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Dhaka Tribune

A delicate balance of power

Bangladesh’s ascent to middle power means it will have to be more strategic than ever with its diplomacy

Update : 30 Sep 2023, 09:41 AM

In the heart of South Asia, Bangladesh, a nation of rich cultural heritage and a complex history, has been quietly but resolutely ascending from its tumultuous past as a newly independent nation in 1971 to its present status as a burgeoning middle power in the international arena.

This remarkable journey is a testament of national development, foreign policy success, and the effective governance that has been put in place over the decades. From rapid economic growth to unique geographical location along with global partnerships have made Bangladesh an influential middle power.

This article explores Bangladesh's journey towards becoming a middle power and its relevance to superpowers in the contemporary global landscape.

One of the most significant indicators of Bangladesh's ascent has been its economic growth and development. Under “Vision 2021,” Bangladesh transformed itself from a least developed country (LDC) to a developing one.

And “Vision 2041” has been adopted in line with “Vision 2021” to provide impetus to the dream of the nation -- with the aim to end absolute poverty and become a developed nation by 2041. Once Bangladesh was referred to as a “bottomless basket” after independence and now, it is the second largest economy in South Asia.

Bangladesh's economic success has not gone unnoticed on the global stage. The country's consistent GDP growth has led to its classification as a "Next Eleven'' (N-11) economy, a group of nations expected to play a significant role in the 21st century global economy. Bangladesh's economic ascent is not only relevant to its own citizens but also to superpowers and the broader international community. This potential economic growth is the reason why the US, China, Russia, Japan, India and the rest of the world are paying attention towards Bangladesh.

Neighbours and beyond

Regarding the BCIM (Bangladesh, China, India, Myanmar)) economic corridor, Bangladesh plays a pivotal role in facilitating road, rail, and maritime connectivity within these four countries. Indian critics of BCIM state that China cannot be trusted and here, BBIN (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal) another economic corridor may boost regional cooperation and security in this region.

Thus, Bangladesh is one of the potential factors for both China and India in this region to determine who will establish supremacy. Moreover, China has invested tens of billions of dollars on Bangladesh's infrastructure, with projects like the Padma Bridge Rail link, Karnaphuli River Tunnel, the Dhaka-Chittagong highway and many more.

These investments are part of China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and aim to enhance connectivity between China, Bangladesh, and beyond. China's BRI is a strategy that seeks to connect Asia with Africa and Europe through land and maritime networks to improve regional integration, increase trade, and stimulate economic growth. China sees Bangladesh as an “all weather friend” and one of their “strategic partners.”

In April 2023, Bangladesh formally announced its "Indo-Pacific Outlook" (IPO) to the world emphasizing its principle of foreign policy (Article 25 of the constitution) which states “friendship to all, malice to none.” The objectives include strengthening partnerships, promoting dialogue, maintaining maritime safety and security, combating transnational organized crime along with sustainable development, building resilient value chains, and enhancing health security in these Indo-Pacific region.

China and the US

To counter Chinese influence in this region, the United States of America also announced their “Indo-Pacific Strategy” that emphasizes America's vision for a free, open, connected, prosperous, resilient, and secure Indo-Pacific region.

The bargaining position and competition between America and China have developed in this region, especially regarding the Bay of Bengal. Bangladesh's strategic location on the Bay of Bengal makes it a crucial node in China's BRI. Bangladesh's geographic position offers a vital route for China's trade and energy corridors, reducing its dependence on the Malacca Strait. On the other hand, Bangladesh's location is significant for America's Indo-Pacific strategy, which emphasizes maintaining maritime security, freedom of navigation, and regional stability.

Bangladesh's engagement with both China's BRI and America's Indo-Pacific strategy involves careful diplomatic balancing. While it seeks economic benefits and infrastructure development from China, it also values its strategic and security relationships with the United States.

The Bay of Bengal is enriched with natural resources that need to be explored with the cooperation of developed countries along with higher technology. This prospect of a “blue economy” has also increased the importance of Bangladesh to the outside world. If Bangladesh gives a special facility to any country in the Bay of Bengal, it can be a game changer in terms of regional politics that will have severe global implications.

The recent visit of French President Emmanuel Macron in Bangladesh can be seen to consolidate one of his country's Indo-Pacific strategies. Furthermore, Russian foreign minister Lavrov’s visit to Bangladesh comes at a time when there is an invisible battle between the superpowers. From their visits to Bangladesh, it is evident that not only regionally but also globally, Bangladesh is now an emerging middle power.

Summits and conferences

The recent BRICS and G-20 summits are also significant for Bangladesh. Although Bangladesh could not become a member of BRICS this time, Bangladesh is a member of NDB (New Development Bank) under BRICS and Bangladesh will undoubtedly be a promising country in the next conference of BRICS.

At the G-20 summit, addressing “One Earth,” Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh stressed on strengthening global solidarity and taking concerted efforts to tackle the global crisis, giving a four-point recommendation.

She emphasized that for the sake of humanity, to establish peace and harmony throughout the world, developed nations with major economies must come forward. Regarding climate induced migration, she urged all to operationalize the Loss and Damage Fund as early as possible for creating additional financing mechanisms and emphasized that in the upcoming COP-28, every country should implement this fund with accountability and transparency.

Furthermore, she also emphasized Rohingya repatriation and the need for support of the international community regarding this. Bangladesh also made “sideline diplomacy” in this summit through having unofficial talks with various presidents and prime ministers of powerful nations which have immense implications for further trade and investment opportunities.

Bangladesh's journey from a fledgling nation to a middle power is a remarkable testament to its resilience and determination. Its economic growth, diplomatic initiatives, and soft power have garnered the attention of economies large and small.

Bangladesh's relevance lies in its economic potential, regional significance, and extraction of natural resources and contributions to global challenges. Cooperation with Bangladesh could advance the interests of other economies and allow Bangladesh to continue its ascent on the world stage.

The evolving dynamics in South Asia and the broader global context make Bangladesh's role and relevance increasingly significant in the 21st century.


Iffat Ara Jasmin is a Lecturer, Northern University Bangladesh.

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