Bangladesh at 50: No longer in the shadows

The birth of Bangladesh in 1971 came as a surprise to many. For decades, media spaces highlighted political violence, climate disasters (maybe adding one more common negative issue?), and other negative pieces of news originating from Bangladesh. The silent revolution that undertook inside Bangladesh remained unnticed but seemed to have caught attention in international media recently. As one observer has put it, “50 years after independence, Bangladesh bursts into geopolitics.” Indeed, in its 50th year, the world is witnessing a sharp rise of a new Bangladesh.

The Foreign Policy  -- leading publisher of international affairs -- published an article titled “America should Bet on Bangladesh” that looks beyond typical poverty-stricken or disaster-prone narrative by recognizing Bangladesh’s strategic significance. In their brilliant scholarship, Anu Anwar and Michael Kugelman have given an apt reminder to the world why Bangladesh is indeed an important player in the Indo-Pacific. 

On its own merit

In South Asia, Bangladesh stands on its own merit. American policymakers must be able to see Bangladesh as an independent actor -- not just a subset of India-Pakistan policy -- to achieve their own strategic interest in the region. 

Anwar and Kugelman have rightly identified three vital areas that put Bangladesh on the limelight, especially at the height of a tense geopolitical environment. The strategic importance of Bangladesh has often been downplayed by both national and international observers. The common narrative is that Bangladesh is a “land-locked” or an “India-locked” country, due to its long land border with India. As if Bangladesh is in the shadow of India’s strategic parameter. Anwar and Kugelman prudently highlighted two flaws in such thinking which are often overlooked in conventional analyses. 

India’s stake in the strategic Siliguri Corridor, which connects mainland India with the other India, cannot be overstated. With China only 100 kilometres (as the crow flies) from Bangladesh, and China-India border disputes in the Northeast region -- Bangladesh’s centrality is sealed on India’s radar. 

The second strategic issue that has emerged in the era of China’s rise is its renewed global interest, in particular, its strategic gain in South Asia. China’s “Malacca dilemma,” denotes its overdependence on the Strait of Malacca for energy supply, which can be reduced significantly by creating multiple overland channels of access to the Bay of Bengal via Pakistan, Myanmar, and, of course, Bangladesh. 

Bangladesh’s wide access to the Bay of Bengal, the largest Bay in the world, and thus Bangladesh’s significance, does not escape the Chinese strategic planners, as it hopes to create a land route to connect Kunming with Chittagong.

A success story in every imaginable way

Anwar and Kugelman contend the “Bangladesh surprise” in the economic sector as the second vital reason which elevates its strategic gravity. Despite the pandemic raging through the world, Bangladesh’s ability to adapt and manage has enabled it to emerge as one of the success stories in South Asia. 

This has caught the world, and especially its South Asian neighbour India, by surprise. With a $2,237 per capita income, Bangladesh is now among the most affluent of all South Asian countries. A country that had started its journey 50 years back with zero foreign reserve, a war-ravaged economy, and crippling infrastructure -- now building the bridge over the river Padma with its own money. 

Bangladesh’s ready-made garments (RMG) industry, in particular, continues to show tremendous promise, and has been one of the major driving forces of Bangladesh’s export earnings. During the pandemic, it has also shown remarkable adaptability and diversification that made Bangladesh one of the frontline countries to produce quality personal protective equipment (PPE) and export the items to America, among other countries. During the first three months of 2021-2022 fiscal year, Bangladesh’s RMG export has increased 11.48% compared to the same period of the previous fiscal year.

The story does not end here, as there have been suggestions that a “Dhaka Model” has emerged, and others in South Asia should learn from Bangladesh’s example. On top of it, Bangladesh has emerged as a lending country for the first time in its history, by providing Sri Lanka with $200m in times of its economic crisis. Maldives, too, sought Bangladesh’s financial assistance. Thus, Bangladesh’s economic miracle does not seem to be a miracle any more.

Anwar and Kugelman maintain Bangladesh’s global contribution in sustaining the United Nation (UN) mandate of “maintaining international peace and security” is the third reason why it deserves strategic attention. Bangladesh is one of the top contributors for the UN Peacekeeping Operations (UNPKOs) and the initiator of the Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) agenda at the UN Security Council. 

Bangladesh started its UNPKO journey in 1988, which has created not only a positive image of the country, but its contribution has been recognized widely in Africa in mitigating sectoral conflicts and carrying out the UN mandate with high degree of neutrality and professionalism. The Bangladesh Institute for Peace Support Operations (BIPSOT) is one of the key global institutions for training of officers for UNPKOs.

A distinct international player

In addition to the three key points summarized here, Bangladesh’s continuous bold assertions in different international bodies, and its emergence as a “climate teacher” -- as former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon coined, also made it a distinct international player. As a number of analyses emerged celebrating 50 years of Bangladesh, these have hardly provided a comprehensive and cogent analyses as that of Anwar and Kugelman’s. 

The traditional analyses are limited in the discourse of development. The strategic significance is often overlooked, and the 1970s mind-map of Bangladesh as a “basket case” still dominates the typical literature. The key contribution of Anwar and Kugelman’s scholarship is that they made the case for Bangladesh as a significant strategic player in the Indo-Pacific that has its own agency. This particular area of Bangladesh’s emerging strategic depth has seldom drawn international attention.

The distinctiveness of “America should Bet on Bangladesh” lies in identifying the strategic importance of Bangladesh to America, and by extension to other great powers. It correctly identifies that the growing bonhomie between Bangladesh and China has attracted international attention -- especially that of America and India. 

During the pandemic, the country has witnessed growing diplomatic activities to understand Bangladesh’s position on Quad, the Build Back Better World (B3W), and Indo-Pacific strategy. In light of Bangladesh-China bilateral relations moving to a “comprehensive strategic partnership” since the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2016, the concern about Bangladesh moving to China’s sphere of influence has also risen. 

In recent years, China has invested in key infrastructure projects in Bangladesh such as marine drive expressway, Dhaka Ashulia elevated expressway, Dhaka-Sylhet four lane highway, Sylhet and Cox’s Bazar airport expansion projects, implementation of the Teesta River project, and has also made inroads to the Dhaka Stock Exchange (DSE) by purchasing a 25% stake, outbidding an Indian offer. 

The growing Chinese footprint in Bangladesh does not, however, lead to the assumption that Bangladesh is abandoning the West and, in particular, America, as Anwar and Kugelman remind us. Rather one can turn a leaf and look back at the interest of American policymakers turning their gaze to Bangladesh as a significant player in the Indo-Pacific region back in 2013. 

Bangladesh’s geostrategic significance started to unfold with its gaining unfettered access to the Bay of Bengal. Since then, a number of countries have expressed their increasing interest to invest and be Bangladesh’s development partner. Bangladesh, equally prudently, has engaged with multiple partners and has not remained dependent on China only. 

Its Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant project with Russia and Matarbari Deep Sea Port projects with Japan are testament to that. For Bangladesh, gaining strategic autonomy and making its voice heard in international forums is more significant than getting into tussles of the great powers’ rivalries or simply joining any particular bloc.

Why America and China should both pay attention

Anwar and Kugelman have rightly pointed out two drivers for which America should pay attention to this new Bangladesh -- Bangladesh’s geostrategic location on the Bay of Bengal and its relevance to the Indian Ocean region. Seeing this in the light of US-China or China-India rivalry, Bangladesh’s position has value in both geopolitical calculations. 

Engaging with Bangladesh, however, would mean America must show commitment in meaningful ways -- through increasing security partnerships, investments in infrastructure, and its continued humanitarian and diplomatic assistance on the Rohingya issue. That Bangladesh’s strategic cogitations must be taken into account as it is engaged in a balancing act between India and China in the region, should be understood in a broader spectrum by America. 

As South Asia sees increasing tension between the two countries, Bangladesh is not only a passive balancer between India and China, but has also emerged as an assertive actor in regional affairs. It was aptly demonstrated when the Chinese Ambassador in Dhaka made a remark on the pitfalls on Bangladesh-China bilateral relations should Bangladesh decide to join Quad. 

This also demonstrates China’s concern about Bangladesh’s potential strategic choice. Bangladesh has acquired its own bargaining power in the region, which is yet to be acknowledged internationally. This requires, in particular for America, to see Bangladesh by its own right -- not through the prism of any other country, which has been the case for decades. 

As America continues to see South Asia through India’s prism, this clouds its own strategic understanding and assessment of the region. Nevertheless, America has recently recognized that under the Biden administration, it shall engage with South Asian countries by their own merits, beyond the India-only prism. If fully materialized, this will bring a fresh perspective on Bangladesh-US relations.

In an age of complex interdependence, we are increasingly being aware of the fact that it is not only hard power that determines a country’s strength, but also its agenda-setting ability that creates a distinct voice in international politics. 

The agenda-setting ability is not only a product of a country’s national power but also the combination of how it is projected and perceived globally. The achievements of Bangladesh, in merely 50 years of its sovereign existence, are astonishing, to say the least. Anwar and Kugelman are few of the scholars who have provided a nuanced understanding about Bangladesh’s strategic importance and contributed in projecting Bangladesh in a “new light” that demands further discourse. 

 

Lailufar Yasmin is Professor at the Department of International Relations, University of Dhaka, Bangladesh. She can be reached at [email protected]

 

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