Shahab Enam Khan speaks to Dhaka Tribune about Bangladesh’s next move in a shifting geo-political landscape
Bangladesh is a force of good in the world, yet few people are aware of this. Why?
We have to get our narratives right. We often fail to assert ourselves with confidence. We are one of the largest global peace-keepers, we are the only state providing dependable strategic and security support to the Indian north-east, we have provided jobs and technical know-how in the RMG sector to a vast number of citizens of neighbouring countries, have peacefully absorbed three-quarters of a million refugees, and the stability and robustness of our economy benefits the global economy.
The Rohingya crisis or insurgencies and ethnic conflicts, or perhaps trends in economic growth, suggest to me that our neighbours need us more than what we need from them.
What is the state of the republic’s defense thinking?
Defense diplomacy has never before been at the forefront of affairs as it is now. We must adjust our approach to foreign policy accordingly. We must take in the global context or our views will be confined to sub-regional politics.
Emerging realities will require the cultivation of a new generation of merit-based politicians and diplomats.
Bangladesh has always been a liberal state -- we promote multilateralism and cooperative security, and the expansion of our defence mechanisms will ensure our security as well as that of our strategic partners.
That is how we should see our defense policy.
Adversarial narratives threaten discord the world over. Are we at risk?
I fear the effects of Islamophobia, the jingoistic social media, and the propagandistic mainstream media in our region. The rise of Islamophobia, ultra-nationalism, and far-right politics signals a political failure in the Indian sub-continent. It is a failure that increases transnational threats.
Take the exclusion of 1.9 million people in Assam, and the political rhetoric concerning the NRC.
If there is further displacement, where will they go?
Denial and complacency are suitable for bilateral-level talks, but public perception can turn into hysteria, as we have seen throughout the history of the sub-continent.
I must mention here that both Myanmar and India are victims of insurgencies -- ethnic conflicts which cause security paranoia -- while Pakistan is a victim of its own terrorism.
Which theatre is more important -- the south-eastern hills or the Bay of Bengal?
Both -- it isn’t either/or. I would certainly recommend strong diversification of our defense system to ensure greater strategic autonomy, particularly in the Bay of Bengal. Our focus should remain on naval expansion, along with a superior air defense system.
I would put further emphasis on the Chittagong Hill Tracts, which is increasingly becoming a strategic flashpoint.
The army has proven superior strategic excellence as evidenced by its global peacekeeping.
Engaging with Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS) lead countries such as the US, UK, and Australia should be on our foreign policy agenda. Our efforts to balance the IPS and China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) should focus on both development and security cooperation.
Every state has a national interest and security objectives. China, Myanmar, and India won’t compromise in protecting their interests.
That is something we should learn and prioritize in our political understandings in order to make balanced strategic choices. But I am afraid real-time balancing requires a highly sophisticated decision-making process, and an efficient and merit-based bureaucracy. I was not surprised to see that it took a week to issue inputs for the media on diplomatic briefing by the foreign office.
What do you make of Asian countries clamouring to arm Myanmar?
It has been reported that India is to supply Indian-built torpedoes and a Soviet-era Kilo-class diesel-electric submarine to Myanmar.
Perhaps this is a strategic concern, but each country has the right to pursue its interests. India has its sovereign principles, political agenda, and rightfully exercises its strategic autonomy in the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal.
Pakistan does that within its own domain, too, and is supplying Pakistan-built JF-17 fighter planes to Myanmar. China has long been Myanmar’s major source of defense materiel and power. China has invested heavily in economic corridors through Pakistan and Myanmar.
We must pursue our interests and choose our arrangements with care, and engage with IPS and BRI.
Explain how defense and commerce are related.
Well, take the Bay of Bengal, for instance. The maritime boundary gives us legal ownership of resources within our zone -- resources that have vast economic potential. Securing this is one job.
Protecting our supply lines, commercial interests, and our ports are other jobs. All are fundamentally important to our economic well-being. It calls for the greater exercise of strategic capabilities over a period of time.
Is our maritime boundary -- including coordination points beyond the continental shelf -- secure?
The maritime delimitation with Myanmar and India, our Shamudra Bijoy, is a foreign policy milestone that has unleashed strategic and economic benefits for Bangladesh. Whimsical claims to withdraw objections, which were lodged with the UN involving Bangladesh’s claims in the deep sea, would be a severe breach of national interest and security. I am sure the armed forces and political leadership will give any such claims from any party a more in-depth look.
Has Bangladesh been pro-active in the Bay of Bengal?
I think so. Bangladesh has set precedents in the Bay of Bengal. The submarine that we procured for capacity-building encouraged others to follow suit.
The militarization of the Bay of Bengal was well perceived by Bangladesh ahead of time. The Indian commitment to supply a Russian submarine to Myanmar may be the beginning of a strategic race in the bay, but we have to accept that every country has its own interests.
We have always pursued a defensive posture, but we realize that others may not appreciate our posture. After all, we are surrounded by weaker states and plagued with myopic realpolitik in comparison to most south-east Asian, Central Asian, or Middle Eastern countries.
How should the Rohingya issue be tackled?
A bilateral approach alone will not resolve the Rohingya issue. We must respond to offers of goodwill from the US, UK, Japan, and Korea, too.
Bangladesh desires to co-exist peacefully with Myanmar. While China has proved to be a continuing, dependable actor in mediating between Bangladesh and Myanmar, we must not fail to secure the potential roles of the US, UK, Japan, and Korea in mediating with Myanmar. Engaging with ASEAN is important since we are bearing an ASEAN problem, even though we are a non-ASEAN state.
The Rohingya issue is getting entangled in local politics. Is this a problem?
We should refrain from demonizing the Rohingya who came here in fear of their lives. The honourable prime minister opened our doors to them with utmost humanity and with the sentiment of 1971. We opened our doors to them previously in 1978 and 1992 due to our humanitarian and global obligations.
Demonization is exactly what Tatmadaw (Myanmar armed forces) and its allies want to see. The local politicization of the refugee issue and the anti-Rohingya narratives must be tamed by our stalwart politicians. This has serious implications for national security.
We should get the facts and figures right before generalizing any issue. And we should acknowledge the international agencies helping us to provide the Rohingya with a reasonable quality of life. It’s the global community, along with our state institutions, which has been providing relentless support for such a complex mission.
Are you worried about narcotics smuggling in the south-east?
It is of paramount importance. The narco-economy in the south-east is increasingly becoming a threat to sovereignty. The constitutional command is to protect sovereignty. We need to curtail corruption and narco-economy hand in hand, bring laundered money back, and spend that money to strengthen the strategic framework. I am sure our development partners will help us bring the laundered money back. Well, they stand on the moral grounds of accountability and transparency.
Is Bangladesh effective at communicating its positions?
Our political culture of making sweeping comments is a bottleneck in maintaining balanced foreign relations.
Every word matters. Every word counts. Everyone is watching -- even if we try to wipe out information or put a blanket over the news. Anyone who does not understand a complex situation should remain silent instead of embarrassing others.
I believe in political introspection. The blame game, which is at the core of our civic culture, does not help.
I understand that neighbouring countries will eventually need our support to keep their economic and security situation stable, perhaps due to organic changes in the global geo-political framework.
But that will come only if our strategic leadership comprehends the global changes that are evolving beyond the rhetoric.
We should take a deeper look at our policy instruments and human resources.
Technology and demography, tempered by human intelligence, run politics and foreign policy everywhere.
The sooner we understand this, the better we will be able to frame and articulate our interests. Perhaps we should not be stuck in the past, but strive to move forward.
Abu Sayeed Asiful Islam has been a contributing editor and editor for planning and strategy at Dhaka Tribune. Professor Shahab Enam Khan teaches international relations at Jahangirnagar University and is a research director at the Bangladesh Enterprise Institute.