Bangladesh emerges important in geopolitics

Fifty years ago when Bangladesh emerged as an independent state, it may not have caught the world’s attention, but today as it reaches its golden jubilee, the country’s development, democracy and geopolitical significance is undeniably a matter of discussion in some way or the other. Within a short period of its independence, Bangladesh was seen as a ‘basket case’, a lab for experiments in development. In the few decades following its independence, Bangladesh became to be known for its natural disasters, military coups, political violence, corruption and such negativities. It is not that all these issues have been resolved and removed, but today Bangladesh has gained geopolitical relevance in the international arena.

Bangladesh’s geographical proximity to the global power China and the regional power India, and the rivalry between these two countries in South Asia and the rest of the region, had added a new dimension to discussions on Bangladesh. This had given Bangladesh importance in recent times to the US and other global powers. Bangladesh’s economic and social advancement over the past few decades, despite changes in power and political unrest, has also caught the attention of the international community.

It was since the George W Bush's government that the US has viewed Bangladesh through Indian eyes. One of the major reasons behind this is that the US wants to contain the influence of superpower China by ensuring Indian dominance in the region

However, as Bangladesh turns 50, its importance and achievements have been considerably eclipsed by its diminishing democracy, the questionable victory of the incumbents in two staged elections, the curbing of people’s voting rights, the lack of freedom of speech and an authoritarian system of government. The people have an unwavering aspiration for democracy and it was this aspiration that led to the founding of Bangladesh, with the aim of establishing an equitable humanitarian society. But this aspiration has remained a pipe dream over the past five decades. Instead of creating and consolidating democratic institutions, the long-standing military and civilian authoritarian governments as well as the bitter enmity between the two major political parties, have posed as an obstacle to Bangladesh’s sustainable development.

It is not only the two major political parties who have used religion to assuage their legitimacy crisis in politics and to extend their stay in power, but others have done the same. And global influences have had an impact on Bangladesh too, bringing about various social changes. It is natural to celebrate the successes on the auspicious occasion of independence day, but that is not enough to seek out the way forward as a state. It is necessary to determine where Bangladesh stands today.

Where does Bangladesh stand in geopolitics

There was a time when Bangladesh was seen a small poverty-stricken country surrounded by India, wedged between India and Myanmar. This identity was prominent immediately after independence, but it underwent a makeover after the changes in foreign policy in the mid-seventies and as well as the big transformation in global politics in the nineties. But it is not that Bangladesh consciously developed its own importance. And over the last decade, further changes have taken place due to China's rising power, US' waning global influence, India's deliberate efforts to exert its dominance in South Asia with US blessings, and Bangladesh's foreign policy moulded by its domestic politics.

While economic and security ties between Washington and Dhaka are fairly stable at the moment, there had been considerable ups and downs in these relations post-independence. Relations between the two countries were far from cordial as the Cold War had prompted the US to adopt a stand against Bangladesh's independence struggle. Relations did not improve as Bangladesh had close ties with the Soviet bloc immediately after independence. Relations between the two countries improved during the government of Ziaur Rahman and these improved ties remained intact even during the subsequent military and civil governments.

After the 1/11 attack, US interest in Bangladesh grew as Bangladesh was seen as Muslim-majority country. Placing stress on security issues and in consideration of the Bush administration's so-called 'War against Terror', defence cooperation was added to the trade cooperation between the two countries. Basically it was since the George W Bush's government that the US has viewed Bangladesh through Indian eyes. One of the major reasons behind this is that the US wants to contain the influence of superpower China by ensuring Indian dominance in the region.

China is not only Bangladesh's largest arms supplier, but it is now Bangladesh largest trade partner as well. As China rises as a global superpower, it has stepped up its investment in various development projects in Bangladesh too. In 2016, an MoU was signed between Bangladesh and China, with China committing 24 billion dollars in credit. This is the largest credit commitment made to Bangladesh in its history, though the disbursement has been frugal so far.

Bangladesh has been playing a balancing game with India and China. But this is a dangerous and difficult game because a slip in balance will mean enmity with one of the two. That is why the success of Bangladesh foreign policy depends how deftly Bangladesh can carry out its balancing act

A few months before this agreement with China, Bangladesh had signed a 2 billion dollar development project credit agreement with India. But more important than the justification of this agreement were the political relations between India and those at the helm in Bangladesh. And that is why India managed to extract all sorts of strategic and economic facilities from Bangladesh, despite not meeting Bangladesh's due demands and not addressing the trade imbalance. India's effort to exert its influence in Bangladesh's domestic politics is more than apparent. For around a decade now India has been aiding the authoritarian government of Awami League to remain in power. India's stance in this regard is clear from its unstinting support provided by its diplomatic and state officials to Awami League in the 2014 and 2018 elections. A large section of the people in Bangladesh is displeased with India's continued unquestioning support to Awami League. But it is undeniable that Bangladesh is directly within India's sphere of influence.

Meanwhile, the present government in Bangladesh may politically be India's ally, but its doors are not closed to China. And that is not simply for economic reasons. There are other reasons for Bangladesh's authoritarian government to build up ties with China. In recent times, the countries of the West, particularly the US, have been criticising Bangladesh for human rights violations and shrinking democratic spaces. And after the recent Al Jazeera documentary on certain allegations of corruption in Bangladesh, the UN has called for a probe into the corruption. If relations with the western countries take a downward turn due to the issues pertaining to human rights and the crisis in democracy, the government wants to keep China in hand as an alternative.

On the other hand, Pakistan is China's ally in the region. If it befriends Bangladesh, China will have allies on either side of India and will be able to spread its influence in the Indian Ocean. This is prompting China to strengthen ties with Bangladesh.

So far Bangladesh has been playing a balancing game with India and China. But this is a dangerous and difficult game because a slip in balance will mean enmity with one of the two. That is why the success of Bangladesh's foreign policy depends on how deftly Bangladesh can carry out its balancing act.

Due to its proximity with China, if Bangladesh's foreign policy is independent and in keeping with the times, it can become a significantly important state. By utilising the Bay of Bengal astutely, Bangladesh can become a hub of the Indo-Pacific economic corridor and play a role in connections stretching from Central Asia to Southeast Asia and China. But Bangladesh must come forward in this regard. Its foreign policy must not be moulded by domestic politics or by ambitions to stay in power. Long-term national interests must be given priority.

It is still not clear whether the US government of Joe Biden will change its India-centric policy as regards Bangladesh. But simply increasing dependence on India to contain China in the region, will not have a positive impact on US credibility in Bangladesh. Instead, Bangladesh and US should proceed ahead on the basis of their own interests and understanding.

Ali Riaz is a distinguished professor at the Illinois State University in the US, a nonresident senior fellow of the Atlantic Council and the president of the American Institute of Bangladesh Studies.

Saimum Parvez is a teacher at North South University's department of political science and sociology. He recently earned his doctorate degree from the University of Sydney. He carries out research on terrorism, digital media and Bangladesh politics.

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