Friday, June 14, 2024


Dhaka Tribune

A balancing act

How Bangladesh upholds its tradition of neutrality while navigating the storm of global politics

Update : 27 May 2024, 10:06 AM

On March 10-12, the Belarusian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Yevgeny Shestakov visited Bangladesh. Nine days later, the Swedish Crown Princess Victoria and Minister for International Development Cooperation and Foreign Trade Johan Forssell arrived in the country for a three-day visit. The visits took place in the shadow of the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war.

Belarus constitutes a part of the Union State of Russia and Belarus. It is a member-state of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), and it is actively facilitating the Russian war efforts against Ukraine by hosting Russian troops and allowing them to conduct operations from its territory.

On the other hand, Sweden maintains a strong security partnership with the US. It is a member-state of the EU and NATO, and is actively assisting the Ukrainian war efforts against Russia by training, financing, and equipping the Ukrainian Armed Forces.

Core principles of Bangladeshi foreign policy

Since the beginning of the war in February 2022, Dhaka has adopted a neutral stance on the conflict and called for its peaceful resolution. Thus, Dhaka has placed itself on a middle ground between the competing geopolitical blocs, while preserving and expanding cooperation with both sides. Accordingly, the state finds no contradictions in its policy when it hosts high-level representatives of states from both blocs. In fact, this is concordant with Bangladesh’s traditional foreign policy of balancing between the East and the West.

Since independence, Bangladesh has generally pursued a balanced, pragmatic, and multi-vector foreign policy. According to Article 25 of the Constitution, the state’s foreign policy is based on four core principles: Respect for national sovereignty and equality; non-interference in the internal affairs of other states; peaceful settlement of international disputes; and respect for international law and the principles of the UN Charter.

Bangladesh’s navigation of the Cold War

The Bangladesh War of Independence in 1971 was heavily influenced by Cold War dynamics, and it can be suggested that the independence movement benefited from the rivalry between the US and the USSR. As the US and China supported Pakistan during the war, the USSR put its weight behind Bangladesh’s independence movement and our primary backer, India. After independence, Dhaka built up close ties with the USSR, but at the same time, developed ties with the US and attempted to establish ties with China.

The post-1975 military governments tilted towards the West and China, and there was a crisis in relations with the USSR in the early 1980s, but again, Dhaka refrained from spoiling its ties with Moscow and later patched up bilateral ties. Dhaka even maintained ties with both East and West Germany as well as North and South Korea. Similarly, Dhaka had good relations with competing monarchical and republican Arab states.

This neutral policy was aligned with the state’s economic interests. By maintaining cooperative ties with both blocs of the Cold War, Dhaka secured a substantial amount of foreign aid. The US provided the country with direct financial aid and food aid as well as facilitated the acquisition of aid from the World Bank, while the Soviets repaired the country’s seaports and invested in industrial projects and power plants. Japan emerged as the country’s largest development partner, while China emerged as the country’s primary defense partner. Both Iraq and the Gulf Arab states accepted hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshi migrant workers, which provided the country with substantial flows of remittances. Thus, through its calculated and balanced foreign policy, Bangladesh has benefited from the complex dynamics of these conflicts.

Bangladesh’s course now

After the Cold War, the US presided over a unipolar world order, but the meteoric military-economic rise of China, the military-political resurgence of Russia, the growing strategic alignment between Moscow and Beijing, and their opposition to the US-dominated new world order have now created a new Cold War and initiated the establishment of a multipolar world order.

On its part, Dhaka is pursuing a set of foreign policies which are identical to its policies during the Cold War. Dhaka continues to demonstrate pragmatism and level-headedness while dealing with the great powers. It maintains comprehensive ties with the US, Russia, and India, strategic partnerships with both China and Japan, and cordial partnerships with the Gulf Arab states and Iran.

In doing so, it maintains strict neutrality in the US-Russian, US-Chinese, Sino-Indian, Sino-Japanese, and Saudi-Iranian strategic rivalries. This has been demonstrated by Dhaka’s statements and actions with regard to the Syrian war, the Russian acquisition of Crimea, the Russian-Ukrainian war, and even the Myanmar civil war.

Moreover, Dhaka has prioritized accelerated socio-economic development in its internal affairs, and pursuant to this, economic diplomacy constitutes the cornerstone of the country’s foreign policy. Dhaka’s relations with the great powers are primarily focused on enhancing economic cooperation via the facilitation of more exports, acquiring more foreign investments, developing modern and sustainable infrastructure, speeding up the migration of its excess manpower, and procuring advanced technology.

For example, the US is the largest source of foreign investments in Bangladesh. China and Japan are implementing several major infrastructure projects in the country, and Russia is constructing the state’s first nuclear power plant. Owing to its multi-vector diplomacy, Dhaka can secure loans from not only the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) but also the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the New Development Bank (NDB). Similarly, Bangladesh’s efforts to expand ties with Belarus and Sweden are primarily aimed at enhancing economic relations with these states.

Navigating the new Cold War has an important security dimension. China is the largest source of military equipment for Bangladesh, and the country also imports significant quantities of weapons from Russia. Meanwhile, military-to-military ties with the US and India are growing rapidly, and Bangladesh has been selected as one of the first recipients of Japanese official security assistance (OSA). These security partnerships are important for the professionalization and modernization of the Bangladesh Armed Forces. However, participation in full-fledged military alliances is off the table, and accordingly, Dhaka has so far refrained from signing the Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA) with the US, which would allow the US forces to procure logistics from Bangladesh in both peacetime and wartime.

A delicate path

Bangladesh walks a tightrope when dealing with world powers, and this approach has so far been key to the preservation of its political, economic, and security interests. However, as the new Cold War intensifies, the country is likely to face increasing pressure from both sides to abandon its delicate act and choose a side. Under these circumstances, Bangladesh should continue to pursue its delicately balanced, well-calculated, and highly pragmatic foreign policy for furthering its national interests vis-à-vis the East and the West.

Md Himel Rahman is a Dhaka-based freelance analyst on international and strategic affairs.


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