The Bangladesh contingent comprises 170 personnel, led by Brigadier General Mohammed Mafizul Islam Rashed, Commander of 52 Bangladesh Infantry Brigade. The lead unit from the Bangladesh Army side is 27 Bangladesh Infantry Regiment.
As the great power competition in the Indo-Pacific intensifies, Bangladesh has come out with its Indo-Pacific outlook. This policy document has been released on the eve of Sheikh Hasina’s visit to the United States, the UK and Japan.
These are some of the important players in the Indo-Pacific. Besides, the US and Japan are also important members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad). The countries Sheikh Hasina intended to visit are important economic and trading partners of Bangladesh.
They are important destinations for Bangladeshi products especially readymade garments. Besides, Bangladesh hopes to engage them as major development partners. Bangladesh has graduated from the least developed category to become a middle income country.
Though this is a welcome development for a country which was considered as a basket case at the time of its liberation, it has also presented new challenges especially in the economic arena.
Bangladesh would be losing certain facilities like the GSP which helped its products penetrate these markets. In the absence of such facilities, the country would be facing increased competition. In a changing environment like this, Bangladesh needed to bring clarity to its approach towards the Indo-Pacific so that it continues getting privileges in its export markets.
It is well known that China has made deep inroads in the countries of the Indo-Pacific, including those in South Asia. The growing great power competition in the Indo-Pacific has made the US and its allied countries come out with their Indo-Pacific Strategy. In most cases, containment of China is the central theme of these strategies.
As China is the largest trading partner and military hardware supplier for Bangladesh it has not been easy for Dhaka to take a stand on the IndoPacific.
Bangladesh is also an active partner in the Chinese Maritime Silk Road project that is part of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Moreover, China is engaged in a number of infrastructural projects in Bangladesh. It has financed and constructed a submarine base for Bangladesh where two submarines purchased from China are kept.
Actually through these endeavours, China has been trying to penetrate into the Indian Ocean and change its security environment. Recently, similar Chinese activities have also been reported from the Coco Island of Myanmar. China is aware that the IndoPacific strategy of the US and its allies has a security component.
The Chinese ambassador in Bangladesh, Yao Wen pointed this out in a dialogue held in Dhaka. He actually warned Bangladesh from joining the Quad grouping which he felt was directed against China.
Bangladesh strongly reacted to this Chinese warning and considered it as an intervention in its internal matters. It also indicated to China that it wants to maintain autonomy in foreign policy.
To clear the air on its approach towards the Indo-Pacific, Bangladesh has now come out with its ‘Indo-Pacific Outlook.’ The word ‘outlook’ has been purposely used instead of ‘strategy’ as it has a softer connotation. A similar approach has been taken by several Southeast Asian nations.
The document was released by the Bangladeshi state minister for foreign affairs Md Shahriar Alam. He pointed out that ‘the Indo-Pacific area’s collective share in global GDP, preponderance in international trade, enhanced climate action and growing technological dynamism can be key determinants for ensuring Bangladesh’s long-term resilience and prosperity.’
In the document Bangladesh ‘envisions a free, open, peaceful, secure and inclusive IndoPacific for the shared prosperity for all.’ This highlighted the main thrust of the policy towards the Indo-Pacific. The document has four guiding principles and fifteen objectives.
The main focus of guiding principles is on Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s foreign policy dictum ‘Friendship towards all, malice towards none.’ It also talks of the principles of the United Nations Charter and renunciation of the use of force in international relations.
It emphasizes adherence to the relevant UN treaties, international conventions and UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). It seeks constructive regional and international cooperation for sustainable development. In the objectives section of the document it wants countries to strengthen existing mechanisms on maritime safety and security in the Indo-Pacific and uphold the exercise of freedom of navigation and overflight in accordance with international law and UNCLOS.
Bangladesh also wants to promote open, transparent rules based multilateral systems that enable equitable and sustainable development in the IndoPacific and beyond. The importance of unimpeded and free flow of commerce in the Indo-Pacific is also highlighted.
Clearly, Bangladesh is interested in trade and commerce. Bangladesh released its Indo-Pacific outlook before Sheikh Hasina’s visit to some important countries because it wanted to gain maximum economic advantage from them.
At the same time, by limiting it to only economic aspects it has hinted that it will not be part of any security alliance. By adopting this approach it has tried to placate the Chinese who feared that Bangladesh might join an anti-China alliance.
It has been suggested by some that Bangladesh has moved in this direction because of its closeness with the Indian government. However, this may not be true. For India, China is a hostile neighbor whose containment is desirable. But Bangladesh tries to balance its relationship between India and China.
This approach could also be seen in its Indo-Pacific outlook where Bangladesh has tried to steer clear of any security alliance. Bangladesh is also heading towards elections which are likely to take place in January 2024. In case these elections are not perceived as free and fair by Western countries they might scale back their ties. In this situation, India and China could prove to be its main supporters in the international arena.
Bangladesh has come out with its Indo-Pacific outlook because most of the world’s economic powerhouses are located in this region but it doesn’t want to be seen as siding with anyone.
(The writer is Associate Fellow, Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.)