Let’s not beat around the bush: Bangladesh needs to change its foreign policy in response to recent changes in global dynamics. Due to the lack of any bargaining chips and resource, our foreign policy, in its current state, is rather flimsy.
To that end, experts from various sectors are of the opinion that the recent instability in regional politics requires the government to take a long, hard look at our nation’s foreign policy fronts -- specifically in a way that can increase foreign direct investment (FDI), advance regional connectivity, strengthen diplomacy, and, most importantly, make some tangible progress regarding the Rohingya crisis.
Foreign direct investment
The inflow of FDI -- which is a fundamental factor in facilitating the growth of economy and employment -- has been of less-than-expected volume for Bangladesh.
Ahsan H Mansur, executive director of Policy Research Institute, pointed out two primary reasons behind the low inflow of FDI. The first problem deals with the deficient infrastructure of the country, while the second problem lies in the lack of an overall effort to attract FDI.
“No country can attain substantial progress in development without the inflow of FDI,” he says. “Due to the lack of the space for providing facilities for investment, Samsung Electronics has moved its investment away from Bangladesh.
While countries like Vietnam have accepted the company’s investment, and have already begun drawing up to $6.5 billion from this tech company.”
In the past, Vietnam specialized primarily in manufacturing clothing, but it has been expanding into the tech sector over the past few years and is now a major manufacturing centre for Samsung and many others.
The case of Vietnam undoubtedly advocates that diplomacy should be seen through the lens of economic interest, not only from geographical concerns.
“The overall attitude of the country is not investment friendly. We often discourage investment in the garments sector for fear of losing local control over our market. But the foreign investment in RMG is mandatory in a sense that it will not only ensure the supply of new technology, but also initiate effective management.” Mansur added.
Bangladesh lags behind in attracting FDI than that of neighbouring countries such as Pakistan and Myanmar. They have attained rapid growth in development through globalization and FDI.
According to a statistical report by Bangladesh Bank, Bangladesh draws $495.84m from foreign investment in the first three months of the fiscal year 2017-18, whereas Myanmar’s FDI was over $637m for the same time frame.
“Myanmar, being a potential hub for attracting investment, have stepped out of a policy of isolation in the last few years,” according to M Shahiduzzaman, professor of International Relations in Dhaka University. “After opening up the country’s policy, Myanmar is directly welcoming investment from another regional economic power, China,” he added.
Despite being a part of several regional initiatives such as SAARC, BIMSTEC, BBIN, BCIM Bangladesh has failed to gain any sort of traction in any of these regional agreements. However, there might be a good reason behind this since, according to Professor M Shahiduzzaman: “Regional agreements like SAARC, BIMSTEC, BCIM and BBIN are almost non-existent as entities. Since these initiatives are still in their formative stages, we can not expect them to play any dynamic role for a country like Bangladesh.”
On the other hand, Ahsan Mansur expressed that, in spite of possessing an attractive geographical location, Bangladesh is not well connected with these regional agreements. In fact, our country does not have any direct inroads with Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, or even China.
Given how deeply entrenched Bangladesh currently is in the Rohingya crisis, it’s surprising that neither China or India have stepped up with any sort of tangible assistance
The politics between India and China has impeded any integrated regional communication. In this regard, Ahsan Mansur noted that our foreign policy might get trapped due to the continuous power struggle between these two economic powerhouses.
To counter the regional influence of China, India is advocating for a counter-strategy that would generate India-leaning foreign policy from Bangladesh. On the other hand, China is dispensing economic benefits worth billions to keep Bangladesh in its grips.
“The challenge for Bangladesh’s foreign policy lies in making a balance between the choices of Delhi and that of Beijing. We need to draw investment from both countries. If we develop an India-leaning foreign policy or a China-leaning foreign policy, any gain will be partial at best,” Mansur said.
A lack of diplomatic strength
The absence of integrated diplomatic endeavours from our career diplomats is a point of contention when it comes to bilateral trade agreement. Professor Shahiduzzaman agreed that the conduct of our diplomacy has become highly questionable. Needless to say, the quality of diplomacy has fallen than before.
“For a couple of reasons, we are seeing a vacuum in hiring high-quality, merit-based diplomats. The lack of potential resourceful diplomats threatens the progress of our foreign policy.” he added.
However, the lack of leverage from Bangladeshi diplomats jeopardizes the fundamental goal of foreign policy, as Bangladeshi diplomats have yet to succeed in formulating a successful solution for the long-standing river and border disputes with India.
Given how deeply entrenched Bangladesh currently is in the Rohingya crisis, it’s surprising that neither China or India have stepped up with any sort of tangible assistance. In fact, the Indo-China pendulum seems to swing the other way, as both countries seem to be pandering to Myanmar’s interests, if anything.
Regarding this, Professor Shahiduzzaman believes that “regime interest” plays a key concern in this issue.
“India and China have huge economic stakes in Myanmar. They are more interested in protecting the Myanmar regime over helping Bangladesh navigate its way out of a quagmire that Myanmar itself created,” Ahsan Mansur said.
According to Mansur, the Rohingya crisis requires the attention of all heads of state involved, which makes sense, given the paltry state of our diplomats. To that end, it’s high time that the government reevaluated its foreign policy.
Labiba Faiaz Bari is a reporter at Dhaka Tribune.