by Saleem Samad 18 April 2023
Bangladesh is visibly and invisibly leaning towards the superpowers including the United States, China and Russia. But it also has friends and allies in the Middle East. India has been a proven friend, which has partnered Bangladesh’s development.
Bangladesh is now inching closer to embracing the Indo-Pacific Strategy, despite the country’s professed non-aligned foreign policy.
However, Bangladesh has never strayed from its founding principle of nonalignment and wisdom drawn from its independence hero Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman which can be summed up as Friendship to all and malice toward none.
Bangladesh essentially aims to balance relations with rival states. Many explain that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina does not keep eggs in one basket. Thus, she wants to maintain diplomatic, economic and strategic partnerships albeit “unequally” with the United States, Russia, China, European Union, Arabs and of course India.
A month ago, the private news agency United News of Bangladesh (UNB)wrote that Dhaka has finalized a draft of its Indo-Pacific Outlook focused on objectives that mirror those of the Indo-Pacific Strategy. The draft plan dwells upon the need for a free, secure, and peaceful region, according to Foreign Policy’s South Asia brief prepared by Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program and Senior Associate for South Asia at the Wilson Centre, a nonpartisan research enterprise based in Washington DC.
Bangladesh It appears is moving closer to a full embrace of the Indo-Pacific Strategy pursued by the Americans and its partners in the region, which revolves around countering China. This move comes as the US and a few key allies have signaled that Bangladesh should be a part of the Indo-Pacific Strategy, according to the brief.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in New Delhi recently unveiled a new plan for the region, calling for strategic collaborations with Bangladesh, including a new economic partnership agreement.
A deep-sea port under construction in southern Bangladesh is shaping up to be a strategic linchpin for Japan and India as the Quad partners aim to counter Chinese influence, writes Nikkei Asia, an influential Japanese economic and finance media outlet.
Dhaka has friendly ties with the USA, and other members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (known as the Quad) including India, and Europe.
Development of the deep-sea port of Matarbari – a natural gateway to both South and Southeast Asia will put a Japan-backed facility just north of Sonadia, another prime location on the Bay of Bengal where China was expected to develop a port. But the Chinese facility did not materialize. Dhaka silently dropped the idea a few years ago, which caused diplomatic hullabaloo with Beijing.
Some leading pundits tend to declare a strategic victory for India in a South Asian great game between big powers. Anu Anwar, a research associate at the Fairbank Centre for Chinese Studies at Harvard University, told Nikkei Asia the Sonadia port deal with China did not succeed because of India’s opposition, which the [government] in Dhaka could not simply override due to its overreliance on Delhi. Also, India’s tag-team partner, Japan is also considered a winner in this scenario, though some observers see no game at all, says Faisal Mahmud and Ryohtaroh Satoh in a joint article in Nikkei Asia.
In New Delhi, Kishida said the industrial value chain from the deep-sea port in the Bay of Bengal and the hinterland of landlocked northeast states [so-called Seven Sisters] of India which neighbors China, Myanmar and Bangladesh, will be immensely beneficial from “the growth of the entire region. Japanese, Indian and Bangladeshi officials also discussed the plans with G. Kishan Reddy, India’s federal minister for the northeast, welcoming Japan’s initiative, Reuters reported.
An Independence Day message from US chief executive Joseph R. Biden to Sheikh Hasina has caught the attention of many political observers. Bangladesh is scheduled to hold parliamentary elections in January next year, Biden “reminded of the deep value both of our nations’ people place on democracy, equality, respect for human rights, and free and fair elections.” The message ended with the slogan ‘Joy Bangla’ (Victory for Bangladesh), which enthralled masses in Bangladesh.
A series of statements from the chief executive of the United States and other bigwigs of the country demonstrates that the stars are shining brightly over Bangladesh’s sky. In fact, US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken flattered Bangladesh and said the country is “quickly becoming a regional leader.”
On the occasion of the 52nd anniversary of the Independence of Bangladesh, the United States Congress introduced a resolution on 29 March recognizing and commending Bangladesh and its remarkable socioeconomic progress under the leadership of Sheikh Hasina, official news agency Bangladesh Sangbad Sangstha (BSS) reported. The resolution said Bangladesh has successfully maintained a moderate Muslim society and curbed extremism in the country, but falls short of describing Bangladesh as a secular and pluralistic nation.
Despite the heart-warming tete-a-tete messages, Sheikh Hasina last week in the parliament in Dhaka did not hesitate to lambast America: “They are lecturing us on democracy and human rights. What’s the situation in their country?”
Amid the dilemma to decide or not to decide on a strategic partnership, China has stepped up its influence in Bangladesh through mega-infrastructure loans, which US officials have privately described as “bad deals” for the country.
It’s indeed an intriguing question as to why Bangladesh wishes to be associated with the Indo-Pacific Strategy and its goal of countering China. No doubt, participation in the US Indo-Pacific Strategy would bring Bangladesh closer to key trade and investment partners.
China is also a major supplier of arms to Bangladesh. So, getting Dhaka’s buy-in to the US-sponsored Indo-Pacific vision would be a strategic victory.
The current governments in Bangladesh and India are very close, and New Delhi is likely to have encouraged Dhaka to embrace the strategy, according to the brief by Wilson Centre.
Even as Bangladesh embraces the Indo-Pacific Strategy, it is still trying to placate China. Dhaka’s draft Indo-Pacific Outlook stipulates that it seeks to avoid rivalries and has no security goals, read the brief.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) – includes many states that have cordial relations with China – opted for the same term in its Indo-Pacific coalition. Dhaka has also not indicated that it would join the Quad. Several visits of high-profile dignitaries in recent times from the United States, United Kingdom and European Union enforce that “these countries would want Bangladesh to take part in the Indo-Pacific Strategy read the brief.
Kugelman said Bangladesh has become a battleground for great power competition. It is strategically located, bordering India and serving as a gateway to both South and Southeast Asia. China is definitely concerned about the development of a regional strategic alliance. A few weeks ago, the Chinese Ambassador Yao Wen to Bangladesh squarely blamed Washington for pushing Dhaka into the US-backed Quad against China.
To deepen relations with China, Bangladesh could certainly back off from the US Indo-Pacific Strategy. Bangladesh appears to believe its interests aren’t compromised by stretching the limits of nonalignment, according to the brief.
In the coming years, when the dozens of mega-projects funded by Japan, China, Russia and India are finally implemented, it could be understood which superpower and regional powers wins the heart and minds of Bangladesh.
First published in the India Narrative on April 18, 2023
Saleem Samad is an award-winning independent journalist based in Bangladesh. Views expressed are personal. Twitter: @saleemsamad