While Bangladesh eyes its imminent graduation from LDC status after 50 years of independence, it is forced to reevaluate its geopolitical position and foreign policy in the backdrop of Russia's ongoing invasion of Ukraine. Between an economic superpower (China) and a potential one (India) in Asia, Bangladesh, as an emerging economy, also has to keep strategies to strengthen its ties with the United States.
So how is Bangladesh faring, and what should be done to protect its autonomy?
The Business Standard spoke to Anu Anwar, a fellow at the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and an associate in research at the John K. Fairbank Centre for Chinese Studies, Harvard University, for answers and to better understand the new complexities of international relations.
The acceleration of US-China strategic competition will influence Bangladesh's options and trajectory. In South Asia, the contest between them increasingly manifests as a competition between China and India, with Bangladesh as the battleground. How would you evaluate the current state of affairs in Bangladesh? Is Dhaka taking the right steps in balancing the trilateral relationships?
Bangladesh is no exception to getting caught in the middle of intensifying geopolitical competition between two great powers — the United States and China. The only difference is that while most of the Asian middle powers get caught between US-China competition, Bangladesh, being located next to India, has to do a 'three-way-balancing' between US-China and India.
Bangladesh so far skilfully navigated this murky water by prioritising its historical and cultural ties with India and bolstering engagement with Beijing on the economic and strategic front. This balancing act is growing more challenging as competition between Beijing and New Delhi intensifies for regional influence. Dhaka, therefore, seems to perceive the United States as a strategic 'third-way balancer.' This is a pragmatic foreign policy outlook.
However, the geopolitical landscape is undergoing a profound change amid the war in Ukraine and intensifying US-China strategic competition. Dhaka would need to craft proactive strategies that entail a set of tools to better prepare for the unfrozen but fateful consequences of this geopolitical uncertainty. In short: although Bangladesh has handled the US-China-India trilateral balancing well so far, it is not enough to tackle what is coming down the road.
The 50-year old US-Bangladesh relationship hit a few speed bumps along the way. However, from a "bottomless basket case" to an emerging economy, Bangladesh has come a long way and has always wanted to strengthen ties with the United States. What can be done, on the part of the US, to achieve this?
Even today, many Americans, especially Kissinger's generation, live with 1970s memories and think of Bangladesh as a "basket case." As a poverty-stricken and natural disaster-prone country which produces only garments. They rarely can make sense of the unprecedented development undertaken in Bangladesh, which now has a bigger economy than their previous ally—Pakistan, and a higher per capita income than the aspirant ally—India.
Not to mention what strategic value Bangladesh may have, Americans can make little to no sense of this. Even the recent relatively growing attention Bangladesh is getting in Washington is primarily based on the assumption that Bangladesh is falling into China's orbit. In short: the US is exhibiting reactionary tactics rather than proactive strategies to win Bangladesh.
I offer five policy recommendations for the US to overcome previous shortfalls and strengthen ties with Bangladesh going forward:
First, there is no single Bangladeshi or Bangladeshi origin political scientist in any US top-tier universities or any key policymakers with Bangladeshi heritage. The proportion of South Asians in this field in the US is 70-80% Indians, and 10-15% Pakistanis. This exhibits the US knowledge gap about Bangladesh, as well as Washington's preference for South Asian countries. As of now, Washington doesn't seem to be taking Bangladesh into significant consideration. To fix this, the US could start by providing a reasonable and proportionate space to bright Bangladeshi minds in the field of International Relations/South Asia. Cultivating future political scientists could play an instrumental role in shaping, theorising and indoctrinating the future US-Bangladesh relations going forward. This is not to limit the field; rather a wider engagement with Bangladeshis will multiply in various dimensions.
Second, showing proactive strategy underpinning genuine interest to engage with Bangladesh — not just deploying reactionary tactics to tackle the 'China challenge' in South Asia. Third, diversifying FDI to the sectors that are in vital interest for Bangladesh's long-term prospects. Fourth, displaying a tangible set of action plans for Bangladesh that is separate from India or any other country.
And lastly, providing Bangladesh with strategic military hardware that is key to achieving its "Forces Goal-2030."
You have mentioned earlier in an US Institute of Peace (USIP) publication, "as US-India collaboration has increased through the "Quad" and other strategic frameworks, Dhaka appears increasingly worried that it could be forced to make a binary decision between the US-India or China." Can you please elaborate on this, and also say what are the possible scenarios that can lead Bangladesh to make a binary decision?
As US-China strategic competition continues to intensify, Washington sees India as an offshore balancer against mighty China. If the US-China rivalry reached its peak, the world would look more like the Cold War period, if not worse. In such a scenario, both the US and China will be asking the countries: are you with us or against us?
Bangladesh's foreign policy success, so far, has been not making exactly this binary choice. But without being a major power with strategic weapons such as nukes, it would be tough to remain neutral. Therefore, Dhaka is worried that if US-China competition continues to increase, and India becomes a formal treaty ally of the US, like Japan or South Korea, then Dhaka will be forced to pick the side of either China or US-India. As a sovereign state, such a choice would be detrimental to Bangladesh's strategic autonomy and prosperity.
What does Bangladesh need to do to ensure its continuous upward trajectory and protect its strategic autonomy amid increasing great power competition in Asia?
Bangladesh would need to ensure three things.
First is national unity on the question of national interest. Political parties and elites could fight over everything but there must be a consensus among them on the question of national interest and strategic priorities. No matter who comes to power they should develop a consensus that those national policies wouldn't change regardless of the parties in power.
In that regard, in the 50 years of Bangladesh's history, we have never seen any national security or foreign policy guidelines. What is overcited in Bangladesh — "Friendship to all, malice to none" is a dictum — not policy! A well-crafted policy entails a set of national core interests, priorities, and strategic planning.
In developed countries, the well-practised procedure for crafting national policies is one version of such a policy document made available to the ordinary public that aims at disseminating information, organising society and building public consensus. The confidential version lays out the modus operandi to achieve the goals that the state set to achieve within a certain period of time. This version should be available only for key policymakers.
Second, a realistic, measurable and tangible assessment of the outcome of bilateral relations with each country. What exactly Bangladesh is gaining from engaging with each country, including the US, China, and India? This question should be the dominant feature of discourse at all levels of society. The outcome of each of these bilateral relations should be the guiding principle of Bangladesh's foreign policy in an era of great power competition.
Third, reducing over-reliance on any single country rather than diversifying its engagement with a wide range of countries. This will help Dhaka to blunt the coercive measures of great powers, and ensure its economic progress. Bangladesh would need to explore new markets for RMG and military hardware.
Dhaka would also need to cultivate emerging powers, especially those with deep pockets who could offer diplomatic support and invest in strategic sectors that are key in nation-building processes such as heavy industry, infrastructure and IT — producing high tech — not just assembling and outsourcing jobs.
Bangladesh has huge talented, hardworking manpower which could be transformed into human capital with quality and timely education. It needs a significant increase in investment in research. To build a prosperous nation, it is imperative that Bangladeshis would develop a sense of strong national identity and pride.