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Dhaka Tribune

Bangladesh’s foreign policy goals for 2041

Rebranding Bangladesh and projecting the rise of ‘Bangladesh Exceptionalism’

Update : 28 Jun 2022, 06:17 PM

The trajectory of Bangladesh’s journey as a sovereign country in the community of states has been one of wonder. Emerging at the height of the Cold War, Bangladesh redefined the Cold War power calculations. While India gave up its long-standing principle of non-alignment, the United States (US) saw the need to befriend the People’s Republic of China (PRC) via Pakistan. This brought Bangladesh not only at the centre of international politics in 1971, but also its enduring legacy continued in 2022, when it has turned into a much sought after prize in South Asia once again.

Time has changed, and so has Bangladesh, and its global status. Bangladesh, in 2041, I see emerging with an exceptionalism and as an agenda-setting player in international politics, should it take into account its strengths and weaknesses of today, and set forth particular goals and objectives to reach there. Let me first provide a brief sketch of the formative years as a prologue to the rise of today’s (arguably) assertive Bangladesh.

The journey of Bangladesh started on a bumpy road. Internally, it started off with a poor infrastructure, a war-ravaged economy, and no foreign reserve to back up its economy. Often being termed as a test case of development, Bangladesh’s journey to creating a sustainable economic backbone has not been easy. Externally, Bangladesh struggled to present its identity -- a secular and a Muslim-majority country -- to the rest of the world being thrown into the politics of misrecognition. The past has worked as a lesson and led us to set our priorities and goals for the future. Bangladesh has overcome the initial challenges and has been able to create a "Bangladeshi Exceptionalism" through sustained and ardent hard work through the years. Let me articulate what entails the components of a Bangladeshi exceptionalism in the making.

Bangladesh of 2022 is a different entity than the way it started off its sovereign journey. "Bangladesh Exceptionalism" is created in the areas of its economic sustainability and foreign policy assertiveness. In the economic front, Bangladesh has emerged as the second largest economy of South Asia, with highest per capita income, while being a foreign aid dependent country during its inception. The economic policy is based on export-led growth and import substitution, where Bangladesh’s primary foreign currency earnings are the sectors of ready-made garments and remittance earnings. Agriculture is one of the major hubs of economic activities where Bangladesh has gradually emerged as a self-sufficient country in terms of food production.

The management of hunger during the Covid-19 pandemic has shown that Bangladesh has successfully been able to feed its people, despite the entire country being in lockdown for a number of times. This also demonstrated another strength of Bangladesh’s economy that gradually it has developed an internally circulated economic system, based on indigenous methods and experimentations, added to which is the resilience of the people. Traditional economic theories work on Western models of growth and sustenance. Dynamics of non-Western societies are different, and that should be taken into account beyond the existing economic theories and their predictions. The rise of the discourse of "Bangladesh Surprise" is one such example which often attempts to portray Bangladesh’s economic success as a deviation from the existing norms. The question should be turned around, researches must be carried out -- what if Bangladesh has initiated a new model of growth? I shall highlight this point of intellectual deficiency more in the latter part of this write-up.

In this context, what we need to pay attention to is the way Bangladesh is seeing a boom in entrepreneurship and growth of small and medium industries, which have the potential to transform the country towards a more positive direction than we were witnessing now. We need to pay attention to a new discourse, where a country may not possess valuable mineral resources but can change the directions of its economy through developing light and medium manufacturing industries and tapping on the requirements of international businesses.

Bangladesh provides second largest online labour globally, its pharmaceutical sector has begun to attract global attention, its "Made in Bangladesh" cars and project on eco-friendly taxi "Bagh" (meaning tiger), the beginning of semi-conductor industries -- all of these make up a bigger story in the narrative of a "Rising Bangladesh." True, Bangladesh shall experience significant economic challenges after its graduation to Middle Income Country, due in 2026. It has to work hard so that it does not fall into the "middle income trap," which is why the resilience of its people can be harnessed. Be that natural disaster or inventing local methods of mitigating climate-related challenges (which I shall discuss further), Bangladesh’s people have shown that Bangladesh and people’s resilience have become synonymous to each other. As long as this is recognized and worked on, Bangladesh shall be on track of achieving a "Developed Country" status in due course.

Bangladesh’s vision for 2041 have set forth two goals -- not only to emerge as a developed country, but also to eradicate absolute poverty. It is the development of small and medium industries that can creates a buzz in different parts of the country. The issue is, we have very few writers to portray this buzzing Bangladesh; rather they work on fitting Bangladesh into a narrative created by others, whether Bangladesh ticks the box or not.

Bangladesh’s foreign policy journey has also been one of wonder. The country started off with the Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s laid out principle -- “friendship with all, malice to none.” Bangladesh has pursued its foreign policy endeavors on the basis of peaceful co-existence and resolving of differences through discussions and respecting international law and norms in practice. The resolution of maritime boundary dispute issue with Myanmar and India, the Ganges water sharing and the Land Boundary Agreement with India -- are a few examples of Bangladesh’s pacific foreign policy. Bangladesh’s greatest strength in this area as well as an area that is increasingly being perceived as a challenge is its humanitarian response to the Rohingya crisis. In the face of military crackdown on unarmed civilians in the Rakhine province of Myanmar, as the Rohingyas had no other option but to flee, the geographic contiguity led their path to Bangladesh. Given the nature of the crisis, Bangladesh did not hesitate to open its border to provide shelter to the forcibly displaced population. The country is now hosting 1.1 million Rohingyas, for which it needs consistent financial and diplomatic support of the international community. Bangladesh has learnt that when it comes to interest, its friends were ready to extend help in Bangladesh managing the crisis, but not in extending diplomatic assistance to ensure a durable return of the Rohingyas to their country of origin.

Bangladesh, since taking part in the United Nations Peacekeeping Operations (UNPKOs) in 1988, has emerged as one of the top contributing countries (TCC) in furthering the United Nations (UN) goals of maintaining international peace and security. Bangladesh’s commitment is not only limited to contributing personnel but also at the ideational level of UNPKOs. Bangladesh has paid attention to years of feminist goal of bringing women at the high-table of security agenda, and promoted the idea that women are not only passive agents of peace but also must be woven into the entire process of peacemaking, peacebuilding, and sustaining peace processes through their direct involvement. The UN Security Council Resolution on Women, Peace and Security (WPS), adopted in 2000, is a result of Bangladesh’s tireless work in this sector. Bangladesh has now formulated its own National Action Plan (NAP) with an aim to mainstream gender in government planning under different ministries.

In the areas of global peacekeeping, Bangladesh is known as a leader in the culture of peace resolutions, the discourse of which needs to be woven in the recrafting of a Bangladesh Exceptionalism. The country, being one of the most vulnerable countries’ category due to climate change, has been identified as a "Climate Teacher" for its indigenous efforts to fight against climate change. Local scientists have invented salt-resistant crops keeping in mind of saline intrusion in the southwestern part of Bangladesh. Bangladeshi scholars working in the areas of climate-related issues are at the forefront of creating a positive narrative of the country, who have argued that Bangladesh may not have developed theoretical knowledge, but it has experimental knowledge to effectively fight against climate change. The onus is upon scholars in other areas, as I have mentioned earlier, to come forward with creating a credible and a positive narrative of Bangladesh.

One of the biggest areas of status- transformation for Bangladesh has been from being a "victim of geography" to a country "blessed with geography." Let me elaborate upon this. Bangladesh’s geographic size is small, along with its geographic location being encircled by India on its three sides, with a narrow strip of land connection with Myanmar. Till Bangladesh’s unfettered access to the Bay of Bengal was ensured in 2013 and 2014, its southward opening was fraught with challenges. Since then, Bangladesh has emerged as a "Maritime Country" and considers the Bay of Bengal as its third neighbour. Bangladesh has redefined the concept of land-centric perspective in understanding the role of geography in a country’s strategic perspective. The Bay, largest in the world, has contributed to developing a fresh perspective on Bangladesh to the great powers of the world.

Bangladesh’s place under the sun is no longer defined by its size but its capacity to wield its will for promoting its national interest. Since 2013-14, we have seen Bangladesh being termed as a key player in the Indo-Pacific Region, in a world where strategic parameter has shifted from the West to the East. Bangladesh’s location at the mouth of the Bay makes it a significant player in the Bay of Bengal which can provide sea access to the landlocked region of India and the two land-locked countries of South Asia -- Nepal and Bhutan. Bangladesh is set to have its first deep-sea port in Matarbari, creating capacity building of the Chittagong Bay Terminal and on the way to having a deeper sea port than the Chittagong Port in Payra. Learning from the crises of the pandemic, the country is also carefully evaluating the impacts of supply-chain disruptions on its trade, ensuring fast entry of its goods to export destinations exploring shorter routes, and set to creating a logistics infrastructure -- both using inland waterways and land routes. There is, surely, a number of obstacles for Bangladesh to achieve its goal in immediate future. The recognition of the issue itself is the first part of making it happen through visionary policies and consistent work.

A country "small" in terms of its size, can no longer be confined in the same category in light of its rising strategic significance. Bangladesh is increasingly being termed as an "emerging middle power" due its geographic location, population of 170 million, economic sustainability, among others. An assertive Bangladesh, that has acquired an agenda-setting role in international politics, when it comes to issues affecting its national interest, is increasingly being visible when Bangladesh says "no" to taking foreign nationals be that Shamima Begum, stranded Rohingyas or Afghan refugees. One must recognize that Bangladesh is not only "balancing" but also clear about its strategic directives. It does not hold any strategic ambiguity, when it comes to its national interest of working with all the actors who are interested to join as Bangladesh’s development partners. We can notice how more countries are considering to invest in Bangladesh starting from Japan, China, and South Korea in the East to Saudi Arabia in the Middle to the US and the United Kingdom in the West, keeping in mind of Bangladesh’s special economic zones (SEZs). Although keen observers have pointed out that Bangladesh rather needs strategic SEZs than increasing the numbers of SEZs, it seems internal developments are catching international attention. A "Bangladesh Exceptionalism" is in the making when we take into account how Bangladesh is making its footprint visible in the international arena through its nuanced focus on issues that do not belong to the traditional area through which a country flexes its muscle. Rather, Bangladesh is working in the areas where existing discourses are being enriched with experimental knowledge emerging from Bangladesh. It is these little dots that matter when we connect them to paint the bigger picture -- and that is how "Bangladesh Exceptionalism" is made!

A number of challenges awaits Bangladesh in the coming years -- some are short term, long term and of internal and of external origins. From foreign policy point of view, it is difficult to predict what the world may look like in 2041. The world is at the cusp of rapid changes, that is one thing one can assert with certainty. Asia is at the heart of this change. With security pacts being made in Asia, formation of a probable Asian NATO and nuclear arms race coming to the continent, concerns are raised that when countries prioritize national interests over regional stability, indeed, dark days follow. It is "security for all" that should be prioritized in today’s age of complex interdependence than prioritizing rivalries. We also must not forget that in terms of hierarchy, the Bay of Bengal is the second significant security hotspot in the Indo-Pacific Region, right after the South China Sea. Bangladesh’s policies and activities are of concern for major powers of the world. While Bangladesh is in the process of working on its own Indo-Pacific Vision (IPV), one might argue that Bangladesh’s policy of neutrality may be challenged in the coming days with a sharp division among nations being exposed. Despite such an apprehension, Bangladesh cannot afford to shed off its policy of strategic neutrality in the coming years for fulfilling its development goals and Vision 2041. A country which is to host around, conservatively put, about a population of 190 million by 2041 at the current rate of population growth, cannot see itself driven by political divisions that do not affect it directly. Instead, Bangladesh shall aim to establish its "emerging middle power" status to an agenda-setter and a true "middle power" in international politics.

What is of immediate attention is changing of the mindset of policymakers and scholars who create the narratives for Bangladesh. We lack confidence in projecting Bangladesh in a broader canvas. This is a plurilateral as well as a post-ideological world. In a world, where the sources of conflict may emerge from both traditional and non-traditional sources, Bangladesh first needs to pay attention in its projection as a "middle power." Bangladesh’s strategic value is often viewed and argued as a "myth" by first and foremost Bangladeshi scholars. It is rather being noticed, valued and recognized by others, who are writing about Bangladesh, paying attention to our policies and witnessing the emergence of Bangladesh from chrysalis of a country to a butterfly that matters in regional and international politics. A rebranding of Bangladesh’s identity is a matter of urgent attention, which adapts to the changes taking place. We hardly pay attention to the fact that Bangladesh’s population is its strength while the great powers are experiencing "graying" of their population and will soon experience serious threats to their existence as nations. The population density of the country is often painted as its curse, but there is productive use of our population, a strength of national power of a country. A small comparison can be made with two European countries large by virtue of their size but small in terms of number of populations such as Norway and Denmark. These two countries each host a little over 5 million people. Dhaka city alone hosts 20 million people, where businesses thrive, and foreign multinational companies seek to invest. We often forget the strategic decisions made by multinational companies in our part of the world and the case in point would be that of Telenor, making mobile phones popular in Bangladesh, seeing the enormous opportunity of business potential here.

While there are perks of hosting such a big population in one city, a better management can make this number as its strength. Those who have gone through tough times, have seen Bangladesh struggling, are yet to capture the momentum of today’s Bangladesh. That in the past 50 years, Bangladesh has traveled far and created capacities in different areas that can take it further.

There is a strategic timing for everything, and certainly, this is one of those moments that Bangladesh needs to seize, and portray its strengths through creating a positive narrative than dawdling, thinking, and shying off. Challenges will always be there and for every country of the world. The issue is: How do we deal with the challenges -- by only talking about it, or also looking at finding constructive solutions? Do we start off with the narrative that we are a small nation? Or do we revisit the concept and challenge the notion that a country of 170 million people cannot be branded as a "small nation?"

We need to pay attention to the subtle but sure changes that have taken place in the 21st century -- it is no longer a century of black and white visions. Countries who decolonized in the previous century have now found their voices and are eager to play their historic roles in international politics. There is no reason for Bangladesh to stay behind. A rebranding of Bangladesh recognizing the changes that have taken place and have created a Bangladesh Exceptionalism is the order of the day for Bangladesh to embrace its Vision 2041.

Lailufar Yasmin is a Professor in the Department of International Relations, University of Dhaka, Bangladesh. She can be reached at [email protected].

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