Foreign minister AK Abdul Momen (R) and US deputy secretary of state Stephen E Biegun attends a joint briefing at State guesthouse Padma, Dhaka on 15 October 2020
Foreign minister AK Abdul Momen (R) and US deputy secretary of state Stephen E Biegun attends a joint briefing at State guesthouse Padma, Dhaka on 15 October 2020UNB

Tensions between Beijing and Washington continue to spiral over China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to establish connectivity and an international economic region. And the COVID-19 outbreak has added another dimension to these tensions. China is steadily securing its influence in an increasing number of countries through various forms of cooperation, including the COVID-19 vaccine.

Under the circumstances, Washington is placing importance on its relations with countries of South Asia, including India and Bangladesh. The visit of US deputy secretary of state Stephen Biegun is being regarded by analysts as a part of these efforts.

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Biegun’s visit to Dhaka and Delhi is seen as a lead-in to next week’s visit by the US secretary of state Mike Pompeo to Sri Lanka, India and the Maldives.

During his Dhaka visit, Stephen Biegun said the US considers Bangladesh to be an important partner among the countries of the Asia and Pacific Ocean region. That is why Bangladesh is at the centre of US’ initiatives to strengthen its relations in the region. He naturally discussed the Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS) during his Dhaka trip as the US is interested in Bangladesh’s active participation on the initiative. Speaking to newsmen in Dhaka, Biegun said he had made it clear to the leadership that US attached importance to Delhi and Dhaka among the countries in the Indo-Pacific region.

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Whether the US admits it or not, IPS has been taken up to counter China’s BRI which aims at establishing connectivity with around 70 countries including Bangladesh through infrastructure and also setting up an international economic region.

The US drew up its national security strategy in 2017, and began the advancement of IPS in the beginning of the following year. From the very outset they approached Bangladesh to join in this initiative. Two years before that, in 2016, Bangladesh joined China’s Belt and Road Initiative. And two years even before that, Bangladesh lent its support to Japan’s Big B, that is, The Bay of Bengal Industrial Growth Belt. It was more or less since then that Bangladesh has featured in Japan, China and US strategic investment and infrastructure moves in the region.

Too much time should not be taken on reaching a decision concerning our stand in the geopolitical polarisation. We must keep in mind that no one can be antagonised, but at the same time, our interests must be upheld too
Md Shahidul Haque, former foreign secretary

A review of initiatives and developments over the past five to seven years in the global context indicates that investments in mega projects and infrastructure development at the moment all have geopolitical and strategic significance. The economically developed countries take these factors into consideration in their relations with the countries of emerging economies.

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According to diplomatic and international relations experts, Bangladesh is in no way outside of the geopolitical polarisation that has emerged in the region. In the national interests for the sake of the country’s development, Bangladesh must determine its stand in regard to these initiatives. It is essential for Bangladesh to prepare an integrated strategy at a national level to face these developments.

When asked about Bangladesh’s stand regarding the three strategic initiatives of China’s BRI, Japan’s Big B and the US’ IPS, foreign secretary Masud bin Momen on Wednesday told Prothom Alo, Bangladesh welcomes any initiative for international development. The basic considerations will be business, investment and economy. But Bangladesh’s policy will be to stay away from any initiative that has elements of security and defence.

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Foreign ministry officials said that the ministry began discussions in 2018 concerning Bangladesh’s stand about BRI, Big B and IPS. The ministry officials were to discuss these matters and then submit their recommendations to the political leadership. However, despite several discussions, they could not reach a conclusion.

Speaking to Prothom Alo on Thursday, senior fellow of North South University’s South Asia Institute of Policy Governance (SIPG) and former foreign secretary Md Shahidul Haque, said, “Too much time should not be taken on reaching a decision concerning our stand in the geopolitical polarisation. We must keep in mind that no one can be antagonised, but at the same time, our interests must be upheld too.”

He said that Bangladesh needed to determine the areas for bargaining with China, the US and Japan.

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President of the think-tank Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies (BIPSS), Maj Gen (retd) ANM Muniruzzaman, speaking to Prothom Alo on Friday, said, “We need to be cautious in avoiding the area of competition being created in this region by the big powers. We are seeing shadows of a new Cold War. This does not bode well for any small country. It would be better for us not to join any particular strategy or initiative.”

He felt that in national interests, Bangladesh needs to remain in BRI. It needs cooperation from IPS too. Bangladesh has only received necessary funding from BRI so far for infrastructural development. Again, the basic principle of IPS is congruent with Bangladesh's ideology. Bangladesh, in its own interests, needs free trade and movement. At the same time, Bangladesh must also observe whether IPS is being used to block anyone. If that is so, then the matter will require rethinking. It would not be correct for Bangladesh to join any new sphere of power.

Balance and priority

Several senior government officials have told this correspondent that Japan says Bangladesh had attached itself to Japan’s Big B from 2018 through the Matarbari power project. But there is no mention of Matarbari in the Big B-based master plan documents and so this claim of Japan has surprised Bangladesh.

Again, from 2019 the US has been saying that it has investments in Japan’s Matarbari project. After all these claims, the Bangladesh officials have decided that from now on, everything must be made clear in writing before joining any initiative.

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We are seeing shadows of a new Cold War. This does not bode well for any small country. It would be better for us not to join any particular strategy or initiative.
Maj Gen (red) ANM Muniruzzaman, President, BIPSS

Meanwhile, diplomatic sources say that even amidst these geopolitical polarisation realities, it is possible for Bangladesh to maintain a balanced position. At the same time, in endeavouring to maintain a balance, it must not lose any bargaining opportunity.

Distinguished fellow of the think-tank, Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD), Mustafizur Rahman, has said that if it is to benefit from geostrategic advantages, Bangladesh must place priority on geo-economics. As an emerging economy, it is better for Bangladesh not to display any attitude of playing a significant role in geopolitics.

Need for a strategic policy

Global forecasts indicate new global polarisations by 2050 and so these matters must be taken into cognizance.

Of course, the predictions in the past proved incorrect regarding the economically emerging countries Philippines and Nigeria, and later regarding BRICS, which involved Brazil, Russia, India and South Africa. And so, analysts maintain, it is essential for Bangladesh to prepare a policy regarding its involvement in strategic initiatives.

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The BIPSS president Muniruzzaman said, “Discussions should be held among the government, think-tanks and experts to determine our stand. Due to our geographical location, we have entered a geopolitical situation. We now need extremely detailed analysis about how we should proceed in this circumstance.”

*This report appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English version by Ayesha Kabir