The advent of the Covid-19 pandemic and, more recently, the conflict in Ukraine, are the most visible highlights of the emerging world order. Along with the rise of new global powers, changing international equations seem to be leading to a possible new Cold War era. Smaller countries like Bangladesh can no longer sit back and watch as detached spectators. The time demands new negotiations and astute navigation.
Discussants brought up these issues at a roundtable organised jointly by BIPSS and Dhaka Tribune at a local hotel in the capital city on Wednesday. Titled ‘The Emerging World Order: How Will Bangladesh Negotiate’, the event was addressed by former foreign secretary Md Touhid Hossain and professor of international relations at Dhaka University, ASM Ali Ashraf and moderated by president of Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies (BIPSS) Major General ANM Muniruzzaman (retd).
“Two events in recent times have shaken the world,” ANM Muniruzzaman observed at the outset of the programme, “and these are Covid and the conflict in Ukraine. Small powers need to find their place in this emerging scenario, based on their national interests. It seems like Cold War 2.0 has arrived, on grounds of system of government -- democratic and autocratic systems.”
Coming directly to the topic of the emerging world order, former foreign secretary Touhid Hossain raised the question – what are the changes that have shaped the order?
Firstly, he said, there was the rise of China as a dominant and assertive world power. Then there was Covid-19. Apart from the health issues, it also brought to light that over dependence on China for goods can be dangerous. Ships weren’t moving at the time and things came to a standstill. “This should not happen and this is a lesson to be learnt,” he said.
The next significant event that has contributed to shaping the world, Touhid Hossain pointed out, was the virtual defeat and retreat of the US from Afghanistan. “There is a different type of government in Afghanistan now. Whether it is recognised or not, it is there, a reality,” he said.
The war in Ukraine was another flashpoint in the emerging circumstances and there are quite a few lessons to be learned in this case. Russia and Ukraine had such good relations, shared history, were so close culturally. So the lesson here is no relationship is sacrosanct. Also, a weaker country like Ukraine can withdraw support and Russian plans haven’t worked as they had wanted.
An offshoot to this conflict is Germany, the former foreign secretary pointed out, elaborating that for 75 years Germany had been pacifist. Now, however, they have pushed their defence budget up to 2 per cent of the GDP.
Coming to Bangladesh, Touhid Hossain said Bangladesh has come a long way over the past 50 years. Its exports alone cross 40 billion dollars annually. Even in the social sector strides have been made with gender parity in primary school enrollment and almost in secondary school enrollment too. But, he said, pointing to the downsides, democracy and human rights were regressing, according to indexes of reliable international institutions.
As for relations with neighbours, he said, “Bangladesh had been able to maintain a balance in its good relations with China and India, though the two are hostile to one another. Bangladesh had tangibly uprooted insurgents of India’s northeastern states, provided India with transit access, but there is a general feeling that this has unfortunately not been reciprocated. Other irritants were India’s Citizen Amendment Act, the National Register for Citizens of Assam and so on, though the most sensitive was the killing of Bangladesh citizens on the border by India’s Border Security Force (BSF). It is said that Bangladesh-India relations have stood the test of time, but time is a continuous process.”
We need to look to new friends, we can explore Europe. We need to invest in human resources, in technology transfer. And militarily, we need to develop minimum deterrent capacity at the leastMd Touhid Hossain, former foreign secretary
He added that China was aware of Bangladesh’s relations with India, but China was pragmatic and understood the significance of these ties.
About the challenges faced by Bangladesh at this juncture of global events, Touhid Hossain pointed to the advantage of the country’s demographic dividend, but also the skill shortage in human resources. “If you have to be an important player,” he said, “you need the skills and technology. Even our internet speed is dismally low.”
As for the required economic power, he highlighted to the challenges being posed by AI and robotics which will gradually nudge human labour out of the readymade garment industry. Remittance was still good, but this was limited by unskilled workers. Agriculture was doing good, but there was over-cropping. Balance of payment was good so far, but there was the possible debt trap ahead faced by mid-income countries. India, Malaysia and other countries were stuck in this rut.
In international relations, Bangladesh’s foreign policy had been able to keep good relations with the US, China and India. But the Rohingya issue posed as a big challenge. “We expected China to help out, but it didn’t. But then, China has its own interests.” He concluded, “We need to look to new friends, we can explore Europe. We need to invest in human resources, in technology transfer. And militarily, we need to develop minimum deterrent capacity at the least.”
Professor ASM Ali Ashraf of Dhaka University’s department of international relations said that during the Cold War the world was bipolar, with the US on one side and the Soviet Union on the other. Then after the 1990’s with the emergence of the world order at that time, there were aspirations for liberty, prosperity and so on. Then 9/11 happened and there was a global systemic transformation.
We need to invest in our diplomatic energy to get other Asian countries on our side. The Ukraine refugee crisis will soon replace the Rohingya issueProf Ashraf ASM Ali Ashraf, Department of International Relations, Dhaka University
So what is the new world order? Are we living in a unipolar, bipolar or multipolar world? Raising these questions, the professor said, Ukraine has given a new meaning to all of this. There is a new kind of polarisation. The US is predominant in the NATO alliance. Meanwhile, Russia has managed to court the friendship of China and India.
He raised the implications of these dynamics for Bangladesh and how these external elements will constrain its interests. Also highlighting developments in the apparel industry and remittance, he said the challenge is to diversify export markets as well the labour markets. The expatriate labour now mostly consisted of low skilled workers like cleaners, domestic help and so on, and then there was the human rights issue too.
About the Rohingya issue, he said, “We need to invest in our diplomatic energy to get other Asian countries on our side. The Ukraine refugee crisis will soon replace the Rohingya issue.”
“Bangladesh is the leading provider of UN peacekeeping forces,” said Ali Ashraf, “but the peacekeeping missions are becoming increasingly risky, demanding use of force.” He went on, “Violent counter-terrorism has also been a major concern since the late nineties.”
He raised the question, how do we navigate? “We cast two votes in the United Nations General Assembly, abstaining once and voting in favour next. The first resolution was strongly worded because sovereignty is a cardinal order. Explaining Bangladesh’s stance taken in its national interests, the prime minister referred to the Rooppur power plant. Candidly, once the reactors are established, we will be dependent on Russia for this for the next 50 years,” he said.
The next resolution was humanitarian and there were valid reasons to side with a humanitarian resolution.
All states have their own interests and there are no permanent friends. Bangladesh needs to develop key capabilities, minimum deterrence. We must reassess our alignmentsMaj Gen ANM Muniruzzaman (retd), president, BIPSS
In conclusion, the professor said. “We need to strike a balance with the West, Russia, China and India. Geopolitical realities require pragmatism. It is important to uphold good governance, democracy and human rights.”
Maj Gen Muniruzzaman, in his concluding remarks, noted that Bangladesh needed to strike a balance between the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the Indo Pacific Strategy, two competing strategies of two different camps. A pragmatic approach was required.
He said, “All states have their own interests and there are no permanent friends. Bangladesh needs to develop key capabilities, minimum deterrence. We must reassess our alignments.”
The deliberations were followed by lively in-depth interaction, questions and comments from the participants of the event. Attending the event were senior diplomats of foreign missions in Bangladesh, retired civil and army bureaucrats, former ambassadors, academics, media persons, researchers, students and others.