrace of the Indo-Pacific Strategy pursued by the United States and its partners in the region, which revolves around countering China. Last month, Dhaka finalized a draft of its own Indo-Pacific Outlook focused on objectives that mirror those of the Indo-Pacific Strategy, such as the need for a free, secure, and peaceful region.
This move comes as the United States and a few key allies have signaled that Bangladesh should be a part of the Indo-Pacific Strategy. Last week, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida gave a speech in New Delhi described as a “new plan” for the region, calling for collaborations with Bangladesh, including a new economic partnership agreement. This month, U.K. Indo-Pacific Minister Anne-Marie Trevelyan visited Bangladesh.
It’s easy to understand why these countries would want Bangladesh to take part in the Indo-Pacific Strategy. It is strategically located, bordering India and serving as a gateway to both South and Southeast Asia. Dhaka has friendly ties with the United States, the other members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (known as the Quad), and many European countries. Both of these factors make Bangladesh a good partner.
China has stepped up its own influence in Bangladesh through infrastructure loans, which U.S. officials have privately described as bad deals for Dhaka. China’s rivals also worry about its expanded naval presence in the western part of the Indian Ocean region, including its military base off Djibouti. All of this lies in Bangladesh’s maritime neighborhood. China is also a major supplier of arms to Bangladesh. So getting Dhaka’s buy-in to the U.S. Indo-Pacific vision would be a strategic victory.
The more intriguing question is why Bangladesh would want to be associated with the Indo-Pacific Strategy and its goal in countering China. Bangladeshi officials have never strayed from the country’s founding principle of nonalignment, captured in a 1974 line from founding father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman: “Friendship to all, malice toward none.” Bangladesh aims to balance relations with rival states. India’s foreign policy is also nonaligned, but it considers China to be a strategic rival.
Participating in the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy would bring Bangladesh closer to key trade and investment partners. Bangladesh’s and India’s current governments are close, and New Delhi likely encouraged Dhaka to embrace the strategy. Two years ago, Gowher Rizvi, an advisor to Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, tellingly said that “we are very willing to be a part of the Indo-Pacific relationship” and India “is our most important partner.”
Even as Bangladesh embraces the Indo-Pacific Strategy, it is still trying to placate China. Dhaka’s own draft Indo-Pacific Outlook stipulates that it seeks to avoid rivalries and has no security goals. Observers note that calling it an “outlook” rather than a “policy” or “strategy” has a softer connotation. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations—which includes many states that have cordial relations with China—opted for the same term in its own Indo-Pacific statement. Dhaka has also not indicated that it would join the Quad.
China nonetheless seems concerned. Last week, the Chinese ambassador to Bangladesh accused Washington of trying to push Dhaka into the U.S. camp. Bangladesh could certainly back off from the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy to deepen relations with China. If Bangladesh’s next election, scheduled for January 2024, is deemed unfree and unfair, Western capitals could also scale back ties. But for now, Bangladesh appears to believe its interests aren’t compromised by stretching the limits of nonalignment.