On April 24, Bangladesh officially declared a 15-point Indo-Pacific Outlook, thus joining an expanding group of countries that have announced formal strategies with regard to the Indo-Pacific region. Since Bangladesh is located at the rim of the Indian Ocean and at the confluence of South and Southeast Asia, it occupies an important place in the Indo-Pacific region.
Accordingly, the declaration of a well-thought out and precise Indo-Pacific strategy was long overdue on the part of Bangladesh, especially taking into account the growing contradictions in the strategically vital region in recent years.
In order to comprehend Bangladesh’s outlook, both the current and historical courses of Bangladesh’s internal politics and external relations, as well as the course of geopolitics in the 21st century, have to be taken into account. After the War for Liberation in 1971, the independent Bangladesh emerged as an economically backward small state on the world stage. At that point, Bangladesh had neither the desire nor the capacity to be embroiled in the strategic competition between the superpowers.
So, Bangladesh chose a middle ground, following the dictum “friendship towards all, malice towards none,” becoming a keen proponent of non-alignment and focusing on international cooperation to ensure its socio-economic development. Accordingly, Bangladesh developed extensive economic and military ties with all great and regional powers, including the US, the UK, the Soviet Union (currently the Russian Federation), China, Japan, and India, while maintaining distance from the then raging Cold War.
Even after the termination of the Cold War, Bangladesh continued to follow the same foreign policy course.
Owing to the meteoric politico-economic rise of China, the military-political resurgence of Russia, the spread of nationalism and populism in the Global South and the widespread diffusion of technology in the 21st century, the post-Cold War US unipolarity is currently being steadily replaced by multi-polarity, fomenting geo-political conflict between the status quo powers (such as the US and the UK) and the revisionist powers (such as Russia and China).
Due to the immense geo-economic value and geo-strategic salience of the Indo-Pacific region, the US and its allies are shifting their primary focus away from Europe and the Middle East to the Indo-Pacific region. Just as the centre of gravity of the Cold War of the 20th century was located in Europe, the centre of gravity of the new Cold War of the 21st century is situated in the Indo-Pacific region.
Bangladesh, with its strategic location on the Bay of Bengal, its rising economic profile, its burgeoning population, its potential resource base, and its steadily growing military capabilities constitutes an important part of that centre of gravity.
To this date, to continue the socio-economic development of its domains remains the foremost priority of Bangladesh. Accordingly, Dhaka maintains cordial relations with not only Washington, London, Brussels, Tokyo, and New Delhi but also Beijing and Moscow. Consequently, Bangladesh is in a position in which it has joined the Chinese-sponsored Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), is building a nuclear power plant with Russian economic and technological assistance, is implementing a number of projects with Indian lines of credit, and has acceded to the US-sponsored Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).
At the same time, Bangladesh has so far refrained from joining any great power-led military alliances, such as the QUAD. Meanwhile, the great and regional powers are increasing their politico-diplomatic contacts with Dhaka in an attempt to make it a part of their sphere of influence. This has resulted in a great power rivalry over Bangladesh, which is not conducive to Bangladeshi national interests in the long term.
Amidst such circumstances, Bangladesh has come forward with its own Indo-Pacific outlook.
Bangladesh’s outlook is independent of the Indo-Pacific strategies adopted by other states. These documents share some core concerns, such as maritime security and the emphasis on international law. However, in terms of other important aspects, it is unique. Most importantly, Bangladesh’s outlook is couched in cooperative and legalistic terms and strictly avoids confrontational language.
The uniqueness of Bangladesh’s outlook is further buttressed by its emphasis on the “culture of peace,” its inclusion of the “women, peace, and security” agenda, and its insistence upon rules-based multilateral systems. Instead of promoting containment against any specific country, it calls for strengthening mutual trust, enhancing cooperation and ensuring shared prosperity for all. Instead of supporting further militarization of the Indo-Pacific region, it calls for enhancing human security in the region through ensuring food, health, energy, and environmental security.
By formulating and announcing its own Indo-Pacific strategy, Bangladesh has clearly expressed its intention to steer clear of great power rivalry in the region. The policy of confrontational and bloc politics is extremely dangerous, as exemplified vividly by the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war, the Sino-Taiwanese crisis, and countless proxy conflicts in the Global South. Bangladesh realizes this, and therefore, instead of allying with any particular great power, it seeks to maintain cordial relations with all of them in order to protect and preserve its sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity, and continued socio-economic development.
Owing to its geographical location, Bangladesh’s destiny is closely intertwined with the political, economic, and military developments in the Indo-Pacific region. Continued peace, stability, and cooperation in the region is essential to its own development and survival. Therefore, the Indo-Pacific Outlook can serve as a perfect guide for Bangladesh in facing the new Cold War in the Indo-Pacific region.
MH Rahman is a postgraduate student of Security Studies at the Department of International Relations, University of Dhaka.