We cannot afford to keep treating foreign policy like any other domestic policy
Foreign policy can’t be handled like the transport policy, though many think all policies are the same. Foreign policy involves the globe and we don’t seem to understand that very well. The Rohingya crisis is a good example, showing why the foreign policy problem is not incidental, but structural.
Bangladesh is trying, but failing, to cope with the challenges of a region and a world rapidly undergoing transition. But it’s been caught unprepared and seems to think that it controls all factors like any domestic policy. Thus the price for this way of thinking is being paid.
There are three sectors upon where foreign policy operates.
Managing the region
Bangladesh has become the weakest point of the region for several reasons, including its political geography.
Its proximity to India has both advantages and disadvantages. India depends on Bangladesh’s transit route to the northeast a lot, as the Bhutan-Doklam path remains sensitive and other routes still remain unavailable, including through Myanmar.
What Bangladesh has got in return -- which PM Sheikh Hasina has also referred to -- isn’t yet clear. To do that we need a few bargaining chips, and nobody is sure what that is except refusing sanctuary to NE rebels.
Hence, the bargaining chips are limited.
Bangladesh has no land border with China unlike Nepal, Bhutan, and Pakistan, so its link is entirely with India, leaving it vulnerable to Indian imperatives.
Asymmetric bilateralism hasn’t worked in this case. Water, trade, migration issues are all on, but Bangladesh has not been able to negotiate well on any of them. Mutual public feelings are also negative, making trust more difficult to develop.
Bangladesh will always be a junior partner with India, but the enthusiasm with which Bangladesh has pursued the objective of becoming a diplomatic loser with its other neighbour Myanmar, is a puzzle.
Why it never shut its border after 1977, when the first batch of Rohingya came, has never been answered, let alone satisfactorily. It has now played completely into Myanmar’s hand, making any negotiation entirely dependent on the sender of the refugees.
The UN, as expected, has flopped, China has no diplomatic interest in a country without any strategic advantage to it, and Bangladesh has failed to cultivate the US either while Russia doesn’t give a damn.
Managing the globe
For an enfeebled diplomatic force like Bangladesh, the main objective would be to collect dependable friends and create allies which Bangladesh has failed to find. The world has become largely tri-polar and most countries are close to one of the three powers -- US, Russia, and China. There are smaller orbits like the EU or OIC and others, but they matter less.
Bangladesh has bent over backwards to establish business ties with the three blocs in various ways, but all the three blocs have stood away when it mattered. The Rohingya issue is an excellent example of our fumbles as China, Russia, and India stalled or blocked any UN move. The UN, from that moment, all but declared its impotence. The situation hasn’t improved, though Bangladesh continues to say that the world stands next to it, whatever that means.
While not exactly an orphan, Bangladesh occupies the unenviable position of being a country which can safely be ignored by the big powers.
Perhaps the least managed sector in our foreign policy stable is our domestic or internal dynamics. The Rohingya crisis has brought attention to our limitations of our foreign policy capacity. To that end, three mismanagements were noted:
1. Nobody had done any homework on the situation arising in Myanmar, which had been brewing for the last 30 years. Nor were we aware of the positions which were going to be taken even by our main ally, India, let alone the rest of the world, if a crisis were to arise.
2. Once the Rohingya had arrived, Bangladesh had no idea whether to welcome them, refuse them, designate them as refugees, or organize them as displaced persons. It became mired in UN agency politics and spent time trying to internationalize the issue without a single agency or force helping to handle it professionally. It had no fall-back mechanism or policy in place.
3. There was no national, local, or international contingency plan to meet the crisis -- which continues to grow. Instead, Bangladesh spent time congratulating itself as a great humanitarian nation but with not much idea as to how big or small the crisis was and what to do with it as time passed.
Pillars of failure
These three failures are there for all to see and determine the one major diplomatic crisis we have handled in the last two decades. It makes for sorry reading, but what’s worse is that there is no proof that lessons have been learned. To use a crude analogy, Myanmar pulled a “crossfire” with the Rohingya. It had a problem that they thought could be resolved by simply using physical force. They never played by the rule of law -- national or international.
Bangladesh was a victim of this crossfire but we need to learn that in international politics such incidents may happen again. While preparation is the best way forward, nothing shows we understand what it means or what to do next.
Afsan Chowdhury is a journalist, researcher, and political commentator.