What is Bangladesh's approach regarding great power rivalries? Does Bangladesh adopt neutrality or go into an alliance when a Great Power rivalry occurs? Which stance is appropriate for Bangladesh?
In this article, I will attempt to portray that Bangladesh opts for hedging policies when a great power rivalry occurs. Considering Bangladesh's political and socio-economic circumstances, the strategy of hedging is more suitable for Bangladesh. Hedging strategy assists in forging protective ties with friendly great powers while not taking sides or aligning with contending great powers.
If we look at the international great power dynamics, we can see that the rivalry between the United States block and the Russian block still prevails. China and India are also contending great powers at the regional level. In addition, the US-China rivalry is all-too-real. So what role does Bangladesh play in this political enigma?
As Bangladesh's political principle is "friendship towards all and malice towards none," it cannot opt for a policy that would shatter this. Moreover, Bangladesh is a smaller, weaker state in the global political arena. So it cannot jeopardise its vital interests by taking one particular side in a great power rivalry.
Hedging is considered insurance-seeking behaviour. The concept of hedging comes from the financial realm to describe weaker nations' behaviour. In practice, hedging occurs when a small country cooperates simultaneously with two great powers.
Structural realism confers that, as we live in a highly anarchic situation, states face dilemmas when they have to pick a side between a rising great power (for example, China) and the existing great power (for example, the United States). So, in this situation, either they join the existing great power block to balance against the rising power, or jump on the bandwagon to build an alignment with the rising power.
But this theory cannot be applied to most of the smaller states. They have to function differently. To safeguard their interests, they take a middle position. For instance, they avoid choosing sides between China and the United States. Aligning with one block could enrage another, which would severely damage the smaller states' vital national interests.
Bangladesh is a small nation that maintains balanced relations with all the great powers. However, Bangladesh's geo-strategic location is crucial as it is located on the Bay of Bengal and at the meeting point of South Asia and Southeast Asia. Therefore, Bangladesh has to inevitably face the brunt of the rising rivalries between India-China and China-US.
Let's look at the regional level first.
India surrounds Bangladesh on three sides. So inevitably, Bangladesh cannot avoid India in its foreign policy decisions. Firstly, India wants to extend its grip on the South Asian region. To that end, it wants to contain China's influence in the south Asian region. Secondly, India is Bangladesh's closest neighbour, and Bangladesh relies on India for security, trade and several bilateral cooperations.
Similarly, Bangladesh relies on China for trading partnerships. China is considered by many an "all-weather friend" to Bangladesh. Therefore, Bangladesh cannot avoid China in the global political arena either, as many vital interests lie with it. For example, Bangladesh benefits from China's Belt and Road Initiative. China is now Bangladesh's top trading partner, direct foreign investor, trade importer and military hardware supplier.
In 2016, after Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Bangladesh, he invested $38 billion. This event made India fearful of being left behind. As a result, India declared a $5 billion line of credit for Bangladesh, the biggest amount ever lent by India to Bangladesh.
Bangladesh has to maintain its political and economic links with India and China to reap the benefits from both countries. In this case, the hedging strategy is indispensable to cooperating with both countries.
Likewise, both China and the US have been stable trade partners of Bangladesh for decades. So Bangladesh cannot pick any sides in the trade war, or in any ideological conflict between the US and China. In this case, Bangladesh needs to uphold the hedging strategy by avoiding any alignment.
In terms of the US- Russia rivalry, Bangladesh cannot choose any side at the global level. Bangladesh's relations with Russia are cooperative. For instance, Bangladesh's first nuclear power plant is being built at Rooppur in Pabna. Russia is providing financial assistance for this project.
Moreover, Bangladesh is one of Russia's major trading partners in South Asia. On the other hand, the US is Bangladesh's largest export market. Bangladesh and the US also cooperate on a variety of security issues, including bilateral dialogues, defence assistance and training.
Bangladesh heavily relies on Russia and the US for economic, trade and strategic cooperation. That's why this year, during the UN resolution, Bangladesh's decision not to condemn Russia in the Ukraine crisis was justifiable through the lens of hedging strategy. Bangladesh's policy of non-alignment is echoed in the decision.
Considering all the facts mentioned, Bangladesh needs to continuously pursue the strategy of hedging to further its political and strategic interests and avoid any collision with the contending great powers.
Fariha Maimuna is a student of the Department of International Relations, University of Dhaka.