Mulling on National Security Strategy of Bangladesh: Priorities and Posture

If Bangladesh reciprocates the hostile signals of Myanmar, will it consolidate Bangladesh’s security or will it bring Bangladesh on the same footing as Myanmar?

The hostile overture of Myanmar didn’t spiral, partly owing to Bangladesh’s restrained posture. Had Bangladesh overtly embroiled itself in escalation dynamics, the situation might spiral out of control, and the aggressor-victim dichotomy would be blurred. Conversely, Myanmar’s hostile actions propelled diplomatic measures by Dhaka, which attest to the conciliatory bent of Bangladesh.

The absence of overt retaliatory measures doesn’t indicate the feebleness of Bangladesh, rather the strategic patience of Bangladesh can be interpreted as a commitment to peace, eschewing unwarranted conflicts.

Oftentimes, the proponents of active deterrence—that can be termed as a proportionate military reprisal in exchange for a military violation—consider the security game as a zero-sum, and short-termism fixates the security radar, overlooking the long-term and far-reaching implications of certain actions on the security. The unprovoked military incursions by Myanmar hadn’t escalated since there was a lack of proportionate hostile measures on the part of Bangladesh to fuel further escalation. Had the ill-advised recommendations of the hawkish advisors been heeded, it might bog Bangladesh down in a protracted conflict. Also, in a projected scenario of confrontational dynamics between Bangladesh and Myanmar, the sources of aggression couldn’t be untangled, thus the dichotomy between aggression and defense will be blurred.

Should India be Conceived as a Threat?

India and Bangladesh share a civilizational amity, with the bilateral ties premised on this friendship. Nonetheless, there are certain fringe elements in Bangladesh’s society, that grumble at India’s supposed dominance over Bangladesh, and brands India as the overarching security threat.

Commentators often argue that Bangladesh holds strategic leverage over India through its proximity with restive North-Eastern India, a region plagued with secessionist tendencies. Oftentimes, the strategic leverage is overblown, and hawkish observers recommend exploiting North-Eastern India. Such ill-advised policy recommendations fall within the realm of negative security, which entails that security would be bolstered through a blatant stratagem. Such a strategy is destined to be frustrating, since holding Northeastern India hostage from the mainland, will signal an adversarial posture, thus the tensions will escalate rather than mollifying the security anxieties of Bangladesh.

Such recommendations sound rosy on paper, however, are not practically feasible, and fixation on such ideas can yield counterproductive results.

The deterrence equated with crude military capabilities is implausible to sustain since countries need to match with the capabilities of the hostile powers and need to fine-tune military strategies infinitely— translating a drain on military capabilities. How possibly Bangladesh can deter India, considering the redoubtable nuclear power of the latter coupled with the colossal behemoth that is India? Will any military consolidation short of nuclear power be considered a credible military deterrence against India? Given the civilizational amity that prevails between the two countries, is such a hostile posture warranted and desirable? Such hostile posturing might send wrong signals to India, engulfing the broader region into renewed conflict dynamics.

Deterrence in the strategic lexicon connotes conflict and suggests an implicit adversarial relation. Is a deterrence strategy vis-à-vis India desirable? Such a strategy has an unintended fait accompli, that frames India as a source of threat. However, while Bangladesh-India ties are scourged by strings of irritants, nonetheless a semblance of friendship prevails between the two countries. Thus, any such strategy will not be prudent and might contrive realities that seldom exist—to the detriment of Bangladesh’s national interest.

Is Bangladesh’s Foreign Policy Toothless?

Bangladesh’s foreign policy is often derisively termed as being “toothless”, suggesting the lack of hostile posture and inadequate defensive capabilities of the country. The western notion of security—invariably translated in terms of military security with the military build-ups as the yardstick, is not pertinent in terms of Bangladesh. Given the resource crunch of Bangladesh and the pacifist image that Bangladesh carefully cultivates, any overt militarization is not in the best interests of the country. Conversely, any attempt at military consolidation might signal a hostile posture of Bangladesh and might generate backlash from the neighboring countries. The efforts of Bangladesh to overtly safeguard its security—will be transmitted through the regional security system echoing escalatory dynamics, thus diminishing the national security of Bangladesh in the final analysis.

Gauging Bangladesh’s military capabilities based on uniform western notions will generate ill-advised and rash policy decisions. Rather, the image of Bangladesh—as a conciliatory power and a proponent of global peace—will lead the global community to bolster Bangladesh if any crisis ensues. In contrast, any efforts to amplify security through militarized means will inexorably divert the resources that are indispensable to fostering the development trajectory of Bangladesh. Besides, any conflict with other countries will drain resources and taint Bangladesh’s global image, thus entangling the country into an endless morass.

The hostile provocations of Myanmar don’t signal the strength of the latter, rather it reveals the belligerence of Myanmar to embroil Bangladesh into a conflict. The militaristic character of the present regime of Myanmar is evident from its policies—from the forced eviction of the Rohingya refugees to the arbitrary usurpation of power in Myanmar toppling the civilian government of Myanmar, seizing power through illegitimate means overlooking the scathing opprobrium of the international society. Thus, a country unconstrained by global norms is likely to engage in provocations and other escalatory measures aimed to deflect attention from other transgressions perpetrated by it. However, if Bangladesh becomes ensnared in the trap, it will severely damage the economic and security stability of the country, rupturing the period of blossoming economic growth.

Thus, the hare-brained nostrums suggesting a boost in the military capabilities are not compelling, since rather than resolving the security issues, it might generate renewed security dangers, eliciting hostile backlash from other neighborly countries that will be unsettled by sudden military vigilance of Bangladesh.

Security considerations cannot be crudely reduced to the number of tanks that a country possesses, rather security needs to gaze through a more holistic prism. Dwarfing Bangladesh in terms of the quantitative yardsticks doesn’t confer leverage to Myanmar, in contrast, the actions of Myanmar had elicited a chorus of scrutiny across the world, amplifying the security trepidations of the Junta to secure its hold in Myanmar. The acrimonious disposition of Myanmar needs to be viewed through the lens of Myanmar’s inherent insecurities to fend off itself.

In modern diplomatic conventions, the overt military posture doesn’t indicate strength, but rather invariably communicates insecurities that necessitate such securitization measures. Conversely, assured security entails a certain degree of certainty due to mutual amity with the other stakeholders in the region, to the extent that any hostile actions can be forestalled through diplomatic means. Deterrence doesn’t spring from the barrel of a gun but is rather consolidated by coherence and adherence to international norms.

Towards a “Smart” Security Strategy

Overlooking the saber-rattling rhetoric advanced by certain quarters, Bangladesh needs to concentrate on its economic potential and development prowess, which invariably translates to strategic leverage. Security and economics are inextricably tied. Hence, boosting the sense of security should be channeled through development policies—through articulating a vision of a prosperous Bangladesh. Rather than lamenting the lack of security and thus igniting a vicious cycle of conflict and chaos, the security of Bangladesh needs to be dealt with with a positive and proactive strategy.

A smart security strategy entails that Bangladesh forges linkages with powers in the region premised on mutual interests. The interests of Bangladesh need to be secured through delicate strategic balancing, dialogue transparent communication. Functional ties in the non-security realm need to be bolstered so that such functional linkages accrue strategic dividends. A smart security strategy will espouse reconciliation while eschewing the threat perception and vicious conflict cycle. Economic and development partnership needs to be leveraged, rather than instinctively resorting to military means. Moreover, a smart security strategy requires that security will be consolidated through sustainable and viable means, rather than betting on an infeasible and costly undertaking.

[Photo by aboodi vesakaran / Pexels]

*Mehjabin Maliha Hossain is an international affairs researcher and pursuing her doctoral studies at National University of Singapore (NUS). The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect TGP’s editorial stance.

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