Bangladesh’s Pragmatic Foreign Policy: Viewing the Indo-Pacific Outlook in a Broader Context

On April 24, 2023, Bangladesh formally unveiled its ‘Indo-Pacific Outlook’, a foreign policy document of great strategic significance. Taking into account the fact that Bangladesh has so far lacked any full-fledged foreign policy strategy outlined in precise terms and that the 8th most populous state in the world currently finds itself on the politico-diplomatic frontlines of the New Cold War, the declaration of the Indo-Pacific Outlook constitutes the first major step in articulating and presenting Bangladesh’s foreign and security policy in a more structured and formalized manner. 

Bangladesh, a relatively ‘young’ state which obtained independence only half a century ago, has usually pursued a carefully-crafted, well-balanced and calculative path in its foreign policy. At that time, it was vulnerable economically and militarily, so it had no other viable options. Its governments lacked the luxury of engaging in confrontational bloc politics during the Cold War. Accordingly, ‘friendship towards all, malice towards none’ became the strategic mantra of Bangladeshi foreign policy, and Dhaka sought to navigate the muddy (and bloody) waters of the Cold War by maintaining cordial (or at least non-conflictual) relations with all the great powers and working relations with its neighbours while generally avoiding confrontation on the international arena.

While the Cold War has been terminated and Bangladesh is currently in a relatively better position in terms of socio-economic development and military power, Dhaka still has to follow a careful and pragmatic foreign policy. As the strategic competition between the United States (US) and China intensifies, especially in the Indo-Pacific region, Bangladesh — an Indo-Pacific state with its strategically vital location along the Bay of Bengal — is faced with the same dilemma that it had to face during the Cold War. As the region becomes increasingly polarized and militarized, Bangladesh is presented with a stark choice. In addition, Bangladesh is faced with the protracted Rohingya refugee crisis, an increasingly unstable Myanmar on its southeastern border and a prolonged regional rivalry between India and China.

It should be noted that Bangladesh has extensive political, economic and military ties with both sides of the New Cold War. It has strong politico-economic ties with its neighbour India, extensive military-economic relations with China and substantial economic-diplomatic connections to the US, the European Union (EU) and Japan. Tellingly, Bangladesh is part of both the Chinese-led Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the US-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). All of the aforementioned partnerships are important for Bangladesh’s continued socio-economic development, which has been the raison d’être of the Bangladeshi government and crucial to the maintenance of its socio-political stability. So, it is not in the interests of Dhaka to scuttle any of these partnerships for the sake of picking a side in the brewing bloc confrontation in the region.

The Bangladeshi Indo-Pacific Outlook has been framed precisely in that manner. Rejecting inter-state confrontation, bloc politics and Cold War mentality, Dhaka has expressed its preference for a ‘culture of peace’, common security, joint development, regional cooperation and a rules-based order in the region. Obviously, the Bangladeshi Indo-Pacific strategy did not emerge in a strategic vacuum. A number of Indo-Pacific countries (including the US, Japan, South Korea and France) and even some non-Indo-Pacific countries (including Canada) have formulated their Indo-Pacific strategies. In addition, regional institutions, such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), have articulated their own Indo-Pacific strategies. The Bangladeshi Indo-Pacific Outlook has to be assessed in this broader context.

Bangladeshi Indo-Pacific Outlook shares both similarities and dissimilarities with the Indo-Pacific strategies of other countries and organizations. For instance, the Bangladeshi Indo-Pacific Outlook bears striking similarities with the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific in terms of their objectives and principles. Both emphasize regional cooperation and deemphasize confrontation, while calling for a rules-based international order. Moreover, Bangladesh’s Indo-Pacific Outlook is also congruent with Japan’s vision on a ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’, France’s ‘Indo-Pacific Strategy’ and South Korea’s ‘Strategy for a Free, Peaceful and Prosperous Indo-Pacific Region’, because the statements of all these documents are couched in cooperative language and stop short of singling out any particular country for disrupting peace in the region. Furthermore, the Bangladeshi Indo-Pacific Outlook contains an important similarity with the Canadian ‘Indo-Pacific Strategy’. Both of these documents emphasize the ‘women, peace and security’ agenda. While other Indo-Pacific strategies have passingly mentioned the issue of gender equality, the Bangladeshi and Canadian Indo-Pacific strategies are unique in the sense that they have accorded greater importance to the role of women in the peace and security of the region.

On the other hand, Bangladesh’s Indo-Pacific Outlook is different from the US and Canadian Indo-Pacific strategies in one important respect. Both the US and Canada have, in their Indo-Pacific strategy documents, singled out China as the culprit responsible for the disruption of peace and security in the region. Taking into account their adversarial relationship with China, it was not unexpected. However, in this respect, Dhaka’s position differs from that of Washington and Ottawa, as Dhaka has clearly rejected confrontation in the region in its strategy and opted for mutually beneficial cooperation with all the actors involved.

While some might misinterpret Bangladesh’s non-alignment and rejection of bloc politics and military alliances as the non-existence of a coherent foreign policy, the reality is both different and complicated. During the Cold War, the peoples of Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Angola, Ethiopia, Afghanistan and numerous other states paid steep prices for their governments’ engagement in bloc politics. At this very moment, Ukraine is being devastated owing to its engagement in bloc politics. Bangladesh and its 170 million people have absolutely no need or desire to suffer similar fates by opting for bloc politics. So, Bangladesh’s well-balanced and pragmatic stance on the Sino-US confrontation, as enunciated in its Indo-Pacific Outlook, is a step in accordance with its wider national interests.

On a final note, the UK’s constitution is unwritten, but that does not mean that the UK’s politics is conducted in a constitutional and legal vacuum. Similarly, the absence of formal policy documents cannot and should not be equated with the non-existence of a foreign policy in Bangladesh. In the previous decades, Bangladesh had to tread carefully on the international stage owing to its strong dependence on foreign donors, and accordingly, openly expressing its preferences in foreign policy could have been politically dangerous and economically ruinous for the nascent state. Still, the country managed to follow a course of foreign policy that benefited it politically and economically in the longer run.

As Greek historian Thucydides had mentioned in his History of the Peloponnesian War, the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must. Bangladesh is no longer in the category of weak states. Bangladesh is now considered an emerging middle power. It is set to possess the 25th largest economy of the world by 2035. Once dependent on foreign aid, it now provides aid to other countries. It is currently the world’s foremost paramilitary power and 12th Power on the Rise. With increasing diplomatic clout and international prestige, its political influence is also gradually increasing. As Bangladesh gradually grows stronger in terms of military-economic capacity and its statehood becomes correspondingly well-entrenched, it would undoubtedly be emboldened enough to openly express its foreign policy preferences. The formulation of the Indo-Pacific Outlook is only the preliminary step in this longer process.

[Photo by by Amiabir, is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.]

Md. Himel Rahman is a post-graduate student at the Department of International Relations, University of Dhaka, Bangladesh and an analyst on international politics and strategic affairs. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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