Time to rethink the direction of Bangladesh foreign policy

Time to rethink the direction of Bangladesh foreign policy

Foreign policy is not formulated in a vacuum. It is based on certain ingredients that cannot be changed, such as, geographical location, history, religion, culture and natural resources. Taken together these features, one can objectively assess the opportunities and threats or strengths and weaknesses of the country.

Foreign policy is a social process. The members of decision-making elite receive their values, assumptions and expectations of the nation from a wider society. They also owe some responsibility to that society. Party position on various issues derives in some way or other from the society.

Foreign policy should not be perceived as ‘foreign’ to people because what people can sell or buy or what price people pay for their food at a given time is affected by global trade policy. Global trade policy is an important component of foreign policy.

Given our size and resources, one may say imaginative foreign policy is a ‘bread and butter’ question for people of Bangladesh.

The conduct of foreign policy is about responding realistically to the world Bangladesh finds it. Bangladesh has to have trade relations with many countries of which it may disapprove their human rights record. Bangladesh has to have working relations with many forms of government we think less than ideal.

Italian political philosopher and a pragmatist Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) once said :”How we live is so far removed from how we ought to live, that he who abandons what is done for what ought to be done will rather learn to bring about his own ruin than his preservation.”

Bangladesh has a vital stake that neighbouring countries remain peaceful, stable and friendly or at least not unfriendly. It is in Bangladesh’s interest that Bangladesh must engage itself intensively with the neighbouring and South East Asian countries.

For all these years many observers suggest Bangladesh did not give adequate attention to relations with Myanmar as it should have deserved. It is the only other neighbour except India. Myanmar is one of the first few countries that accorded recognition to newly emerged independent Bangladesh in 1972. Both countries have common history and Myanmar was a part of British India until 1935.

China and India are developing fast their relations with Myanmar but Bangladesh relations with Myanmar appears to suffer from inertia. Although the Bangladesh Foreign Minister visited Myanmar in May this year, relations have bogged down with two matters—repatriation of refugees to Myanmar and maritime boundary.

Furthermore, there is no direct air or shipping link between the two countries. The two countries are so near but remain so distant as far as interconnectivity is concerned. New momentum must be instilled in relations with Myanmar.

Even the Obama administration has changed its earlier foreign policy towards Myanmar . Instead of isolating Myanmar, now the US wants to engage in diplomatically with the rulers of Myanmar.

The US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters on 24h September: “To help achieve democratic reform, we will be engaging directly with Burmese authorities. I would emphasise that we talked to the Burmese already.” The State Department official said adding that they were expecting Myanmar’s military regime to soon announce a point man for the U.S.-Myanmar dialogue”

. Most importantly Bangladesh needs to improve its relations with India and Myanmar. Improvement of relations may facilitate the resolution of maritime boundaries with Myanmar and India in the Bay of Bengal.

Bangladesh is andwiched between two Asian giants—India and China. This strategic position givs Bangladesh enormous opportunities and difficulties. Opportunities exist for gradual economic integration with both countries and one of the most important components is the interconnectivity through multi-modal transport.

Trans-national companies move industries to countries with cheapest skilled labour with good infrastructure. Economic development, among others, means that the country is increasingly locked into the global economy. It is increasingly difficult to tell the nationality of a product under globalization.

Some of the difficulties are: Can Bangladesh afford to woo China if the price of that courtship is a more distant relationship with India? Or can Bangladesh closely align itself with India distancing China ?

And what implications do closer ties with China have impact on bilateral relations with the US, especially if relations between Washington and Beijing begin to cool?

Is Bangladesh a more effective and influential ally if it does not always move in lockstep with India’s or China’s regional or global agenda, or does too much independence undermine the closer relationship with either of them?

To answer these sorts of questions, one needs to step back and consider how Bangladesh can take advantage by balacing delicately its relations with both China and India together..

Bangladesh policy makers must constantly question the adequacy of continuing a foreign policy that does not face challenges that are unprecedented in their complexity and intensity in the current external environment. Foreign policy experts need now more than ever to anticipate change ahead or else be swamped by it.

In my view, Bangladesh needs to be activist in the way it engages the region and the world. But at the same time, Bangladesh must also be realistic and should not over-promise what it can deliver in the region.

Many suggest that Bangladesh Prime Minister may consider visiting all the neighbours and near neighbours in South and South East Asia, China, Japan and South Korea as a priority.

By Barrister Harun ur Rashid
Former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva

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