Bangladesh is currently in a critical phase both in the domestic and international spheres. National elections are due in January 2024 in which Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina will be seeking an unprecedented fourth consecutive term. The economy has weathered the COVID-19 storm but it is time it got out of the trap of garment exports and workers’ remittances.

Regionally, neighbouring India will be holding crucial parliamentary elections in May 2024, in which two-time Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalistic politics is expected to be challenged by an aggressive opposition. This Indian contest is critical for Bangladesh because communal tensions in India are bound to have a fallout on Bangladesh, which is also communally sensitive.

The broader international geopolitical environment is no less challenging. China’s economic expansionism and military adventurism in Asia is sought to be thwarted by an increasingly belligerent and organized Indo-Pacific group of countries led by the US and Japan.

Regional rivals India and China are battling for strategic and economic space in Bangladesh. The Indo-Pacific group is using both the carrot and the stick to make Bangladesh bow to its will and keep China at bay.

Visits to Japan and US

It is in this challenging scenario that Prime Minister Hasina set out for a visit to Japan and the US to make economic and geopolitical deals.

For the first time, Japan has added to its basket of offers, defense equipment. But this offer will cause a hiccup in China and the Bangladesh military, which have enjoyed close relations. In the US, she would discuss strengthening of ties with the World Bank which could be a valuable source of developmental funds other than China.

Through visits to Japan and the US, Hasina will be mending fences with these countries that had weakened in the last few years. The US irked Bangladesh when it criticized the government’s human rights violations. The Japanese Ambassador’s adverse comments on the legitimacy of Hasina’s election victory in 2018 invited censure from the Bangladesh foreign office. Hasina’s visit to  Japan was cancelled in November 2022 because of the standoff. The World Bank had alleged corruption in the Padma Bridge project and had withdrawn from it.

Now, however, both Japan and the World Bank have kissed and made with Bangladesh. Because of the mounting threat from China, the US and Japan are very keen to shore up their prospects in  Bangladesh. And Bangladesh, in turn, sees benefits in forging economic links with the Indo-Pacific group but without severing links with China, whose deep pockets have an enduring attraction.

Bangladesh wants to develop its economy not only with the help of China but by cooperating with the Indo-Pacific group. It seeks product development, participation in value chains and exploration of new export avenues.

Bangladesh and Japan are now planning to cooperate in the fields of metro rail; industrial upgrading, ship recycling, information and communication technology and cyber security. With many Western firms leaving China, Bangladesh hopes to get some of them to set up shop in it.

Indo-Pacific Outlook Document

It is in the context that the release of Bangladesh’s Indo-Pacific Outlook (IPO) document in April assumes significance.  Western commentators describe the IPO as a pro-West or pro-Indo-Pacific move. But in fact, it indicates a multi-aligned posture.

The IPO is appropriately based on the dictum “friendship for all and malice towards none.” It “envisions a free, open, peaceful, secure and inclusive Indo-Pacific for the shared prosperity for all.”

Dhaka stands for the implementation of all UN treaties and international conventions, as applicable, including the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Interestingly, there is a subtle message to the US here. The US is yet to ratify UNCLOS which is supposed to uphold lawful maritime activity.

Dhaka has clearly set its face against military blocks, which means that it will not be part of any Indo-Pacific military adventure or misadventure against China.

Bangladesh explicitly acknowledges the Indo-Pacific’s economic relevance and potential and that the development of the Indo-Pacific will ensure “Bangladesh’s long-term resilience and prosperity.”

Thus, it is stated in the IPO, that Bangladesh strongly supports “constructive regional and international cooperation for sustainable development, international peace and security, humanitarian action, and fundamental rights and freedoms.”

The IPO’s aim is to “strengthen mutual trust and respect, forge partnerships and cooperation, and promote dialogue and understanding with the aim of ensuring peace, prosperity, security and stability for all in the Indo-Pacific.”

The IPO seeks to promote “open, transparent, rules-based multilateral systems that enable equitable and sustainable development in the Indo-Pacific and beyond through inclusive economic growth, right to development and shared prosperity for all.”

It also aims to “enhance physical, institutional, energy, digital and human connectivity, facilitate movement of goods, services, capital, and people in a systematic manner, and promote technology transfer, access to innovations and responsible behavior in open and secure cyberspace and outer space.”

The IPO seeks to “leverage the domestic agriculture, manufacturing and services sectors towards building resilient regional and global value chains to better manage future crisis and disruptions and to promote unimpeded and free flow of commerce in the Indo-Pacific and engage proactively in promoting food security, water solidarity, and disaster risk reduction in the Indo-Pacific, including through disseminating home-grown good practices.”

Western Interpretation

US commentator Michael Kugelman, writing in Foreign Policy says that Bangladesh is moving towards the US Indo-Pacific strategy, veering away from traditional nonalignment.

“This move comes as the United States and a few key allies have signalled that Bangladesh should be a part of the Indo-Pacific Strategy. Last week, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida gave a speech in New Delhi described as a ‘new plan’ for the region, calling for collaborations with Bangladesh, including a new economic partnership agreement. This month, U.K. Indo-Pacific Minister Anne-Marie Trevelyan visited Bangladesh,” Kugelman writes.

“It’s easy to understand why these countries would want Bangladesh to take part in the Indo-Pacific Strategy. It is strategically located, bordering India, and serving as a gateway to both South and Southeast Asia,” he explains.

Kugelman says that participating in the US. The indo-Pacific Strategy would bring Bangladesh closer to key trade and investment partners.

“Dhaka has friendly ties with the United States, the other members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (known as the Quad), and many European countries. Both of these factors make Bangladesh a good partner,” he adds.

“Bangladesh’s and India’s current governments are close, and New Delhi likely encouraged Dhaka to embrace the strategy. Two years ago, Gowher Rizvi, an advisor to Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, tellingly said that “we are very willing to be a part of the Indo-Pacific relationship” and India “is our most important partner.”

Dalliance May Not Last

But the Bangladesh-Indo-Pacific dalliance is not guaranteed to last, Kugelman warns.

“Even as Bangladesh embraces the Indo-Pacific Strategy, it is trying to placate China. Dhaka’s own draft Indo-Pacific Outlook stipulates that it seeks to avoid rivalries and has no security goals.”

“Bangladesh could certainly back off from the US Indo-Pacific Strategy to deepen relations with China. If Bangladesh’s next election, scheduled for January 2024, is deemed unfree and unfair, Western capitals could also scale back ties. But for now, Bangladesh appears to believe its interests aren’t compromised by nonalignment.”


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