Geopolitical terrain gets trickier amid US-China contest


The 'geopolitical contest' between the United States and China will only grow in intensity over the next 10 years, affecting billions around the globe, while countries like Bangladesh will face great challenges in managing all its impacts.

That is according to the renowned author, diplomat and geopolitical consultant Kishore Mahbubani, who delivered the keynote address at the latest edition of the Cosmos Dialogue at a city hotel on Sunday.

"No matter where you live, no matter what you do, your lives will be affected or disrupted by this geopolitical contest. I can guarantee you," said Mahbubani, former Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Singapore.

Cosmos Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the Cosmos Group, hosted the dialogue titled "Emerging Asian Nations in Global Geopolitics: Implications for Bangladesh" as part of its Distinguished Speakers' Series, chaired by Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury,  ex-permanent representative of Bangladesh to the UN in New York, as well as advisor on foreign affairs to the last caretaker government.

The opening remarks were delivered by Cosmos Foundation Chairman Enayetullah Khan.

Mahbubani, an analyst with unrivalled access to policymakers in Beijing and Washington, said the world is in a difficult and complex situation, and termed the contest between the USA and China as the 'biggest since the beginning of history' - given the sheer size, scale and influence of the contestants.  

As a result, Mahbubani, who served two stints as Singapore's permanent representative to the UN, including a spell as president of the Security Council between 2001 and 2002, said Bangladesh will face difficulties and challenges as it wants to have good ties with both the US and China.

He said the situation is a bit harder in South Asia due to the absence of any effective regional association like ASEAN. With SAARC proving ineffective, Mahbubani believes how India handles the fallout of the US-China contest would have bearing on Bangladesh. 

Enayetullah Khan said geopolitics and geo-economics will play out in multiple modes, that will find consequence in a complex matrix of conflict and confrontation, and that will perhaps form the basis of a new global order as the twenty-first century unfolds.

For the developing world, and much of Asia is still developing, he said, these complexities are bound to exacerbate the challenges, and also compound the impediments to progress.

Khan said countries like Bangladesh will need to chart a behaviour pattern that would enable them to move forward and protect the fruits of our achievements.

“In addition, we would need to confront the inexorable effects of Climate-Change and possible future hazards as pandemics,” he said.

Dr Chowdhury noted the world is confronting a series of serious crises and the list is long. “The most salient among them are conflicts between and within nations, pandemics and health hazards, the climate emergency, debt distress, ever rising cost of living, supply chain disruptions, and widening inequalities,” he said.

The foreign affairs expert said the post-World War II rules-based international order, with global norms and standards established by tireless endeavours through multilateral institutions, is severely stressed.

He said social compacts created through arduous efforts of decades appear to be breaking down. “The situation is what the great Australian scholar Coral Bell would have described as an inexorable crisis slide.

Outgoing Chinese Ambassador to Bangladesh Li Jiming wanted to know whether there is any scope for Bangladesh to play a role to bring China and India closer together.

 "I must say it’s a very challenging question. On one hand, frankly it will be very dangerous for Bangladesh," the expert responded. 

He said India is a big neighbour of Bangladesh and Bangladesh "must" have good relations with a big neighbour.

At the same time, Kishore said, Bangladesh "wants" to maintain good relations with China, and there is potential danger if it tries to play a role getting in the middle.

On the other hand, he said, it can be a tremendous opportunity for Bangladesh. “I say opportunity because Bangladesh has the advantage of having a leader (Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina) who has been in power for 14 years in a row.  You have to have a very well-established leader who has secured a position to make a difference."

Staying on the importance of good leadership, he said the recent G20 summit in Bali wouldn't have gone as well as it did if the President of Indonesia, Joko Widodo, had not pushed the US and China, eventually leading to a meeting between the leaders of the two countries on the sidelines.

"Quietly, but he did it,” Mahbubani said, describing Joko Widodo as an established leader respected by people.

"So, in the same way, there is an opportunity but Bangladesh has to do this quietly and push India and say that try to normalize your relationship with China and quietly push China and say the same," he added.

The scholar who was with the Singapore Foreign Service for 33 years (1971 to 2004) said the world today is not happy about this US-China contest.

"They want the US and China to press the pause button and focus on global problems," he said, adding that very few countries have the size and strength to talk to US and China as an equal, and one of these few countries is India.

Mahbuabni has been one of the most prominent voices in warning against the US and China becoming engaged in the geopolitical conflict, but according to him, everything changed when the US business community, which previously had always maintained its stance against conflict with China, fell in line with Donald Trump's  economic nationalism.

Distinguished Fellow and Board Member of the Bangladesh Enterprise Institute (BEI) Ambassador Farooq Sobhan, PM’s former Principal Secretary and Chairman, Capital Market Stabilization Fund (CMSF) Nojibur Rahman, Head of English Web, Prothom Alo Ayesha Kabir, The Daily Star Editor Mahfuz Anam, President of Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies (BIPSS) Major General (Retd) ANM Muniruzzaman, Chairman and Chief Executive of Policy Research Institute of Bangladesh (PRI) Dr Zaidi Sattar, Turkish Ambassador to Bangladesh Mustafa Osman Turan, Indonesian Ambassador to Bangladesh Heru Hartanto Subolo, Senior Research Fellow at BIPSS and Head of Bangladesh Centre for Terrorism Research (BCTR) Shafqat Munir, among others, joined the dialogue.