Maritime transport is known as a commercial and recreational transport system rather than a military one. Almost 80 per cent of international trade used to happen through shipping. But not many realise that when it comes to military equipment, 90 per cent of the transportation is done by ship. Actually the US, Russia, China and all other powerful nations are pretty serious about each other’s seafaring systems. Developing and under developed nations play an important role in their game. Last month Bangladesh was about to fall into an international shipping diplomacy trap.
Nowadays, the bilateral relations between Bangladesh and the US have not been going smooth. The US placed sanctions on the Rapid Action Battalion and some former officers of that organisation. Washington has commented several times on the current political affairs of Bangladesh where the political situation of the country is restive. This situation in Bangladesh had a negative impact on the government after such comments of the US. In the meantime, the Russian embassy in Bangladesh criticised the US statement on Bangladesh, as contrary its purported stance on non-interfering in domestic affairs of third countries. The US replied to this -- ‘Does it apply to Ukraine?’ The US embassy added a slogan ‘Stand with Ukraine.’
Bangladesh's foreign policy
The foreign policy principle of Bangladesh is "Friendship towards all, malice towards none". To maintain this, Bangladesh always exercises positive relations with all countries but it’s not always easy or possible. Since the last decade we have been seeing that Bangladesh is purchasing military equipment from Russia and China, involving China with the infrastructure development projects and trying to maintain a good trade relations with the US and India.
The recent dilemma emerged when suddenly Russia sent a sanctioned vessel to Bangladesh, carrying important equipment for Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant. This ship named Ursa Major which was a ship sanctioned by the US and actually named Sparta-iii. The foreign ministry of Bangladesh at first was in the dark about the sanctioned ship, so they were taken by surprise.
Sanctioning vessels ship is a very popular ‘soft power’ enforcement strategy of developed countries to put pressure on their enemy nations. When Russia invaded Ukraine, the US, UK and other EU countries started to impose various kinds of sanctions against Russia where sanctioning of vessels was one of the most effective methods. Almost 69 ships of Russia were sanctioned by the US alone. Specifically, these ships were used in Russia’s invasion on Ukraine. But that sanction was not for every country. Russia was not listening to the US and others countries. They were going about their own business. For example, when oil prices of all countries were skyrocketing, India agreed to buy oil from Russia and the US didn’t question why India was allowing a sanctioned ship of Russian in India. But Bangladesh is not a regional power so it’s difficult for them to ignore any sanction diplomacy.
Foreign minister AK Abdul Momen expressed surprise that Russia "intentionally" changed the name of a vessel that was subject to sanctions in order to transport components of the Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant to Bangladesh and said "we didn't expect that." The US embassy said any kind of cooperation with sanctioned ships would invite the risk of falling under US sanctions or large financial penalties. After verification, Bangladesh did not allow Russia to anchor that ship to Mongla port of Bangladesh. But after this, Russia sent a letter to Bangladesh saying that if Bangladesh didn’t allow Sparta-iii, work at Rooppur would be delayed. Finally, Bangladesh decided not to allow Russia to use their sanctioned ship and banned all the 69 banned ship of Russia to anchor at any port of Bangladesh.
Reason behind Russia’s recent activity
Why did Russia try to push Bangladesh to a complicated situation in international politics? We can assume three reasons.
1. Recently, US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Donald Lu came to visit Bangladesh and stated some positive possibilities regarding upcoming relationship between Bangladesh and the US. Apparently there were positive discussions on the removal of the RAB’s current human rights violation ban, the reinstatement of GSP, and the extradition of Bangabandhu’s killer. Russia perhaps thought if relations between both countries improve, Bangladesh will avoid Russia as they got support from Bangladesh several times, even during UNGA voting. 2. Russia tried to bring Bangladesh to their fold by giving no option. If the US imposes any sanction on Bangladesh, there will be no option for Bangladesh except Russia or China in world politics. Very recently, Bangladesh along with other 32 country including India refrained from voting against Russia regarding Ukraine invasion. 3. The third reason is weak but perhaps Russia thought since they were trading with India using sanctioned ships, if they sent that to Bangladesh there will be no question on security issues, as Bangladesh was a neighbour of India. But this is weak logic because Russia tried to impose this on Bangladesh. They hinted that if Bangladesh doesn’t allow this vessel, their relations with Bangladesh may be hampered. Russia even summoned the Bangladeshi ambassador after banning 69 banned ships to the Bangladesh port.
Finally Bangladesh took a positive diplomatic decision and chose not to go through any conflict with the US because we need every country. As an LDC (Least Developed Country) we need support from all countries for our economic development. Bangladesh has been developing steadily and hopes to achieve a milestone soon. So any sanction and conflict with any country can thwart it growing nation. The main economic growth booster of Bangladesh is the Readymade Garments Industry, and the US plays a vital role in terms of this sector. This is the year of the national election, so this kind of bilateral and multilateral international political issue can create unrest in the societal and political scenario of Bangladesh as well.
* Syed Mohammad Arfatur Rahaman is Research Associate, WATERWEF Project, Department of Anthropology, University of Dhaka