Bangladesh’s Indo-Pacific Outlook: Tilting, Rebalancing, or Else?

Ever since the United States refocused its strategic pivot to the Asia-Pacific region in 2011, the region has increasingly become the global “center of geo-strategic gravity.” Under the umbrella concept of ‘the Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS)’, one conceived and floated by the United States, and enshrined under the idea of “Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP),” the United States, since then, began to relocate its global strategic resources into the region. Experts even attributed the broader U.S. strategic retraction in the Middle East — the withdrawal from Afghanistan after 20 years or the contraction of the presence of combat forces in Iraq — to its renewed strategic reorientation to the Asia-Pacific.

With the Sino-US ties increasingly becoming more confrontational — one that intensified under the Trump administration and remains persistent in the current one, more U.S. strategic attention has been seen pouring down to this line in response to China’s aggressively growing political, economic, and military assertions in and across the region. The Biden administration has apparently realigned and further consolidated its relations with its allies — that had endured a testing moment during the Trump era.

As the Sino-US great power rivalry has been heightened, so has the geopolitical maneuvering space for the region’s middle and minor powers to maintain a middle course increasingly been squeezed. Amid such a situation after months of speculation and anticipation, Bangladesh unveiled its 15-point “Indo-Pacific Outlook (IPO)” on April 24, 2023. The announcement came just right before the Prime Minister embarked on her tri-nation diplomatic visit to Japan, the US, and the UK. 

In the wake of the formal announcement, even prior to that, the iteration of the IPO has invoked several strategic interpretations at the broad level, to varying degrees, most notably, speculation over whether Dhaka has strategically tilted towards the West. Those who claim the IPO’s prospective westward tilt insist on what Bangladesh envisions in its IPO: “a free, open, peaceful, secure, and inclusive Indo-Pacific for the shared prosperity for all” — an expression the spear header (the US) of the concept has repeatedly articulated to define the IPS.

In the case of formulating a state framework oriented towards any grand strategy, like the IPS that has increasingly become central in defining how the current power struggle between the US and China will be played out in coming years, or even decades, dictions certainly carry significant connotation in marking off the positional distinction. This also constitutes risks for other countries of being interpreted, if endorsed, as siding in favor of any particular bloc or deviating from the previously pursued position. 

Therein lies the problem when a specific player in any strategic struggle re-characterizes even a universally embraceable and benevolent policy positioning, through investing immense diplomatic capital and public relations campaigns, into an identical policy slogan to its strategic scheme. Who doesn’t want a “free and open Indo-Pacific for shared prosperity for all?” Indeed, no one, even not China itself at which the IPS is presumably targeted at. Against this backdrop, cheery-picking specific wordings from the IPO to claim strategic tilting risks leading to a misplaced strategic assessment, resulting in a failure to truly grasp Bangladesh’s strategic orientation to the IPS.                

In its around 15 years in power for three consecutive terms, Sheikh Hasina’s government has widely been acclaimed for its “delicate and deft balancing” of US, China, and India ties — a crucial, at the same time, a daunting task to deal with given increasingly frayed relations between them — while, simultaneously, putting a significant amount of its national energy into country’s economic emancipation drive. Thanks to its diplomatic maturity, deftness, and equipoise in its dealings with larger and rival powers, it has so far carefully avoided having leaned to any extreme or being categorized as a strategic understudy of any global or regional powerhouse.

But Bangladesh has recently experienced a toxic geopolitical reality on the economic front: it has seen even a far-flung geopolitical crisis could threaten the hard-earned economic progress it has garnered over the last couple of decades, thwarting its almost successful post-pandemic economic recovery drive and bringing the country almost edge to the fate of Sri Lanka, albeit luckily evaded. The devastating shockwaves from the war in Ukraine followed by the years-long devastating COVID-19 pandemic, in the form of energy and food crises, debt distress, forex shortfall, dwindling export, soaring import costs, etc. have substantially decelerated the pace of its economic progress, eroding much of the country’s bright economic prospect. 

As the Indo-Pacific region has increasingly been turning into a hotbed of superpower hostility, with the potentiality of a major conflagration between China and the US creeping into an apparent possibility, Bangladesh, like other littoral states in the region is increasingly becoming concerned and well aware of easily conceivable fallouts from potential geopolitical catastrophe. In this backdrop, the IPO is not merely an “amalgam of Bangladesh’s foreign policy initiatives already announced for years or an expression of good intentions and practices in international and regional politics,” as one Bangladeshi former diplomat observed, it is, on the top of that a relatively manifest assertion, out of exigency, in pitching its own conceptual framework toward an ever-evolving geopolitical conception — the IPS.

Dhaka’s Indo-Pacific Outlook (IPO), in broad lines, has placed priority on two important aspects: non-traditional security issues in the Indo-Pacific and its willingness to cooperate with regional and global actors to address these threats, with an ultimate aim to boost economic progress and prosperity for its people. Envisioning a “free and open Indo-Pacific;” aspiring to make a “meaningful and value-driven contribution to international non-proliferation, peacekeeping, peacebuilding, and counter-terrorism efforts;” or emphasizing the promotion of dialogue and diplomacy in “ensuring peace, prosperity, security, and stability for all in the Indo-Pacific” reflect what it deems to be integral, and monumentally important, as in the case of its other regional partners, to its economic and national prospects. 

So in lieu of looking at Dhaka’s IPO through the bloc-politics lens by narrowly pointing to specific ideological dictions that are objectively applicable and crucial for the regional greater good, one should view it through Bangladesh’s human security and economic lens. A “peaceful, just, and inclusive” Indo-Pacific is immensely important to its national security as much of its national interests, more broadly its future, hinges upon how the future of the Indo-Pacific region evolves in.

[Photo by Pixabay]

Monoar Alim Chowdhury is an independent researcher and security affairs analyst with a specialization in Asian affairs. He has completed his graduation (BSS in International Relations) and post-graduation (MSS in Development Studies) from Dhaka University, along with the Master of Philosophy (M.Phil.) program at the same institute. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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