The tangled web of geopolitics and Bangladesh

(Clockwise) Combination of photos shows the flags of Bangladesh, China, the USA, India and the European Union
Prothom Alo illustration

'Geopolitics', 'geo-strategy' 'geo-economics' are all buzz words when it comes to today's international relations and foreign policy issues. It is not that these concepts didn't exist before. Whether it was Chengiz Khan invading this part of the world or the Huns invading the Roman empire, all of this was about geo-politics, geo-strategy and even geo-economics, albeit without the 'geo' labels. But that was simpler world in simpler times. Life has changed. Technological advancements, globalisation, hugely developed connectivity and communications, have brought the world and beyond to our fingertips. But, undeniably, things have also become so much more complicated, complex and intricately interconnected. And that applies to geopolitics too.  

Look at us here in Bangladesh. What radical changes have taken place in our geopolitics, international relations and diplomatic linkages! Back in the seventies, when we struggled for freedom and won our independence, the lines and divisions were clear. India was our friend and ally. India had helped us with our liberation war so there were no questions asked on that front. Russia was our ally too for all the same reasons. Both the US and China has been opposed to our independence, America's Kissinger had made that infamous slur about us, and so we held those countries at arm's length. Europe was fine, it always is.

Our foreign policy was as simple as those seemingly simple times -- with 'friendship towards all and malice towards none'.

Of course, necessity dictates policies and there is no last word in international relations either. Friends become foes and foes become friends. "Fair is foul and  foul is fair," said Shakespeare in Macbeth (another example of political conspiracy at its height!). Positively speaking, just take a look at our diplomatic enclave in Dhaka -- the French and Germans, sworn enemies during World War II, now share the same premises for their embassies. Times certainly have changed!

The clock ticked and the calendar pages turned. America has become one of our largest development partners. China long had chilly relations with the Awami League government in Bangladesh, particularly because of its role in 1971 as well as its steadfast friendship with Pakistan. Now it is one of our biggest investors, our friend and partner (and would love to be philosopher and guide too, no doubt, albeit not of the Confucian ilk). We readily signed up with their Belt and Road Initiative, despite the tacit (?) disapproval of neighbours, friends and powers that be.

And then came along the Indo-Pacific Strategy of the US. We were hunky-dory with that too. We came up with our own Indo-Pacific Outline, which may have been innocuous and non-committal, but at least it implied we were on board.

Yes, it has seemed to all appearances that Bangladesh had become a skilled juggler, adeptly performing an enviable balancing act in the geopolitical circus. But things fall apart... as they tend to eventually. All good things must come to an end, they say.

Just as an enemy's enemy is a friend, so an enemy's friend is an enemy. Bangladesh has found navigating through this maze not as easy as it may have seemed initially. It is not that it has been smooth sailing all through. We had signs of backtracking and prevaricating earlier. We had almost signed and sealed a deal with China for the deep sea port at Sonadia. We even procured a submarine from China and then suddenly, voila! We backtracked from the deep sea port deal. What made us change our mind on a seemingly done deal? Were we rapped on knuckles by India? Frowned upon by the US? Did the Sri Lanka experience with Hambantota scare us? Or was it our own readjusting to the geopolitical circumstances? Speculations abound.

Coming to the immediate present, things are not all quiet on the Western front. First came the US sanctions on certain prominent members of the law enforcement and the elite force Rapid Action Battalion. The reason? Extrajudicial killing and enforced disappearances.  And now, with the elections ahead,  there is the new US visa policy. The policy, in a nutshell, states that those involved in obstructing the free and fair election process, will not be issued US visas. So what's the big deal? The big deal is that our own big players in politics and business (not quite distinguishable from each other nowadays) all have interests in the US, whether business, studies of their offspring, property, spouses and children settled there, and so on. This, of course, applies both to the ruling coterie and the opposition, but the impact is more on the former than the latter.  

The European Union is quite alert too about Bangladesh's election. It may not have adopted such arm twisting policies as the US, but they have been vocal, making their disapproval about deviations from democratic norms very clear. What's saying that they won't turn on the heat too? After all, a lot of our trade, commerce and development are tied to the EU too, lending them plenty of leverage.

Visits from EU teams have been quite overt in their intentions. The EU is getting into the nitty-gritty of things, including the human rights aspects, and delivering their message for democracy, human rights as well as free, fair and credible elections in no uncertain terms.  They even issued a statement against the assault on Hero Alom, an independent by-election contestant and TikToker of the masses. The government was not amused.

Looking East, China has become a mega friend with mega projects, no questions asked. Very conveniently it doesn't poke its nose into our democracy, or lack of thereof, or human rights, or corruption, or elections, or anything. In previous times, China had that clichéd inscrutable approach, but now it has no qualms about displaying its preferences, in openly advising against Bangladesh joining IPS, in making plans to repatriate a thousand or so Rohingyas (a drop in the ocean given the numbers) and putting on an overt display of friendship. Bangladesh may bask happily in such warmth, with a slight chill down the spine as a neighbour rises a brow. Friend's enemy and all that jazz...

When it comes to foreign policy, it is obviously imperative to have skill, astute diplomacy, pragmatic policies, and decisions in the interest of the nation. We may say that the US is just looking after its own interests, the EU is looking after its own interests, China is looking after its own interests. And that's true. Why won't they? But then again, what about us? We must look after our own interests too. And we must also remember another old time-proven adage: you can please some people some of the time, but you can't please all people all of the time. It's time to unravel the tangled web we have woven and set things straight.

If we have our priorities right, perhaps it won't be such a hard task to navigate our foreign policy in the right direction. What are our priorities? Democracy, human rights, freedom of expression, a free media, fundamental rights, voting rights, the basics of food, clothing, shelter, education, employment, and so on. Since these very fundamental matters are now intricately interlinked with geopolitical considerations, we need to get our act right and play the game as skilled players. We can accept advice, reject advice, but at the end of the day, Bangladesh is our land. Who knows better than the people of Bangladesh what is best for us? Let the people's voice be heard. Let the will of the people reign supreme.