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Bangladesh Caught Between Indo Pacific and BRI

Indo Pacific Strategy

The United States has initiated the Indo Pacific Strategy (IPS) for expanding engagement with the Indian Ocean and Pacific littoral states as a security and economic partnership which is said to be to contest the influence of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The commitment to facilitate the Asian economies to develop and integrate them with their US economy and develop deeper military and defence relations became the immediate working model as well as a political move for the US.

With the region’s economic development and the subsequent economic growth of India, the policy nomenclature evolved from Asia-Pacific to Indo-Pacific.

Therefore, the US considers the Indo-Pacific region as a vital element with respect to security and prosperity, rendering the policymakers to come up with a documented strategy for the region.

In February 2022, the US released the official document regarding the Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS), according to which, ‘The United States is committed to an Indo-Pacific that is free and open, connected, prosperous, secure, and resilient.’ Given that, the US in the paper stated five objectives that it will pursue in the Indo-Pacific, each in concert with its allies and partners, as well as with regional institutions. They are:

· Advance a Free and Open Indo-Pacific

· Build Connections within and Beyond the Region

· Drive Regional Prosperity

· Bolster Indo-Pacific Security

· Build Regional Resilience to Transnational Threats

Along with India, geo-strategically located countries like Bangladesh have garnered attention from the makers of IPS for their ambitious counter strategy against rising China. The visit of US deputy secretary of state Stephan Beigun has been regarded as the beginning of the efforts in this direction by international relations analysts. During his visit in 2020, which had been way earlier than the official white paper got published, Stephan Biegun stated the importance of Bangladesh as ‘an important partner among the countries of the Asia and Pacific Ocean region,’ discussing the Indo-Pacific Strategy, implying the US interest in Bangladesh’s active participation on the said initiative.

Recently, the issue of seeking Bangladesh’s cooperation in the IPS came to the fore in the discussions held during the meeting between foreign secretary Masud Bin Momen and US National Security Council’s senior director for South Asia Rear Admiral Eileen Laubacher at the state guest house Padma in the capital during the visit of the latter in December last year.

What is Belt and Road Initiative

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is a development strategy developed by China that aims to build connectivity and cooperation across six main economic corridors encompassing itself along with Mongolia, Russia, Eurasian countries, Central Asia, West Asia, Pakistan, Indian subcontinent and Indochina. As per the Kalinga Institute of Indo-Pacific Studies report, ‘BRI is one amongst many pursuits undertaken by China to establish hegemony in the Indo-Pacific. BRI is a global infrastructure development strategy adopted by the Chinese government in 2013 to invest in nearly 70 countries, which account for half the world’s population and a quarter of the global GDP. The Guardian states that BRI is often described as the 21St Century Silk Road and made up of a “belt” of overland corridors and a maritime “road” of shipping lanes.’ It has been penned as a ‘multibillion-dollar Chinese Marshall Plan backed by the state with a singular motive of global dominance.’

Bangladesh officially joined BRI during President XI Jinping’s visit in October 2016 to Dhaka. Bangladesh has been a member of BRI since, signing a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for projects worth over USD 25 billion. Being positioned at the strategic location of the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean, one of the six economic corridors of BRI will pass through Bangladesh.

Thus, ‘Dhaka has been cautious in its response,’ to the US propagated IPS since ‘it fears any hasty reaction might be detrimental to the country’s interest.’ The apprehension arises from the obvious perception of the IPS being a counter to the Chinese BRI. There had been visible tensions between Beijing and Washington which continue to spiral over China’s BRI to establish connectivity and an international economic region.

Geo Political Rivalry

The Indo-Pacific is home to the world’s 6 per cent of total population, in addition to 40 per cent of the world’s total GDP. Not only this, it witnesses world trade worth $1.9 trillion per year passing through the sea routes that encompass the maritime boundary of the region. It is also one of the largest destinations for foreign direct investment. This makes the region more of an economic contestation not only among regional rivals like India and China but also attracts powers like the US to come up with their own strategic framework in the form of security enhancement and economic cooperation.

Challenges Regional Countries

The region’s economically equipped nations of Japan and China, along with the US have proposed the strategic initiatives of BRI and IPS, respectively, keeping their economic interests at the core of each. When asked about Bangladesh’s stand regarding the same, the foreign secretary Masud bin Momen stated that Dhaka welcomes any initiative for international development. However, the basic ‘consideration will be business, investment and economy.’ Also, Bangladesh hinted that it will ‘stay away from any initiative that has elements of security and defence.’

Apart from its geostrategic location, Bangladesh is one of the many South Asian economies which is still reeling from the effects of the global lockdown under the Covid-19 pandemic. Although the economy jump-started by recording a high economic growth rate after the removal of the covid restriction, but, with the rising energy prices after the Ukraine crisis, the economy faces uncertainty about maintaining the same growth rate.

Bangladesh’s strategic location is not only advantageous from the maritime trade perceptive but it is also marked as the bridge connecting the two regions that encompass the Indo-Pacific region, South Asia and South East Asia.

Options for Bangladesh

Bangladesh has been facing the situation more acutely than many other nations due to its geo-strategic positioning in the Bay of Bengal, bordering India and Myanmar’s Rakhine state. It also has better military-economic power than the others which has placed the country in the difficult position of maintaining neutrality and balance amid these newly heated geopolitics.

However, the US interest in creating a new stake in Indo-Pacific also opens up opportunities for Dhaka to consider securing funding for its developmental work.

Even though Bangladesh is reluctant to join the international initiative that has ‘security and strategic ramifications,’ the country fears being dragged into a conflict between the global giants. However, ‘the US’ focus on Bangladesh opens a realm of opportunity for the country. Bangladesh needs to introspect how the US attention could be utilised to its best interest.’

Many policy analysts suggest that Bangladesh ‘formulate its own Indo-Pacific Strategy to navigate the situation better’ while safeguarding its national interests. Bangladesh lately has been struggling to balance the parties interested in the region and offering separate initiatives, thus has been projecting a sense of ambiguity in its policy approach. Thus, a structured and definite strategy would ‘help Bangladesh to maintain its continuity and set a clear vision of what’ the country ‘wants to see and do for a desired Indo-Pacific region.

The analysts believe that ‘if Bangladesh formulates its own strategy, the strategy should reflect Bangladesh’s beliefs and values as practised in its foreign policy and guiding principles.’

One of the major challenges in the region is to ensure security and steady economic development. Thus, the strategy must address this concern while it still suffers from the dilemma of how to maximise security and development without any adverse effects.

Moreover, Bangladesh can promote multilateralism in the Indo-Pacific region against the two or three powers contesting for control. This approach would give Bangladesh a space to raise its concerns while effectively avoiding any unilateral acts undertaken by any major powers.


t can also focus on regionalism as part of its strategy as Bangladesh lies between South Asia and Southeast Asia, which is considered a gateway between the potential economies of the region. Even at present, both regional forums have been marred by Indo-Pak rivalry and complex political instability in Myanmar respectively. However, sub-regional forums can give a prospective start in the direction as these ‘often stay out of geopolitics and are based on goodwill and prosperity.’

[Research compiled by Ms Harshita Singh Panwar]

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