Bangladesh Joins the Region in Signalling its Indo-Pacific Outlook
In the evolving Indo-Pacific landscape, Bangladesh’s strategic survival depends on the deft navigation of the heightened rivalry between the United States and China. Focusing on the economic realm of an Indo-Pacific partnership will allow Bangladesh to grow its economic relationship while avoiding being bogged in the great power struggle.
In the Indo-Pacific narrative, Bangladesh has gained unprecedented strategic currency. The country was often branded as a dismal case for developing economic partnerships, often attracting attention for being a locus of disaster and poverty. The realities have significantly changed, as Bangladesh’s geographical position at the heart of the Indo-Pacific—in close proximity to strategic Sea Lines of Communication in the Bay-of-Bengal—have granted the country unique geographical leverage.
The strategic importance of Bangladesh for US geostrategic aims has been made evident by the recent string of diplomats that have been dispatched to the country. There is no doubt that the current Biden administration seeks to mend fences with Dhaka. The recent visit of Donald Lu–Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs— is the high point so far in the with greater consistency in diplomatic engagement occurring over the past two years. A whopping 17 mid and high-level bilateral visits have been conducted with the aim of clarifying intentions and instilling a sense of reciprocity and strategic tenor in bilateral ties.
Prior, Bangladesh-United States bilateral ties had been on ice. At least for those in Dhaka, this state of affairs owed to the stubbornness of the US to grant GSP (generalized systems of preference – duty free) facilities, the sanctions directed against the Rapid Action Battalion and its officials, the harsh appraisals of labour rights conditions, and the supposed meddling by the US in Bangladesh politics. In contrast, Bangladesh’s deepened ties with Russia and China has raised serious concerns in the Washington. These issues combined to degrade bilateral ties.
As the temperature of competition heats up in the Indo-Pacific, the choices for Bangladesh are likely to become more difficult. This is because the zero-sum nature of great power competition suggests that equibalancing as a manifestation of strategic hedging will become increasingly unviable as the demands of the powers become overbearing.
Against such a backdrop, the foreign ministry of Bangladesh drafted the Indo-Pacific outlook—a blueprint for the country’s future interaction in the Indo-Pacific. The draft has drawn extensively on the practices and perspectives of the other states in the region. To be sure, the final draft has been tailored to the specific threat perceptions and strategic realities of Bangladesh, with a premium placed on managing non-traditional security issues and economic prosperity. The usage of the term “Outlook” is perhaps deliberate and strategic—aligning with ASEAN’s formulation–to dissociate the strategic connotation that often paints a hostile image of the region. Clinging to the proverbial ASEAN way of neutrality, Bangladesh has sought to categorically state its preferences and outline its neutrality rather than charting a strategic posture.
Earlier, the lack of an Indo-pacific policy had made the extant policy-making agencies reliant upon ad-hoc measures. This made Bangladesh’s posture incoherent, and leaders in Dhaka oscillated between opposing power blocs, much to the detriment of Bangladesh’s regional relations. There was also a concern that the lack of a detailed plan—while other littoral countries had carved out their indigenous versions of the Indo-Pacific—might be read by others as a show of indifference by Bangladesh to the region. Indelibly, the country has been torn between competing security and economic visions, which have together failed to reconcile Bangladesh’s core interests. In this context, the Indo-Pacific outlook dovetails both security and economic concerns, albeit with an economic focus.
A glance at the Outlook
Bangladesh’s interest in the Indo-Pacific region lies in forging economic linkages with others. But the draft Outlook also considers that economic and security are linked through a complex interdependence, and it stipulates that security remains the sine-qua-non of economic progress. At the same time, the draft categorically states that Bangladesh is reluctant to entangle itself in regional strategic rivalry. Thus, avoiding overt alignment in favor of any power bloc is the core objective for Dhaka.
In stating its commitments, the draft Outlook states that Bangladesh supports the vision of an open, free, secure, inclusive, and peaceful Indo-Pacific region. While there is the firm commitment to security and stability, Dhaka’s leaders have also outlined 14 further objectives. These include deepening connectivity, enhancing trade and investment, fostering regional partnership and cooperation, safeguarding ocean security, establishing peace, preventing transnational crimes, achieving a culture of peace, transferring technology and innovation, securing resources of the sea, maintaining food security, management of disaster, health security and cyber security. Bangladesh cautions that the region should not be dominated by a clique of countries, but rather championed for by an inclusive Indo-Pacific region.
The foreign policy dictum of Bangabandhu “Friendship to all, malice to none”—forms the cornerstone of the document. As geopolitical tensions in the region mount, it is believed that a conciliatory posture can retain Bangladesh’s neutrality and serve its strategic objectives. This axiom also follows Bangladesh’s time-honored policy of non-alignment. The other key principles include the 25th Article of the constitution, the United Nations Charter, and the United Nations Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
Although regional countries are fixated on conventional defense, security, and military issues, Bangladesh’s core regional objectives are centered on curbing non-traditional security threats such as transnational crime, food insecurity, and economic underdevelopment. Such a posture is prudent since Bangladesh faces a spectrum of non-traditional and transnational threats, the resolution of which requires close cooperation with the stakeholders in the region.
While the region has been featured in the contemporary framing as a strategic arena on the verge of great power competition, Bangladesh views the region as a springboard for opportunities that can be harnessed to further accelerate its economic progress. Disavowing the overtures of power blocs, Bangladesh expresses an inclination toward charting a non-aligned future, embodied in inclusivity and fairness in the region.
Kazi Asszad Hossan is a security and international affairs analyst. He is researcher affiliated with Central Foundation for International and Strategic Studies (CFISS).
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