Since the past few years, South Asia has become a theatre for superpower rivalries. After the ‘rise’ of China, the rapid spread of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and the revival of Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) as a counter-measure by the United States and its allies; the discourse of South Asian politics is now dominated mainly by Quad-China stalemate. Previously, it was only revolving around Sino-Indian and Indo-Pak rivalry. And it gave other small South Asian states space to conduct their foreign policy choices. But in this ‘neo-cold war’, it seems these spaces are shrinking as superpowers, and regional powerhouses are becoming more desperate to understand their exact position in the absence of a Non-Alignment platform. And this ‘Side picking’ has become a problematic task for many South Asian states because of their complex interdependence upon the superpowers. Especially for Bangladesh as it shares one of the world’s largest borders with India from three side, as it has dependence upon China for trade and commerce and has the largest export market in the West. Such dilemmatic positions have made it even more problematic for Bangladesh to pick any side in this conflict. To stay neutral amid this rivalry, Bangladesh must strike balance between the superpowers.
In the conventional wisdom of International Relations (IR), there are four broad strategies for states to follow to ensure their survival and address security concerns or threats: Bandwagoning, Balancing, Hedging, and lastly, Buck-passing. Bandwagoning strategy suggests that countries should join the source of the threat to address the threat, while balancing refers to equalizing odds with the source of threat. Hedging is a relatively new concept in IR emerged after the 1990s analyzing the behavior of the small states, who neither balance nor bandwagon; instead they follow a middle path of both where they maintain an ambiguity as a strategy. And lastly, Buck-passing which means instead of addressing the threat, the state relies upon other powers to address the threat, popularly referred to as ‘passing the buck’ to others.
Questioning the Unitary Idea of Quad
After the revival of Quad to address the growing Chinese presence in the Indo-Pacific region through BRI projects, the strategic environment of South Asia has changed dramatically. It has now become a part of the Quad-China stalemate. Bangladesh’s geo-strategic importance has increased drastically for a unique geographic location with a border with India with three sides, especially with North-East India, access to the Bay of Bengal, and its border with Rakhine state. Due to strong ties with Myanmar, ports in the Rakhine state can provide China with direct access to the Bay of Bengal. Hence, Bangladesh’s support has become highly desired for all parties. While analysis commonly takes Quad and China as binary opposites, considering the context of regional politics, it seems Quad is not a unitary force; instead, it is a diverse one. India is the powerhouse in regional politics, and China is an extra-regional power. South Asian states generally use this rivalry to create their space. The rationale behind China’s stake in South Asian politics is to counter-balance Indian dominance.
However, one of the major provisions of the US Indo-Pacific strategy is to empower India. Therefore, considering the regional politics, an ’empowered’ India is also a power to balance for Bangladesh. So, Quad doesn’t come as a unitary force for Bangladesh. Joining Quad suggests that Bangladesh is aligning itself with an ’empowered’ India, which contradicts its regional political objective. Another strong critique of the Quad is that its members have diverse interests. Therefore, members are trying to fulfill their ‘side-quests’ through this forum. Hence, the unitary idea of Quad as the binary opposite to China is unviable for most South Asian states, especially for Bangladesh, because of its characteristics and dependence over the rivals. Therefore, the number of powers to address Bangladesh is not two; but three- the USA, India, and China. So, how should Bangladesh manage this superpower rivalry?
The Problem of Hedging
Bangladesh’s foreign policy behavior suggests that Bangladesh is following the strategy of hedging. It is an ambiguous approach where instead of picking a clear side, states follow a mixed approach of balancing and bandwagoning to address the threat. Bangladesh has been following this strategy for a while now to nurture sound relations with both India and China in regional politics. But amid a heated rivalry, it seems hedging is not a viable option as it raises trust issues and cloud of confusion among the parties. In 2021, the USA imposed sanctions upon RAB — an elite force of Bangladesh and its seven former and current officials over the allegation of violation of Human Rights. According to analysts, apart from the allegation, the USA’s perception of Bangladesh also played a crucial role. The USA perceived Bangladesh as a ‘Pro-Chinese’ state, and hence, sanction has a geopolitical dimension where the US wants to coerce Bangladesh. The Chinese Ambassador to Dhaka warned Bangladesh not to join Quad in the same year when Bangladesh didn’t even receive an invitation. Such observation suggests that strategic hedging has resulted in a cloud of confusion and trust issues among the superpowers about Bangladesh’s stance. It has also made both rivals ‘insecure’ about Bangladesh’s position. Therefore, it seems hedging is not a viable strategic option for Bangladesh amid a heated international rivalry.
Balancing the Superpowers
As both bandwagoning and hedging are not viable, the only option left for Bangladesh is striking balance between superpowers. It is also a well-practiced strategy in Bangladesh’s foreign policy and aligns perfectly with the foreign policy principle, “Friendship to All, Malice towards None”. In the age of complex interdependence, the literature on balancing has also evolved accordingly. Various types of balancing have been developed and practiced worldwide, including Economic pre-balancing and Evasive balancing. Bangladesh must use its trade, commerce, Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), geopolitical significance, and political power to balance the superpowers. To do so, it must diversify its sources. However, balancing between three superpowers will be a formidable job and costly. Bangladesh will have to reduce its reliance on single seller and buy them from other sources to diversify its trade sources. For instance, defense hardware is cheap from China, but diversifying sources will decrease the buying. For security, Bangladesh should prioritize multilateral options. Bangladesh has already joined multilateral forums such as Colombo Security Conclave (CSC) and Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) to ensure its security in the Indo-Pacific region. Bangladesh has already joined BRI and should also have an open mind about the ‘Bring Back Better World’ (B3W) plan of the G7. Balancing policy will clear Bangladesh’s neutral stance and eradicate the cloud of skepticism to all the rivals. It will also help Bangladesh to carry on its regional politics. And lastly, Bangladesh should facilitate further research on developing balancing strategy and foreign policy practice to set a clear path and ensure a better future navigation.
[Photo Credit: Prime Minister’s Office/Bangladesh]
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
The author is an independent Researcher and Analyst on Political Economy. He has completed his B.S.S. in International Relations from University of Dhaka. He has also completed his M.S.S. from same department. MD Mufassir is an occasional contributor to The Diplomat, Asia Times, Modern Diplomacy and Eurasia Review.