Bangladesh Foreign Policy Approach Should Shift to Multi-alignment

Bangladesh recently announced its Indo-Pacific outlook with a firm commitment to the vision of a free, open, peaceful, secure and inclusive Indo-Pacific region. This outlook, according to the foreign minister of Bangladesh, emphasizes three P’s: peace, partnership and prosperity. Bangladesh has four guiding principles behind this outlook: Bangabandhu’s foreign policy ‘friendship to all, malice to none,’ Article 25 of the constitution, trust in the UN charter and the UN Convention on Law of the Sea, and strengthening regional and international cooperation. Through this outlook, Bangladesh has pledged to safeguard peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region. 

Taking Note of History

Historically, Bangladesh has maintained a non-aligned foreign policy. Bangladesh’s founding father Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman summarized it as ‘friendship to all and malice towards none’. He did not hesitate to have friendly relations with even those countries who were against the birth of Bangladesh in 1971 (e.g. Islamic countries, the U.S). As a developing country, Bangladesh has benefitted from a non-aligned policy which has led to economic partnerships with rival superpowers (U.S., China, Russia) and major powers (Gulf countries, India).  However, given that the Indo-Pacific region has become a very complex security zone overwhelmed by expansionist China and its allies on one hand, and the defensive West and its allies on the other hand, it is questionable whether Bangladesh can continue to pursue a non-aligned policy on the Indo-Pacific.

Bangladesh’s dilemma is based on certain global, regional, and national contexts. There is a growing interest in the U.S. and China to have strategic allyship with Bangladesh in the Indo-Pacific. In this regard, some scenarios need to be taken into account. In recent years, the Bangladesh government has developed a strong partnership with China for furthering national interests, including vaccine diplomacy and economic partnership in infrastructure development.  China’s non-interference in internal political affairs has increased China’s popularity at the national level of Bangladesh. However, China’s increasing military and economic ties with Bangladesh are a threat to the security of India, the closest neighbor of Bangladesh. U.S. interference in the internal affairs of Bangladesh, including supporting the anti-ruling party groups, unusual concern for freedom of expression, US Treasury Department’s sanctions on Bangladesh’s elite paramilitary force, the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), have strained the relationship between the U.S. and Bangladesh. The dilemma of Bangladesh’s economic and national interest versus the security concerns of the West and its allies in the Indo-Pacific region, especially India, constantly haunts conversations and analysis on Indo-Pacific politics in the academic and diplomatic discourse of Bangladesh.

The Indo-Pacific region is considered to be the center of global trade and commerce. It contains 65 percent of the world’s population with 63 percent of the world’s GDP and 50 percent of the world’s maritime trade. In recent years, the Indo-Pacific region has gained importance in international relations due to the intensity of Sino-American competition, which is reflected in their foreign policy, economic, trade and military partnership. China’s intention to assert economic influence over this region became evident through Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) connecting around 149 countries with implications for the U.S. in terms of security, maritime navigation and dominance over trade and commerce. It should be noted that $1.9 trillion worth of U.S. trade passes through the region. The rise of China and its constant allyship with countries like Myanmar, Pakistan, and Bangladesh have influenced the Indo-Pacific strategy of the U.S. to restrict the expansion of China’s economic and political empire by bringing other like-minded powers (Japan, UK, India, and Australia) under a singular strategic framework in this region. 

A key example is the Quad, officially the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, comprising the U.S., India, Japan, and the UK. This strategic and diplomatic alliance for deepening economic, diplomatic and military ties among the four countries in the Indo-Pacific region is viewed as an ‘Ásian NATO’ by China.  The intention of the U.S. to reclaim its dominance over China in the Indo-Pacific is again manifested through AUKUS, a trilateral security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. However, the power game in the Indo-Pacific region is more than a strategic and economic competition between the U.S. and China. Emerging major powers such as Japan, Russia, Gulf countries, and India consider the Indo-Pacific region to be a geopolitical site of extreme importance for enhancing allies, security, and defense strategies to further their individual national interests. Among them, India has a special interest because of China’s aggressive policy on the border. Japan, however, although a part of the West, believes in engaging with China, while at the same time exercising its control over the Indo-Pacific through economic and military cooperation with countries of geopolitical importance in the region.

Geography as a Bridge

Bangladesh’s geographical position has been extremely lucrative to the super and major powers for having an economic, maritime and military advantage in the Indo-Pacific. Located in the Bay of Bengal, the central and pivotal part of the Indian Ocean, geographically Bangladesh is the gateway to South and Southeast Asia. The Bay of Bengal has always been historically significant for being an economic highway for commercial sea routes between the eastern and western hemispheres. Bangladesh’s strategic importance captured global attention and concern when China included Bangladesh in BRI in 2016. As a strategic maritime nation in the Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean, Bangladesh was considered to be one of the six economic corridors of BRI and would receive a $40-billion package for infrastructure development. Starting at Kunming and passing through Myanmar, this corridor enters the Indian northeast and through Bangladesh, ending up in Kolkata. In terms of geopolitical aspects, the BRI has triggered a conflict of interests with India and the U.S. Particularly, for India, it is like giving China a strategic advantage to encircle India in terms of maritime trade and commerce with a high chance of military and digital connectivity.

Bangladesh cannot take a pro or anti-West stance due to its multilateral engagement with rival powers. Bangladesh constantly finds itself navigating the challenges between the dependency on the West and its allies and the pressure of China for not accommodating any anti-China bloc. Since 2018, the U.S. has insisted Bangladesh join the Indo-Pacific Economic Forum (IPEF). In 2021, the possibility of Bangladesh joining the Quad came up for discussion. This made China unusually possessive about Bangladesh’s foreign policy and Chinese Ambassador to Dhaka Li Ji-ming said on May 10, 2021, “Bangladesh’s decision to join the anti-China alliance will harm bilateral relations….”  Bangladesh protested against such interference, but it has not clearly stated its intention regarding either the Quad or IPEF.

Practically Bangladesh is not in a position to go against the U.S. and its allies due to its determination to have economic development at the fastest possible pace. Bangladesh is the second-largest economy in South Asia and the 35th-largest economy in the world. As the third largest trading partner to Bangladesh, the U.S. is the single largest market for ready-made garments (RMG), a sector that provides employment to millions in Bangladesh. The U.S. is also the topmost source of foreign direct investment, one of the largest providers of foreign aid, and the largest provider of aid for the Rohingya refugees. Bangladesh also needs the West and its allies for support in international diplomacy for the repatriation of Rohingya refugees to Myanmar.

Factoring India and the Regional Calculus

Bangladesh also cannot overlook India’s security concerns in terms of its relationship with China. Historically, India has been the strongest ally of Bangladesh globally and regionally since the liberation war of Bangladesh in 1971. India-Bangladesh cooperation is paramount for keeping stability and peace in the South Asian region.

Bangladesh has a good partnership with the two strongest allies of India—Japan, and Russia. Besides Russia’s support for Bangladesh’s independence, Russian ties with Bangladesh are very grounded. Russia is the principal financier of some important projects in Bangladesh, including the 2,400 MW Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant, and is the fourth largest provider of foreign aid to Bangladesh. While China is the largest source of military equipment for Bangladesh, Russia remains the second largest. Bangladesh is also building a strong partnership with Japan, a pro-U.S. and key power in the Indo-Pacific. Japan has invested in the development of Matarbari Port in Bangladesh to address the needs of Bangladesh and India’s Northeast. This port is part of Japan’s effort to foster connectivity in the Indo-Pacific, as pointed out by Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida: “Viewing Bangladesh and other areas to the South as a single economic zone, we will promote the Bay of Bengal-Northeast India industrial value chain concept in cooperation with India and Bangladesh to foster the growth of the entire region”.

Bangladesh’s non-aligned approach is not about avoiding a political stance. It is related to her survival and resilience amidst the competing interests of powerful rival countries. But U.S. interference in the domestic affairs in Bangladesh might have an impact as Dhaka is constantly found to be closer to China than the West and its allies. Can Bangladesh be secure in the long term by exacerbating India’s security concerns, which is inevitable if China becomes dominant in the military and economic partnership with Bangladesh with its anti-India approach? While engaging with a growing expansionist power like China, Bangladesh should be more cautious, assertive and strategic in balancing its national economic interest and regional security concern in the Indo-Pacific. What can Bangladesh do in this regard?

To reiterate, Bangladesh needs the U.S. and its allies for solving the long-standing Rohingya crisis in the country. Apart from that, religious extremism might rise— support for Taliban and their ideology in Bangladesh was alarming on social media when the new Taliban regime took power in Afghanistan. The support of Western powers and its allies, especially India, are necessary for addressing religious extremism. Additionally, Bangladesh is preparing to graduate out of the group of least developed countries in 2026. This indicates the loss of some privileges which Bangladesh used to get until now and the beginning of a competitive journey. Can Bangladesh sustain that competition by being an anti-West and pro-China country in the Indo-Pacific?

Taking into account its long-term interests in economic, political, and security matters, Bangladesh should be vigilant in managing China in the Indo-Pacific region. Sticking to the traditional non-aligned policy might not work for Bangladesh in the Indo-Pacific region any longer. In this regard, Bangladesh needs to shift its policy to multi-alignment—similar to India’s—to cater to national and regional interests in the long term.  By being engaged in parallel relationships as well as bilateral partnerships with rival powers, Bangladesh can work for a common approach that will take into account not only economic prosperity but also regional and national security in the Indo-Pacific region.