Using our strategic leverage
LOT of developments are taking place in the geostrategic domain of South Asia and also in Asia and its adjacent waters. The situation isn't as dire as it was in the Soviet era, yet the states are positioning and repositioning themselves in response to the developments and to maintain strategic parity or advantage. The Americans and the Chinese are engaging each other, but largely for cross purposes. India's aspiration to gain big power status, at least in the Asian context, is well known. To some, Russia is still a reckonable player in some parts of Asia.
There are important small and medium-sized countries caught in strategic confusion and working hard to strike a balance and retain some leverage. There are, of course regional, continental and international spheres, and to gain some free play in one sphere one may have to compromise some interest or leverage in another. South Koreans and Japanese host sizable American military units, which may seem to taint their sovereignty or independence, but does not actually. They gain great assurance by counterpoising their alliance with the mighty US against the belligerent North Koreans or the ever strengthening Chinese.
Bangladesh often fluctuates, to considerable extent, in its regional and international positions. The strategic picture changes with domestic political change. This is not good for proper guarding of Bangladesh's legitimate interests in the regional and international arenas. It may make us an unreliable international actor to many. To guard our core interests we have to have some reliability in that sphere, and of course gain required leverage to do that.
Bangladesh's case is complex. Its domestic incoherence is acute. It is related to the existing cleavage in core ideologies and perception of identity and recent history. And in those narratives our neighbours, Pakistan and India, are placed in different lights. Relations with them in the regional geostrategic settings are often defined and redefined as per the divisive domestic political narratives. Although there are some instances of pragmatism, e.g. BNP's occasional moderate take on relations with India, or AL's reconciliation with China; yet, by and large, the essential agreement on foreign policy, and the external strategy thereof, is missing.
A vulnerable country like Bangladesh needs geo-strategic consistency for securing its vital stakes. Broad domestic agreement is a must on issues that dictate its international stance. There are unique strategic challenges already facing Bangladesh. For example, the present government wants to maintain good rapport with India and rely on its support for international acceptance; especially after the last exclusive general election denounced by most of the international community. On the other side, we have serious bilateral issues with our big neighbour. Moreover, it seems that a new centre-right government will take over, which doesn't appear to have good feelings towards Bangladesh, after the ongoing election there to replace a relatively moderate one. How is Bangladesh going to approach that government to solve, say, the vital and difficult water and land enclave issues?
The fluidity of projected scenarios and potentially unknown relationship quotient add to the tense uncertainty. Of course, much will depend on the gestures and practical actions of the new Indian government. Our geo-strategic policies haven't left us much room for an alternative course other than looking for goodwill from India. One vital counterbalancing country, Pakistan, is too sensitive for us as things stand.
Bangladesh is mostly a homogeneous country, unlike our big neighbour. Our strategic leverage may emerge from our external alliances or from our internal strength based on a supposed unity, or from a mixture of both. In Bangladesh-India equation, we both need each other for different reasons, and these have some links to other big actors of the region or trans-region. Fulfillment of Indian needs must come at the same price as Bangladesh's needs. Both the needs have great weight.
Relatively silent struggle between the US and China on retaining and expanding their domain of influence, including in the Indian Ocean region, has significant influnce in shaping many other strategic relations in the region or the continent. American concession of strategic space to India in relation to South Asia stems from their tacit, sometimes strained, alliance between them. It's true that the Cold War era alignments aren't there anymore and most international actors engage other important and relevant actors—may be in varying degree. Use of hard power in South, South-East or East Asia and their adjacent waters is largely off the table unless something unexpected happens.
The ideological landscape has changed a lot in the post-Soviet era. The contest has shifted from communist-free world line to liberal extremist and economic fault lines. Bangladesh maintains or tries to maintain rapport of varying degrees with most of the regional and international players like US, EU, UK, India, China, Saudi Arabia and even Russia. Our endeavour needs well thought out direction. We may need to devise or transform strategies smartly to retain some strategic leverage based on the changed external scenario and keeping in mind our core interests.But for that to happen we need to build as soon as possible a unified domestic paradigm on the core ideologies and values. An actor who is weak internally is handicapped in many ways in making effective moves externally.
The writer is an Associate Research Fellow in Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies (BIPSS).
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