Re-thinking foreign policy
PRIMARILY, the foreign policy of a country is formulated on the basis of core interests of the state flowing from its prerogative to preserve its sovereignty. Territorial disputes are the most common conflict patterns that a nation's foreign policy should be able to address. In this area, the foreign policy of the government of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman immediately after independence of Bangladesh complicated the process of demarcation of land and maritime boundaries with India, which surrounds Bangladesh on three sides.
The handing over of Berubari enclave, for example, in exchange for Dahagram and Angarpota enclaves in India could hardly be justified because Berubari enclave was part of Pakistan according to the Noon-Nehru Agreement.
Similarly, many non-demarcated and disputed enclaves, arbitrarily divided on either side of a border, may cause conflict between two neighbouring countries. A glaring example of a serious border clash between Bangladesh and Indian forces occurred in 2000, during the Awami League government.
If a boundary problem remains, the population living along the border of the neighbouring countries is not able to live in peace. The 1962 war between India and China over a remote, mountainous, and largely uninhabitable territory known as Ladakh, and three wars between India and Pakistan over the princely state of India held Kashmir, are the results of boundary problems.
The same problem of demarcation of maritime boundaries with Burma (now known as Myanmar) on the southern flank of Bangladesh remains unresolved.
It was a serious mistake of the government of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, which could have resolved the process of demarcation of land and maritime boundary between Bangladesh and India as well as with Burma, during a favourable political climate that existed immediately after the birth of Bangladesh.
It is a fact that Bangladesh's foreign policy during this initial period was not a balanced one, as Bangladesh favourably tilted towards the Indo-Soviet axis. The signing of a 25-year friendship treaty with India in 1972 alienated Pakistan and the western countries, while India improved relations with Pakistan at the expense of Bangladesh.
The 25-year friendship treaty was a prototype of the one signed by India and the Soviet Union on August 8, 1971, before the Indian army intervened on behalf of the Mukti Bahini (the army that fought for the independence of Bangladesh) when it demonstrated its ability to survive the onslaught of the Pakistan army.
Moreover, the signing of three-party treaty in India by Pakistan, India and Bangladesh in April, 1973, doomed the trial of the prisoners of war. As a result, the government of Bangladesh could not honour its commitment for holding the trial of the prisoners of war.
The apportionment of assets and liabilities remains unresolved between Bangladesh and Pakistan till today.
Against the backdrop of this scenario, the government of Bangladesh should pursue, both with India and Burma, the resolution of the issue of demarcation of boundaries and disputed enclaves to have peaceful borders, which is a sine quo non for the economic development of the countries in the region.
Geopolitics does not dictate formulation of foreign policy, which was the case in the twentieth century. Bangladesh is surrounded by India on three sides, with a small border with Myanmar in the South-East and the Bay of Bengal on the southern flank.
Therefore, geographical compulsion dictates that laying the foundation of friendly relations with the neighbouring countries should be the cornerstone of the foreign policy of Bangladesh.
Logically, it should focus primarily on its giant, and closest, neighbour: India. Bangladesh and India share 4,000 kilometres of border, and 54 rivers as well. India, with roughly eight times the population and more than twelve times the GDP, should be the major attention of Bangladesh's foreign policy.
Another area of conflict with India is the equitable sharing of waters of the common rivers. Both Bangladesh and India should sit together to sort out the problem of sharing water to the mutual benefit of the people of each country in line with international maritime law.
Though there is agreement with the comments made by the foreign affairs advisor at the Bangladesh-India dialogue sponsored by the Centre for Policy Dialogue in Dhaka on December 11, the initiative should come from Bangladesh to resolve the sharing of common rivers as per International maritime laws. India cannot deny the rights of the lower riparian country. Attention is invited to an article by this writer, which The Daily Star carried on September 13.
On the other hand, being a big neighbour, India should extend a hand of cooperation to its neighbours in the greater interest of the people of the South-Asian region. This region is inhabited by one billion people living in abject poverty.
Peace and security are prerequisite conditions for the economic development of the countries of the region. It is only in an environment of peace and security that problems can be addressed and tackled successfully.
Presently, economic and commercial interests have received prominence in the formulation of the policy when conducting foreign relations. Therefore, trade, not aid, should receive priority in the foreign policy of Bangladesh, which is still suffering from poverty, natural disasters and uncertain political climate.
Bangladesh is still dependent on foreign aid, and will continue to remain so unless efforts are made to diversify its trade policies. The flow of aid has been declining in recent times.
The United States, for example, is no longer the world's largest donor of economic aid. Bangladesh is presently a recipient of negligible aid from the United States. Japan has become the top donor to Bangladesh. Most European countries attach conditions for granting aid.
These are: good governance, establishment of democratic institutions, and rule of law and improvement of human rights. Strictly speaking, Bangladesh does not qualify for foreign aid if European countries strictly adhere to the criteria attached for granting aid. In view of the declining trend of bilateral aid, Bangladesh should find ways to have more markets for its products.
Bangladesh should develop good trade relations with India, where products from Bangladesh could enjoy the market of 90 million at least. Similarly, Bangladesh should pursue with the government of India to allow a corridor to Nepal to use Chalna (Khulna ) port in Bangladesh, which would help increase trade relations between Bangladesh and Nepal.
Furthermore, Bangladesh should pursue a policy to cultivate entrepreneurs from India and western countries to encourage direct foreign investment in Bangladesh, which will substantially restructure the country's economy.
This will also help open up job opportunities for the unemployed. For the purpose of inviting Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), there is an urgent need to increase the level of efficiency of the government, board of investment, national board of revenue, and export promotion bureau in particular. Red tape should be dispensed with to promote trade relations.
The image of the country depends not only on the position of the country in the community of nations, but also on the successes and failures of the political leadership.
As German Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck rightly pointed out: "foreign policy is the extension of domestic policy." If domestic policy is not formulated on a correct path a country's foreign policy will not succeed.