Bangladesh’s Indo-Pacific Outlook is a missed Opportunity for building a Grand Strategy

March 24, 2020

In April 2023, just before Sheikh Hasina’s tri-nation visit to Japan, US and UK, Bangladesh unveiled its Indo-Pacific Outlook (IPO). The short document with 15 points, aiming at attaining the status of a developed nation by 2041, envisages a ‘free, open, peaceful, secure, and inclusive Indo-Pacific for the shared prosperity for all’. This comes at a time when Bangladesh has been getting increased attention from the West due to escalating geopolitical competition in the region.

Bangladesh has been trying to engage all players to reap maximum rewards. The US has served as a major export market for Bangladesh’s garment industry, while China is its largest trading partner as well as its biggest supplier of arms. Bangladesh is also the largest recipient of Japan’s Official Development Assistance (ODA) in South Asia, pegged at $ 3.2 billion in 2020, while also attracting substantial investment from them under the Bay of Bengal Industrial Growth Belt (BIG-B). In the case of its neighbor India the situation never looked better. It has taken advantage of India’s ‘Neighborhood First’ policy to deepen ties with the country to the point that analysts have dubbed the relations between the two as a ‘sonali adhyaya’ (golden chapter) of diplomacy.

Upon the release of the IPO, some commentators have argued that Bangladesh is moving towards embracing the US’s vision for the Indo-Pacific. Their key argument has been the use of the word Indo-Pacific, as opposed to Asia-Pacific, which is preferred by the Russia-China block, as a subtle hint about Dhaka’s tilt towards the West. This is unlikely to be the actual consideration though. Bangladesh, having a coastline of 720 km, sees the Bay of Bengal and by extension the Indian Ocean as its ‘third neighbor’. More importantly, taking an ocean centric view also allows the country to imagine itself as a critical link between south asia and southeast asia which can get curtailed if one were to take a land centric view due to its conflicts with Myanmar. This is reflected in its outlook on blue economy as well. Bangladesh has been enjoying the ‘benefits of engagement’ with multiple players ‘without the obligations of entanglement’ with anyone.

The issue with the outlook is not that it says it doesn’t want to be a part of the US’s strategy of Indo-Pacific or that it wants to stay non aligned but that it doesn’t say enough of anything.

What’s the Problem?

Firstly, there are no substantive steps with regards to Bangladesh’s strategic role in the Indo-Pacific. For instance, the ASEAN Outlook on Indo Pacific envisages Indo-Pacific as ‘a closely integrated and interconnected region, with ASEAN playing a central and strategic role.’ Where should Bangladesh’s position be, in the evolving geopolitical dynamic is missing from the document.

Secondly, Bangladesh is still a relatively small country with a limited budget for diplomacy. A policy document ideally should define the geographical scope under consideration, in order to narrow down on important policy objectives. Canada’s strategy for instance lists down 40 different countries while for India the Indo-Pacific region encompasses the area ‘from the shores of Africa to that of the Americas’. Bangladesh’s policy outlook keeps the region of Indo-Pacific undefined and open ended. Such a maximalist longitudinal position doesn’t make sense for a country as small as Bangladesh.

Thirdly, the outlook lacks comprehensiveness. There seems to be a single minded focus towards trade and connectivity. Peripheral aspects like people to people (P2P) contact through cultural and educational exchanges are not accounted for. France’s Indo-Pacific Strategy envisions educational cooperation like the ‘France/Indo‐Pacific Young Talents’. In a similar vein the US’s Strategy also promotes similar efforts like the new Quad fellowship. This would not be a point of mention had it been some other country. However, Bangladesh with its 169 million population is bound to be a labour exporting country with a strong diaspora. Due to its enormous demographic profile, P2P cooperation should at least be mentioned if not be at the forefront of its outlook. With countries like Japan who suffer from an aging and declining population, cooperation in the field of foreign labor market is likely to emerge as a huge source of untapped resource.

Fourthly, it operates on idealism. The first guiding principle of the IPO is Sheikh Mujib’s famous dictum, ‘friendship to all malice to none.’ Interestingly, in his speech before the 29th session of the United Nations General Assembly, Bangabandhu had also argued for Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean to be a ‘zone of peace’. These ideas stem from similar traditions as Immanuel Kant’s concept of ‘perpetual peace’ and Jawaharlal Nehur’s Non-Alignment. Such idealism makes it detached from the reality where a conflict seems to be increasingly more likely making it ineffective as a policy guide if a crisis were to ever take place.

Lastly, although point 1 till point 5 of the outlook are supposed to be strategic measures, they provide nothing substantive and merely delve into non-traditional security concerns like combating transnational organized crimes, counter terrorism efforts, women’s security, promoting interfaith harmony and building an inclusive society in the Indo-Pacific. Although these goals are noble and demand due consideration, the non articulation of traditional security threats is notable for a country that has been handling the security situation with respect to the Rohingya crisis for some time now.

An Elusive Grand Strategy

Grand strategy is the process by which a state relates long-term ends to means under the rubric of an overarching and enduring vision to advance the national interest. For a state to have a coherent grand strategy, there needs to be a) a defined national interest, b) long term goal towards attaining it c) substantive means to get there. Historically, Bangladesh has suffered at the first step of defining a national interest.

The military dictatorship under Ziaur Rehman and H. M. Ershad along with the elected government of Khaleda Zia gave shelter to the Northeaster insurgents so as to use them as a bargaining chip and gain strategic maneuverability against India. They also advocated closer ties with China and an Islamist orientation in foreign policy.

In complete opposition to this stood the Awami League with Sheikh Mujib and later her daughter Sheikh Hasina, who handled relations with India pragmatically while also maintaining multi level cooperation with the Chinese. Having been in power since 2009, Bangladesh under Hasina has finally started to articulate its core national interest. This was also softly reflected in the Outlook, as at the lexical order of priority, it envisaged economic cooperation over security considerations. The 6th, 7th and 8th points are dedicated towards economic aims. Bangladesh’s immediate concerns of global warming is also addressed through various climate cooperation. However, the next step in grand strategy building, which is Bangladesh’s long term vision for itself in the evolving geopolitics and the means to get there, is missing from the document.

The IPO was a golden opportunity for Dhaka to put up a well defined doctrine for attaining its aspirations in the Indo-Pacific. However in formulating an IPO that reads more like a press release than an actual strategy Dhaka makes space for strategic ambiguity in the short term but sacrifices an opportunity for making a coherent and substantive grand strategy in the long term.