How is Bangladesh changing the South Asian geo-strategic and political calculations dynamics?

PM Sheikh Hasina

Until a few years ago, “Indo-Pacific” was an obscure term in discussions on international affairs. But now, many countries have adopted Indo-Pacific strategies, including the US, Australia, Britain, France, India, Indonesia, Japan, the Philippines, and even Mongolia. South Korea joined the pack in December. And most recently, Bangladesh on Monday announced its 15-point Indo-Pacific Outlook (IPO).

On 24 April, Bangladesh unveiled its 15-point Indo-Pacific Outlook (IPO). The Bangladesh government has recently revealed the country’s Indo-Pacific Outlook (IPO), which is a commendable job as this is the first document it can now exhibit as its geopolitical perspective regarding the vast Indo-Pacific region.

This IPO will help Bangladesh build confidence among the Western governments. And the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has disclosed the country’s long-due IPO ahead of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s visit to Japan, which too has its own IPO. It is hoped Bangladesh’s move will be appreciated by the Western allies, including Japan. Now, they will take note of the document and look forward to how Bangladesh executes or translates its IPO into reality.

There are several state parties, and apparently the US allies have already published their IPOs. Hence, a question will be raised as to how China — a big development partner of Bangladesh — will react upon the latest IPO from a strategically important country.

So far, there seem to be no conflicting issues that could directly oppose mutual trust, respect, bilateral treaties, or shared economic prosperity among the Indo-Pacific nations. The Bangladesh government has carefully avoided polarisation narratives while presenting its IPO. So, it is believed no country should have misunderstandings against Bangladesh.

The Bangladesh IPO envisions a free, open, peaceful, secure, and inclusive Indo-Pacific for the shared prosperity of all. State Minister for Foreign Affairs Md Shahriar Alam presented the IPO, which was prepared with 15-point objectives based on four guiding principles.

The objectives include strengthening partnerships, promoting dialogue, maintaining maritime safety and security, combating transnational organised crime along with sustainable development, building resilient value chains, and enhancing health security.

Geographically, the Indo-Pacific region comprises the tropical waters of the Indian Ocean, the western and central Pacific Ocean, and the seas connecting the two. The region encompasses mainland African and Asian nations that border these oceans, such as India and South Africa, Indian Ocean territories such as the Kerguelen Islands and Seychelles, the Malay Archipelago, Japan, Russia and other Far East nations bordering the Pacific, Australia and all the Pacific Islands east of them, as well as Pacific nations of the Americas such as Canada or Mexico.

The Indo-Pacific strategy, which is the catalyst driving other nations to formulate their own outlooks, got momentum during the APEC meeting in 2017 when US President Donald Trump announced a new approach to Asia — a Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP). And finally, the release of the Indo-Pacific Strategy by the US in February last year led to other nations quickly coming up with their respective strategies.

The importance of the region and the interest in it as of late can be best described in the words of US Secretary of State Antony J Blinken. “I’m here, we’re here, because what happens in the Indo-Pacific will, more than any other region, shape the trajectory of the world in the 21st century,” he said back in December 2021 during a speech.

“The United States has long been, is, and always will be an Indo-Pacific nation. This is a geographic fact, from our Pacific coast states to Guam, our territories across the Pacific. And it’s a historical reality, demonstrated by our two centuries of trade and other ties with the region,” Blinked had further stated.

Most of the US allies, including Japan, Australia, and India have declared their own Indo-Pacific policies. The main Asian holdout now is China.

For now though, let us look at what the outlook will mean for Bangladesh to understand the recently announced Indo-Pacific Outlook’s significance and its potential impact on Bangladesh’s larger diplomatic ties.

This has been on the cards for some time now. Finally, the government has come out with a vision. It is thought this is quite a positive move. The Indo-Pacific region has been the topic of much discussion in recent times and now Bangladesh has come out and stated our objectives clearly. Now, everybody can clearly see what its priorities are.  ons with Bangladesh’s IPO.

We don’t see any immediate impact. Everybody is announcing their strategies. Japan, the EU, India have come out and announced their strategies and we are all getting to know each other’s outlooks, and that is pretty much it.

However, a churning is taking place. After World War II and the Cold War, this is the biggest churning that we are seeing. A lot of things are changing and there is a tension that was not there in the last 35 years. This will affect everyone to some extent.

Now, how much it will impact us depends on how well we can assess the situation, what preventive measures we can take and how we can diffuse any situation likely to affect us.

People will take note and analyse our outlook. Other than that we don’t foresee much immediate impact. 

They will definitely look into it and try to gauge how much it aligns with their respective priorities.

We don’t think there will be any friction. Just like we need China, they also need us. International diplomacy is about mutual benefits. But since we are the relatively smaller party here, we must take great care to explain our stance so that they don’t misunderstand us. This is where diplomacy comes in.

Right on the heels of this announcement, our Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is making a visit to Japan.

Japan and Bangladesh have been development partners for 52 years. They are old allies. We don’t think this trip will introduce a new dynamic, but an additional dynamic. As our demands as well as Japan’s priorities are changing, We think this trip will further deepen the relationship between the two countries.

We think our IPO announcement will get greater visibility due to the timing of this visit and will potentially be a talking point from our side.

After India and China, Bangladesh is going to have strategic relations with Japan. The announcement is likely to come in a joint statement during Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s April 25-28 visit to Tokyo. Experts say that establishing a strategic relationship with Japan will create an opportunity to maintain closer ties with the Western world. It will also help in maintaining a balanced position between China, India and the Western world.
“Japan’s strategic relationship with Bangladesh is not only applicable to the two countries. Through this, it will be easy for Bangladesh to maintain closer contact with other friendly countries of Japan.

Strategic relations with Japan have regional and international dimensions. This can be considered as a special event in the current changing Indo-Pacific politics, which I think will be helpful in achieving the national interest of Bangladesh.’

On the other hand, although there is no hostile relationship between Tokyo and Beijing, Japan is not connected to China’s sphere of influence. As a result,  this relationship between different countries will help Bangladesh in maintaining balance.

What is a strategic relationship?

In general, the two countries have established strategic relations with each other with a very close level of friendship and cooperation. The formation of military alliances may not be a strategic relationship deeper than a general relationship.

There are four elements to a strategic relationship, namely: First, the framework for enhancing cooperation through strategic relationships is formally announced by a statement from the highest level of government.

Second, there should be continuous high-level political visits to maintain and deepen the deep relationship between the two countries.

Third, emphasis is placed on strengthening political, security and defense cooperation in strategic relations.

Fourth, economic cooperation will be deeper and wider in scope.

Besides, the two countries should have the flexibility to adapt to the changing situation in strategic relations. The goal of strategic relations is to align the core national interests of the two countries in the long run.

Relations with Japan

Bangladesh and Japan currently have a comprehensive partnership relationship. Besides, Bangladesh is included in Japan’s vision ‘Big-B’ about the Indo-Pacific.

In this regard, Md. Shahidul Haque said, “In 2014, during Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s visit to Tokyo, the overall partnership was announced in a joint statement. Since then, Bangladesh is officially associated with Big-B.

Continuing the 2014 development of strategic relations with Japan, he said, “to take the relationship to the next level, various activities and national interests of both sides must exist.” It is also important that this relationship is being promoted at some point.’

Bangladesh is now economically strong and ranks second only to India in South Asia. Bangladesh is now considered as a responsible state in the global context. Bangladesh’s status as a humanitarian country is now higher than ever due to its sheltering of 1 million Rohingya.

Because of these reasons, the importance of Bangladesh has increased and it has been able to attract developed world countries like Japan.’

By strengthening friendship with countries like Japan, Dhaka will have an opportunity to increase political, economic, security and defense cooperation not only with that country, but also with other friendly countries of Tokyo.

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