Bangladesh : A Force to Reckon in U.S. Geostrategic Calculation

Sheikh Hasina PM of Bangladesh
Credit: Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, UK (via Wikimedia Commons)

Bangladesh has traversed 50 years of its independence. The country — once pejoratively termed as “basket case” — has captured global attention recently due to its promising economic trajectory. However, the strategic significance of Bangladesh, and its relevance to great power competition remains underappreciated. Although, Bangladesh’s geopolitical importance deserves great powers’ attention “in its own merits”, the US still sees Bangladesh as a subset of its South Asia policy, and more recently through the lens of “India”.

Against this backdrop, Anu Anwar and Michael Kugelman, in their seminal essay, published in Foreign Policy magazine titled: “America Should Bet on Bangladesh”, has lamented the deplorable neglect of Bangladesh in the radar of the strategic thinkers. The authors argued that the representation of Bangladesh in the global media primarily plagued by numerous predicaments, is a reductionist lens of gazing at Bangladesh. Any comprehensive assessment of Bangladesh needs to take into account its geostrategic location, population size, rising economy and the role it plays in global stage.

Geography — Curse or Blessing?

First, Bangladesh’s geographical position, while lamented by some commentators as a “curse”, however has proven to be a boon in the recent South Asia’s geostrategic calculation. Anwar and Kugelman contends that Bangladesh’s close proximity to both China and India, especially Bangladesh’s position abutting narrow yet strategic Siliguri Corridor, that bifurcate India’s heartland with its less developed and restive northeastern region, has considerable geopolitical implications.

Bangladesh’s geostrategic location, when seen on the purview of China-India tension across Himalayan, add even another layer of value. The worsening relationship between two countries risks triggering a full-scale military conflict owing to contending claims across the Line of Actual Control (LAC). In a perceived Sino-Indo clash across LAC would require India a massive force mobilization via Siliguri Corridor, which can cut-off easily on the face of the barrage of Chinese missile attacks. In such a scenario, India would need alternative route to transport its force from mainland to seven sisters. If Bangladesh deny India’s access via its territory, India will lose its strategic edge over China’s advancement in Seven Sisters.

This strategic position, therefore, has provided Bangladesh with the opportunity to exert leverage in the event of future crisis in the region. The writers maintain that while China doesn’t share a border with Bangladesh, the distance between two countries is only 100 KM which makes the two countries more proximate than is conventionally conceived. China has made evident efforts aimed at bridging this distance between two countries   through its flagship BRI (Belt & Road Initiative), which aims at building six overland economic corridor to connect China’s inland provinces with nearby coastal region. In fact, Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic   Corridor (BCIM-EC) is one of the six proposed economic corridors of BRI considers Bangladesh as the bridgehead between Kunming and Bay of Bengal. This is an indicative that despite America’s laxity Bangladesh is in China’s strategic radar.

Nascent Economy

Following two decades after its independence in 1971, Bangladesh has encountered a series of military coups and subsequent political turmoil which tarnished the country’s image as a ramshackle economy. In stark contrast, sustained economic progress in the past few decades, underpinned by commendable growth rates, has baffled observers and dispelled entrenched stereotypes regarding Bangladesh as an impoverished country.

Anwar and Kugelman maintain that Bangladesh’s economic progress is remarkable due to several reasons. First, the competitiveness of Bangladesh’s garment industries has consolidated Bangladesh’s position as a prime destination for garments production. Besides, remittances from the expatriates communities is the mainstay of Bangladesh’s economy and propped up the country’s economy even amidst debilitating pandemic. Third, the author argues that Bangladesh’s unique demographic dividend has ensured a large pool of working age population whose contribution enhanced the country’s economic productivity. Besides, the equal presence of females in economic activities, despite being a Muslim-majority country, has enabled Bangladesh to reap the fruits of its population dividend.

A Force For World Peace

Bangladesh’s contribution to international peace and security has embellished the country’s international standing. Bangladesh has gained laurels and approbation in the international realm due to its consequential contribution to international peacekeeping. Bangladesh is one of the top troop contributors in the U.N. peacekeeping operation and currently Bangladesh’s forces are deployed in eight countries. Anwar and Kugelman contend that the international presence of Bangladesh’s peacekeepers has threefold utility. First, peacekeeping strengthens Bangladesh’s global image as an advocate of global peace and security. Second, peacekeeping demonstrates Bangladesh’s active contribution to the global peace and security. Third, peacekeeping missions facilitates the expansion of Bangladesh’s diplomacy.

China’s Growing Interest in Bangladesh

Despite China’s opposition during Bangladesh’s liberation struggle, bilateral relations improved steadily since China’s recognition of Bangladesh as a sovereign state in 1974. This is partly due to China’s remarkable economic progress over last three decades. China’s economic might enables it to translate its economic power into geopolitical leverage. In this vein, China has accorded Bangladesh with millions of dollars of infrastructure investments among other economic incentives, which led two countries to elevate their bilateral relations to strategic partnership. This deepening partnership is evident as the Chinese president visited Bangladesh in 2016 — a watershed moment in bilateral relations — as first Chinese president visiting Bangladesh in 30 years. Bangladesh joined China’s BRI and China pledged Bangladesh approximately $24 billion investment, the highest amount ever promised by any countries to Bangladesh.

Bangladesh’s deepening relationship with China has sparked trepidation in India as it falls short in resources to compete with China to win Bangladesh. India fears that after the recent tilt of Sri Lanka, Nepal and Maldives towards Beijing, Bangladesh the most trusted partner may follow suit. China-Bangladesh ties can undermine India’s regional ambition significantly. This fear has prodded New Delhi to pledge Bangladesh LOC amounting to $5 billion, although only 10% of it has disbursed as of 2021. Besides, India has concentrated efforts aimed at projecting public diplomacy. 

There are a number of longstanding issues such as Bangladeshis killing by Indian border patrol, India’s failure to delivery Testa water sharing agreement cast dark shadow over Bangladesh-India relations. Far from diffusing this simmering tension, India under Narendra Modi has further alienated Bangladesh by stoking communal tensions with spill-over effect on Bangladesh. Recently, far from providing with vaccine, for which Bangladesh made the payment in advance, India’s arbitrary cancellation of vaccine export has rendered Bangladesh helpless in the midst of the pandemic. However, Anwar and Kugelman maintain that despite Sino-Indian rivalry centering around South Asia, Bangladesh has kept itself shielded from this tug-of-war through a deft balancing act between China and India.

The U.S. Should Take Notice

Bangladesh’s deepening partnership with China is dismaying for the United States. Despite Bangladesh’s consequential geopolitical importance, the U.S. hasn’t yet engaged strategically with Bangladesh. Anwar  and Kugelman contend in line with Biden’s Indo-Pacific strategy to counterbalance China in the region, U.S.  should invest strategic capital for Bangladesh. As with any fledgling economy, Bangladesh requires infrastructure and foreign direct investment. This economic rationale has deepened Bangladesh-China relations in recent years. However, Washington’s shortfall lies in the incapability of providing significant infrastructure investment. The authors assert that Bangladesh’s relationship with China needs to be conceptualized from the lens of economy first, geopolitics second. China provides ample investments that are significant for Bangladesh’s socio-economic development, which Bangladesh unlikely to give up.

The writers urge caution on the part of U.S. in engaging with Bangladesh. Anwar and Kugelman contend that U.S. needs to be meticulous regarding Bangladesh’s sensitivities. They dissuade U.S. not to pursue Bangladesh overtly in QUAD as it might push Bangladesh away as alienating Beijing means jeopardizing economic partnership with China.

While Bangladesh has not been overtly invited to join Quad ,there is however whiff of Bangladesh’s possibility of being subsumed in the grouping which had elicited a stinging admonishment from the Chinese Ambassador to Dhaka. Besides, the U.S. has recently excluded Bangladesh from its democracy summit. This is an indication of U.S.’s growing displeasure with Bangladesh’s present regime. Against the backdrop of the deteriorated  U.S.-Bangladesh relations, authors’ urge U.S. to respect Bangladesh’s sensitivities, is indeed instructive for Washington.

Finally, the resurgence of Bangladesh in the geopolitical landscape has been deplorably overlooked, especially by the United States. Anwar and Kugelman’s essay – published in the prominent “Foreign Policy” magazine — laments this neglect towards Bangladesh. They made the case for Bangladesh’s unique strategic value and why it deserves great powers attention “in its own merits”. The tendency to see Bangladesh through the lens of other capitals is over, Anwar and Kugelman asserts. This essay is set to be a precursor of discussion surrounding Bangladesh’s strategic significance.

Kazi Asszad Hossan is a foreign policy and geopolitical analyst. He contributes  informative pieces  regularly for Bangladeshi as well as international outlets. He can be reached at:asszad16@gmail.com.