Bangladesh foreign policy faces challenges.

Bangladesh foreign policy faces challenges.

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 working and cooperative relations with neighbours and near neighbours and there is no alternative to this.

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.”

Foreign policy and its objectives:

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.

Second Bangladesh is geographically located between two Asian giants—India and China. This strategic position gives Bangladesh enormous opportunities for economic growth.. Economic development, among others, means that the country is increasingly locked into the regional economy. Bangladesh needs to pursue equidistance policy between China and India because it cannot afford to annoy either of the two countries.

Third, Bangladesh must maintain good relations with big powers which control the Security Council of the UN through their vetos.

Fourth, Bangladesh must regionally cooperate to maintain peaceful environment in the Indian Ocean as Bangladesh has now exclusive maritime areas (both 200-mile economic zone and outer continental shelf) for exploration and exploitation for living and non-living resources.

Finally, Bangladesh must continue to play an active role in the UN and other forums as Bangladesh has created a good name by deploying Bangladeshi personnel including women as UN peacekeepers in many war-torn countries.

Relations with neighbouring 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.

The two countries are so near but remain so distant as far as interconnectivity is concerned. However it has improved since last year as Bangladesh Biman flies out to Yangon from Dhaka twice a week. Coastal shipping may be established soon as the negotiations are in the final stage.

Bangladesh relations with Myanmar appear to suffer from misunderstanding on the issue of Rohingyas. Some of the Rohingya organisation want secession of Arakan (Rakhine) from Myanmar. Confidence- building measures need to be adopted between the two countries through regular exchange of high level visits.

Relations with India under the Hasina government has achieved a new heigh since 2009.. Although the India’s failure to ratify the land boundary agreement, non-signing of the agreement of sharing of the waters of the Teesta and killing or abduction of Bangladesh civilians at the Indian border has severely diminished the gloss of the overall relationship, both countries need each other under the globalised world. Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj visited Bangladesh in last June and assured Bangladesh of resolving the issues. Furthermore Bangladesh people wait to see how Modi government resolves the pending bilateral issues.

There is further a perception in many people in Bangladesh that Indian policy towards Bangladesh is nothing but manifestation of a “big brotherly” attitude toward smaller neighbours. That means whatever suits to India must be suitable to its neighbours, regardless of its impact on them.

India is a regional power and is emerging as a global power. India’s core interest is to ensure that relations with Bangladesh are tension-free. Prosperous and comfortable Bangladesh is an asset to India for its new role in global affairs.

Sub-regional cooperation is based on proximity of areas and common economic interests. In this context, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and the northeastern states of India could gradually be integrated economically that could provide engine of growth. This sub-region could be part of the “Kunming Initiative” linking Myanmar, and China as well.


One of the most important components of economic globalisation is the interconnectivity through multi-modal transport (roads, rail and sea) with the regional countries. India wants transit through Bangladesh while Bangladesh wants transit through India to Nepal and Bhutan. These issues need to be sorted out for growth of regional trade and economy. Bangladesh and India are expected to sign a coastal shipping agreement which will greatly facilitate the trade between the two countries. (At present shipping route from India to Bangladesh either goes via Singapore or Colombo). Bangladesh could also act as bridge between South and South East Asia through Myanmar linking all the countries through transport interconnectivity.

Recently it is good that Bangladesh Prime Minister visited Japan and China in recent months. And Japanese Prime Minister is scheduled to arrive in September to Bangladesh.

Bangladesh policy makers must constantly adjust foreign policy that faces 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 fritter its limited resources for something which is not Bangladesh’s national interest.

By Barrister Harun ur Rashid

Former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva

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