Realities and challenges to Bangladesh foreign policy: Regional scenario | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, January 05, 2008 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, January 05, 2008

Realities and challenges to Bangladesh foreign policy: Regional scenario

On 18th December, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Bangladesh held its first foreign policy dialogue in collaboration with London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies.
The initiative is a good and constructive one because Bangladesh needs to adapt its foreign policy keeping in mind that the world order is changing fast with new players on board. The dialogue prompted me to write a few thoughts of my own on realities and challenges to Bangladesh foreign policy.
Foreign policy is not created from vacuum. It is grounded on a country's strengths and weaknesses. Besides, size, geographical location and resources influence directions of foreign policy. All these attributes are to be assessed objectively and dispassionately in determining the policy.
Furthermore foreign policy is an extension of domestic policy. In other words, objectives of domestic policy are to be pursued robustly through foreign policy. Domestic and foreign policies are two sides of the same coin. It cannot be separated.
One particular fact to be noted in this context is what Lord Palmerstone had said. No country is an eternal enemy or a permanent friend. What is permanent is national interest and it is to be pursued vigorously.
First, Bangladesh is located in South Asia, a war-torn region since 1947. Peace and stability have eluded it.
Bangladesh is sandwiched between two rising Asian giantsIndia and China. India is the hugging neighbour and China is only 100 miles across the Himalayas. Furthermore, Bangladesh stands as a bridge between South Asia and South East Asia.
Second, India and China have uneasy political relationship as they face contested borders. The unsettled boundary often erupts as an irritation to their bilateral relations.
Third, India and Pakistan have rivalry and the Kashmir dispute has exacerbated the bitterness of their relations.
Fourth, India assesses its security position in light of China's strength, while Pakistan defines its security concerns against India. This means that security is not confined to regional states.
Fifth, shared security perception is the glue that binds regional countries, such as ASEAN or the European Union. In South Asia, there exists no shared or common perception of security among the countries. Some states even perceive security threat arising from within the region.
Sixth, the South Asian region is asymmetrical because India's physical size is more than the combined size of all countries in the region. Moreover, India's geographical position puts it in the centre of South Asia. India shares borders with almost all the countries of the region and no other country shares border with another. This provides India a great geo-political significance.
Seventh, India's long-standing policy of bilateralism to resolve disputes with South Asian states and insistence on non-involvement of a third party or the UN is not conducive to peaceful settlement of outstanding bilateral disputes. The policy may suit India but not other states.
Against the peculiarities of South Asian region, the challenge is how to maintain a delicate balance of relations between China and India. If Bangladesh is perceived tilting towards one, it may arouse misgivings of the other. Bangladesh cannot afford to have an imbalance of bilateral relations with two Asian giants as it needs both of them.
Another diplomatic challenge is how to take advantage of the geo-political situation of Bangladesh, regionally and globally. To attain the objectives, one significant factor appears to be the inter-connectivity with both the giants. Interconnectivity includes cooperation in resource endowments of the region. Bangladesh will flourish most when connected to the region, China and the rest of the world.
Accordingly, there is a strong view that an integrated multimodal transport operation is imperative within the region. Transit and transshipment within the region ought to be considered for gaining benefits. Advantage cannot be realized unless physical infrastructure is addressed by Bangladesh comprehensively in an era of globalization where international borders are no more real than the equator and sovereignty of a country is getting diminished.
Energy-security is another challenge for meeting the developmental needs of Bangladesh. India is coal-rich, Nepal is rich in hydro-power and Bangladesh is gas-rich. Cooperation in having a common regional energy grid is called for. It is reported that Nepal alone, through its hydro-power, can generate 80,000 MW.
Degradation of environment poses security risk for Bangladesh because there is an interdependent relationship between internal security and economy. The devastation caused by Sidr in Bangladesh is an instance in which growing concern for occurrence of such natural disasters might happen in future years due to global climate change.
Another challenge is how to manage, develop and utilize the water resources of the region for the benefit of people. In the future, scarcity of fresh water will be acute in the region and development of water resources is to offset the deleterious effects within the region.
A serious consideration is to be given as to whether Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and Indian northeastern states could be grouped into an integrated economic unit for bigger market access for Bangladeshi goods, for availability of mineral resources from northeastern states for production of cement and setting up of joint enterprises with India using gas resources of Bangladesh.
Bangladesh faces the Indian Ocean through the Bay of Bengal. The Indian Ocean is gradually being militarised by many littoral states. The peacetime functions of the navy of many coastal countries have changed considerably. It is not confined to defense of territories. The navies patrol the distant waters to keep safe the sea-lanes for transportation of oil from the Middle East to Far East and promotion of trade. Bangladesh needs to monitor and consider how to play a role in the area of security of the Indian Ocean.
The author is former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva.

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