Following other regional middle power states and the Quad countries, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Bangladesh on April 24 announced its own outlook of the Indo-Pacific. Even within geopolitical maelstrom, Bangladesh as littoral state of the Bay of Bengal has developed an outlook on the Indo-Pacific. Undoubtedly, it drags considerable attention among European countries, the United States, and other Quad partners. China will also eye the Indo-Pacific outlook of Bangladesh with cautious note. No doubt, during the drafting of the outlook, Bangladesh takes into cognizance how China, the United States and the other Quad partners would appraise its engagement.
Bangladesh’s outlook on the Indo-Pacific region envisages four guiding principles and fifteen objectives for free, open, peaceful, secure, and inclusive Indo-Pacific. First four objectives of the outlook delineate Bangladesh’s engagement in security, maritime safety, counter-terrorism efforts, combating organized crime in the Indo-Pacific through normative and practical actions.
The concept ‘Indo-Pacific’ is mentioned ten times and the ‘Bay of Bengal’ only once in the outlook. One criticism emanates from such observation is that the outlook lacks readily implementable measures as well as objectives in the Bay of Bengal region. It signals that Bangladesh does not have any intention to burden any strategic security role in the Bay of Bengal region. The outlook is also ambiguous on building integrated deterrence in the Bay of Bengal region. It is puzzling why Bangladesh is reluctant to bring the Bay of Bengal while elaborating Indo-Pacific engagement in outlook. In addition, the outlook fails to clarify Bangladesh government’s standing and observation towards integrated deterrence in the Bay of Bengal. But integrated deterrence is a control variable for the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy and the Quad member states. Bangladesh must harness and delineate integrated deterrence and must go further than what the fifteen objectives of the outlook enumerate.
Considering Bangladesh’s geostrategic position adjacent to the Bay of Bengal, does this outlook forecast Bangladesh’s intention? Does Bangladesh’s Indo-Pacific outlook give impetus to make any viable implementation of integrated deterrence in the Bay of Bengal? In addition, amid underpinning of ‘integrated deterrence’ in the U.S. Indo Pacific strategy , another provocative question reiterates: how will the littoral states of the Bay of Bengal like Bangladesh contribute roles in translating integrated deterrence vision? There will be futile ramification for Bangladesh’s Indo-Pacific outlook if the integrated deterrence strategy in the Bay of Bengal is overlooked. Lack of answer to these questions would merely create caveat in Bangladesh’s engagement in maritime safety, security and rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific.
The Bay of Bengal is pivotal maritime zone of the Indian Ocean where strategic struggles are going to be played out. The significance of this maritime zones is looming larger in the maritime calculus of the Indo-Pacific region. The geostrategic importance of Bangladesh and the Bay of Bengal has serious implications for China’s multi-pronged ambitions towards global governance. Bangladesh’s unique geography on the northern tip of the Bay of Bengal, sharing borders with India and Myanmar has veered the country into all-weather geostrategic asset for China’s resolve.
China’s ceaseless endeavor to penetrate into the Bay of Bengal through Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sri Lanka has been a maritime security challenge to rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific region. Over the past decades, the littoral states of the Bay of Bengal have long depended on China owing to economic, military and infrastructure development. This opportunity helps China to scramble to construct ports, roads, pipelines and railway tracts in those coastal states of the Bay of Bengal.
It is no surprise that we are observing the active influence of China in the Bay of Bengal littoral states. China’s infrastructure project involvement and financial loan to the littoral states have raised two concerns: potential use of those infrastructure for China’s ‘string of pearl’ purpose; and, creation of political influence in those littoral countries. Such clout of influence would later hamper practice of democracy and rule of law. Furthermore, China’s involvement in infrastructure facilities of those countries indicates its strategy of making long term presence in the Bay of Bengal, laying steppingstones for any sustained blue water activities (e.g., anchoring, docking station for refueling of naval vessels) in the Indian Ocean region.
China’s engagement with Bangladesh can be appraised as sophisticated bilateral relationship. The cordiality between Bangladesh-China relations began from 1975 onward. Since then, Bangladesh’s military and diplomatic apparatus have been engaging in consequential high-level interaction with China. Bangladesh’s conventional maritime radar sensing, surveillance, maintenance spare, and weapon systems are largely Chinese origin. Furthermore, Bangladesh’s several critical and strategic infrastructures are financed and assisted by China.
Ironically, considering the origin source of military assets and spares acquisition, it is not convincing that the recently revealed outlook would be used as springboard to whisk away Chinese influence on Bangladesh’s strategic and security related decision making towards the Bay of Bengal. Bangladesh’s recent operationalization of the submarine base ‘BNS Sheikh Hasina’ with Chinese financial and technical assistance; the induction of China’s most up-to-date VT5 light tank – already offer solid evidence of Bangladesh’s loyal military clientele to China. Bangladesh cannot afford adopting all the principles of Indo-Pacific Strategy, even if it wants to. It will probably take significant amount of time to confront such situation.
Behind the effectiveness of any strategic outlook, the real strengths are in its initiatives that lead to the true compliance of strategy which the outlook recognizes to make effective. In face of geopolitical and geostrategic realities, the formidable challenges of Bangladesh’s outlook, ironically, would be to advance the outlook. It is still a puzzle how Bangladesh would confront the skeptic eyebrows of China and its profound stakes in South Asia, Southeast Asia and the Bay of Bengal, while advancing the outlook. Bangladesh’s Indo-Pacific outlook signals the formidable obstacles ahead for Quad partners and middle power states of Asia in wading across the geopolitical maritime space of the Bay of Bengal.
The Indo-Pacific outlook should be viewed as steppingstone for Bangladesh to ensure rules based international order in the Indian Ocean region. In doing so, Bangladesh needs to prioritize elaborate attention to build capacity with other littoral states of the Bay of Bengal. If Bangladesh is genuinely serious about advancing the Indo-Pacific strategy in the Bay of Bengal, it needs to focus more on integrated deterrence and on delineating its strategic role with the Quad partners that advances its sovereign interests and ensures rules based international order in the Bay of Bengal.
[Photo (cropped) by Fredrik Rubensson, via Flickr, is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.]
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
The author is a Graduate Teaching Assistant at the Department of Political Science and Public Administration, the University of Texas at El Paso.