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Dhaka Tribune

Analyst: Bangladesh moves closer to a full embrace of Indo-Pacific Strategy

Dhaka's draft Indo-Pacific Outlook stipulates that it seeks to avoid rivalries, Michael Kugelman says

Update : 31 Mar 2023, 12:43 PM

Bangladesh has long pursued a nonaligned foreign policy but it appears to be moving closer to a full embrace of the Indo-Pacific Strategy pursued by the US and its partners in the region.

Last month, Dhaka finalized a draft of its Indo-Pacific Outlook that focused on objectives that mirror those of the Indo-Pacific Strategy, such as the need for a free, secure, and peaceful region, according to Foreign Policy's South Asia brief by Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program and Senior Associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center.

This move comes as the US and a few key allies have signaled that Bangladesh should be a part of the Indo-Pacific Strategy, according to the brief.

Last week, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida gave a speech in New Delhi describing a new plan for the region, calling for collaborations with Bangladesh, including a new economic partnership agreement.

This month, UK Indo-Pacific Minister Anne-Marie Trevelyan visited Bangladesh.

"It's easy to understand why these countries would want Bangladesh to take part in the Indo-Pacific Strategy," read the brief. "It is strategically located, bordering India and serving as a gateway to both South and Southeast Asia."

Dhaka has friendly ties with the US, the other members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (known as the Quad), and many European countries.

Both of these factors make Bangladesh a good partner.

China has stepped up its influence in Bangladesh through infrastructure loans, which US officials have privately described as bad deals for Dhaka.

China's rivals also worry about its expanded naval presence in the western part of the Indian Ocean, including its military base off Djibouti.

All of this lies in Bangladesh's maritime neighbourhood. China is also a major supplier of arms to Bangladesh. "So getting Dhaka's buy-in to the US Indo-Pacific vision would be a strategic victory," said the brief.

However, Bangladesh has never strayed from the country's founding principle of nonalignment, captured in a 1974 line from Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman: "Friendship to all, malice toward none."

"Bangladesh aims to balance relations with rival states. India's foreign policy is also nonaligned, but it considers China to be a strategic rival," read the brief.

Participating in the US Indo-Pacific Strategy would bring Bangladesh closer to key trade and investment partners.

Bangladesh's and India's current governments are close, and New Delhi likely encouraged Dhaka to embrace the strategy, according to the brief.

Two years ago, Gowher Rizvi, an advisor to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, said: "We are very willing to be a part of the Indo-Pacific relationship, and India is our most important partner."

"Even as Bangladesh embraces the Indo-Pacific Strategy, it is still trying to placate China. Dhaka's draft Indo-Pacific Outlook stipulates that it seeks to avoid rivalries and has no security goals," read the brief.

Observers note that calling it an outlook rather than a policy or strategy has a softer connotation.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) – which includes many states that have cordial relations with China – opted for the same term in its Indo-Pacific statement. Dhaka has also not indicated that it would join the Quad.

"China nonetheless seems concerned. Last week, the Chinese ambassador to Bangladesh accused Washington of trying to push Dhaka into the US camp," read the brief.

Bangladesh could certainly back off from the US Indo-Pacific Strategy to deepen relations with China.

"Bangladesh appears to believe its interests aren't compromised by stretching the limits of nonalignment," according to the brief.

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