In the traditional security debates, geo-strategic significance of a country is often viewed through the prism of conventional power equation: its ability to generate and yield power using its geographical strengths and weaknesses. The basic elements of geography : the location, size, climate and topography, have often conditioned the foreign policy outlook of the nations. Such perception is not at all unfounded. Historically, geographically disadvantaged nations have had to pay heavy price for their existence. Poland, geographically sandwiched between Russia and Germany, was once almost on the verge of extinction. USA, UK and Japan, on the other hand, have been protected for centuries by large bodies of water. General 'Winter' has saved Russia twice from foreign invasion- once from Napoleon and then from Hitler. Singapore, a tiny city-state with a huge population, has been extraordinarily favoured by its geographical location. Sitting on a critical node of international trade route, it is enjoying a topnotch economic status based on its revenue from the sea-port and service sector. So, geography does matter in the geo-political and geo-economic equation.
This notional perception about geo-strategic significance has oftentimes generated abysmal frustration among the traditional analysts about the geographical location of Bangladesh. By now, we are tired of listening to how weak and vulnerable we are. Bangladesh is literally landlocked from three sides by its big neighbor India with the only opening towards Bay of Bengal and a small land border with Myanmar. Seemingly, the security analysts have reasons to be worried. This small country is surrounded by three out of seven known nuclear powers, sharing common and disputed boundaries. That definitely adds to the worry. This small landscape provides the drainage system of a catchment area twelve-times larger than its size. And the upper riparian countries can and do take unilateral decisions to block this natural drainage system inviting ecological disasters for us as well as for them. So, the environmentalists have reasons to be worried, too. Finally, this small nation-state ranks first in population density, to be outdone by only two city-states: Hong Kong and Singapore. So, the economists too can tail the long cue of pessimists.
There are a good number of optimists as well. But their optimistic views are also shaped by traditional perception of security. Experts on traditional security can probably lengthen the catalogue by adding many more factors contributing to the geo-strategic significance of Bangladesh. But the purpose of this write-up is not to debate on the issue within a traditional security framework. Traditional concept of security is often too parochial and devoid of contemporary global trends. For any pragmatic analysis of the geo-strategic significance of a country, two basic things must be remembered. First, we all share a common world inhabited by multiplicity of actors. Concept of security and the threats to it often does not conform to how a single nation or a group of nations perceive it. It is the cumulative reflection of how the diverse range of actors within the international system wants to shape the world order. Second, the issue of geo-strategy is not impervious to changes. The strategic environment is consistently influenced by global 'Forces' and 'Trends' at work.
According to the glossary of International Relations, a 'Force' is a factor that influences a nation's ability to achieve its objectives; and a 'Trend' is the cumulative direction forces give to the international security environment. For instance, nationalism or ethnicism may be regarded as the 'Forces' causing the break-up of Balkan states. The break-up of former nation states into smaller states may be regarded as a 'Trend'. Any geo-strategic analysis must take the contemporary forces and trends in due consideration; otherwise the findings will be either incomplete or faulty.
The Fall of the Berlin Wall had unleashed new kind of forces in the geo-political atmosphere. The disintegration of the erstwhile bipolar arrangement into a so-called unipolar one was only the tip of the iceberg. As the old alliances started breaking loose, and as the newly decolonized nations started reasserting their unique identity, the uneasy unipolar arrangement soon started turning into a multipolar one. Though the nation-states have thus far evaded the clash of civilization as postulated by Huntington, the defiant non-state actors are now coalescing with their ideological partners all over the globe transcending the national borders. These realities have given rise to a host of non-traditional security threats undermining the authority of state actors. Today, the sub-national and trans-national actors are shaping the security environment of the world. The traditional approach of addressing inter-state conflicts have been subdued by the rising trend of intra-state and global conflicts. We might not have yet tasted the bitter experience of the war between civilizations, but we have often heard the rhetoric of 'Crusade' and 'Jihad' not only from the fanatics but also from very high profile statesmen of global stature. Syria today showcases only a tiny sample of the severity of ideological conflicts within the same civilization. One can only imagine the anarchic future that awaits us in the event of a full-blown clash between civilizations.
Given this global trend, the geo-strategic importance of Bangladesh has touched a hitherto unprecedented height. This small country stands on the fault-line of two of the oldest civilizations: Sinic and Indic. This small landscape houses the third largest Muslim population of the world. And despite the heinous propaganda of vested quarters and some of the derailed media, we continue to be the most moderate Muslims of the world. Four out of the seven major civilizations have converged onto this blessed landscape. Our attire and food-habit demonstrate how Indic we are. The loud call for prayer five times a day throughout the country showcases how fervently Islamic we are. The ever-proliferating use of cell phone and internet by the most ordinary people of this country demonstrate our technology-friendly and forward-looking attitude as well as our promptness in embracing a bit of Western civilization. The Signing of CHT Accord and the peaceful coexistence therein underscore our ability to befriend the people of Sinic origin, too. The bottom line is: this blessed land is the perfect home of four major civilizations: Indic, Islamic, Sinic and Western. In this age of lurking civilizational conflicts, Bangladesh can help cement the ever-widening gap between civilizations. There lies the geo-strategic significance of Bangladesh.
At regional level, the location of Bangladesh offers the most viable trans-regional gateway between South and South-East Asia. Thus in any trans-regional cooperation in the field of trade, communication, transportation or energy, Bangladesh can play a very significant role. Besides, the availability of potential deep sea-port facility can provide a suitable alternative to Singapore for the sea-farers travelling from Middle-East and South America to the Far-East. This definitely adds to our geo-strategic importance.
A top ranking non-traditional threat to global peace and security is the proliferation of drugs. Conceivably, the non-traditional threat actors rely heavily on drug trades for fund raising. Thus threats arising from drug-trades are no less evil than those posed by the terrorists. Geographically, Bangladesh is located between 'Golden Triangle' and 'Golden Crescent'. Illegal drugs produced in Golden Triangle (Myanmar, Laos, Thailand) and in Golden Crescent (Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran) enters into India and then through south India to the Ocean and on to the destination to Europe, Russia etc. Apparently, with the exception of few isolated cases of Yaba, the drug lords have not yet found a good host in Bangladesh, neither for consumption, nor for trafficking. Though the geographic location provides a critical node in the supply chain, our socio-cultural values might have resisted any alarming rise in the use or trafficking of drugs within/through Bangladesh.
Finally, it might be useful to remember that the term nation-state includes two equally appealing components: nation (refers to the people) and state (refers to the land). A meaningful analysis of the geo-strategic significance of a country should therefore make due consideration of not only the land but also the people who live therein. And the geo-strategic significance of our country lies not so much on the topography as it does on the demography: a peace-loving mass: friendly, forward-looking and resilient.
The writer is a Staff Officer in the Army Headquarters