How about Bangladesh?

Posted in China, foreign policy, India by jrahman on April 30, 2012

The folks at AoD have thrown the gauntlet — they want a conversation.  Well, I don’t have anything terribly original to say about ministers or MPs or ex-MPs or their drivers, whether they are with or without jobs.  Nor do I have anything to say about the return of hartal.  But I think I can say something semi-intelligent about Purboposhchim’s take on foreign policy.

The blogger observes:

Consider that two of our neighbours are China and India – high growth countries with large populations. Over the next century these two countries will grow more powerful and their ambitions will grow with them. There will be opportunities for cooperation and for conflict.

What should the Bangladeshi foreign policy be in response to this ‘new Great Game’? 

Purboposhchim says there are two options: one, “play one against the other” (the Afghanistan option); or two, “make ourselves indispensable to both” (the Switzerland option). 

Of course the blogger is pumping for the Swiss route.  And I suppose if there is a choice between those two options, I would also choose the Swiss —  who wants to be Afghanistan?

It’s just that I don’t think the premise of that choice is particularly sensible.

Let’s consider Purboposhchim’s example of how we can be like Switzerland:

… if we did develop Chittagong and ensured that both India’s Northeast and China’s western provinces had rail access to it, that would be in line with such a doctrine. And make us some very good friends on the way.

This is essentially the same vision as the current government or Dr Yunus’s connectivity agenda.  One might even say that the last BNP government also had a variation of this thought.  The thing is, it’s not upto Bangladesh to ensure rail access between Chittagong and China’s western provinces.  Look at the map — there is this not-so-little country called Burma between Bangladesh and China.

Map of South-East Asia

In fact, Purboposhchim’s post applies really well to Burma — that’s the country with borders with not just both India and China but also South East Asia, that’s the one with natural resources that both energy-starved giants seek, that’s the country with multifaceted divisions that can be exploited by the Great Gamers, that’s the country that needs to worry about being Afghanistan.  And that’s the country that has the potential to be Switzerland.

We can try to build a huge port in Chittagong.  But why will Burma let the Chinese through to Chittagong when they can build a deap sea port of their own?  And if Burma has already built a huge port, they may as well let India use it too. 

This is not to say we shouldn’t build up Chittagong.  We should if we need to.  But before building a huge port, let’s move the Bangladesh Bank to Chittagong, make it a true business capital, relocate our exports industries around there, and make the existing port a more efficient one by cracking down on mafia-like labour leaders.  Without addressing any of these domestic policy issues, “building a port for China and India’s use” sounds rather peculiar to me. 

And I think the point holds more generally.  Bangladesh does not need to be a theatre for Sino-Indian rivalry.  So the Afghanistan or Switzerland dichotomy, I don’t think, applies.  At best, by trying to make ourselves indispensable, we will have wasted a lot of energy — look at the political capital lost by the current government by trying to cosy up to India.  At worst, by courting one of these giants, we will invite the other into meddling — look at the trouble the Zia family has attracted on itself, and the country, by trying to play the game in North East India.  Far better to live and let die. 

All that said, Purboposhcim actually begins the post with something that I agree with:

 Bangladesh is certainly not master of the waves. But nor is it a flotsam completely at their mercy. 

Bangladesh is a labour surplus but natural resource and capital poor country.  Our foreign policy should be aimed at assisting our domestic policy, whose priority has to be lifting the millions out of poverty.  Export-driven industrialisation still represents the best way of achieving that.  And that requires a liberal global trade and investment regime.  Meanwhile, we need better functioning global agriculture or natural resources markets to avoid the 2008-style price spikes.  We are the largest poor country — our voice can matter in a way, say, Malawi’s can’t.  As we industrialise, we will become a polluter, and yet we will also likely be the largest victims of past pollutions by the global North.  We can play a role in bridging the North and South on climate change.  We are a secular Muslim democracy with a thriving civil society — we can teach a thing or two to our Arab brethren. 

Bangladesh can, and should, affect the direction of things in many an international forum.  These will not be the stuff of grand summits and grander victory parades.  But we actually have been doing this on and off for a few decades now.  In fact, there is already bipartisanship on the basic idea — Ziaur Rahman started it back in the 1970s, and Sheikh Hasina pursues a variation of it today.  Let’s junk the “regional connectedness” agenda, and focus on the world instead.

Let’s not worry about Afghanistan or Switzerland, and let Bangladesh be Bangladesh.


6 Responses

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  1. fugstar said, on May 2, 2012 at 10:02 pm

    i think we are prone to attaching our dignity too much to neighbours and not so near neighbours. and its frankly embarassing and cringemaking that people feel they can so easily do PR for such a whole load of people.

    Its epstemically autocratic.

    Bangladesh governments of different hues arent influencers, but beggers on the world stage. we have many able people but the politics lack a sense of purpose.

  2. Diganta said, on May 3, 2012 at 2:07 am

    Interesting read. I know that India is coming up with its own port in Sittwe to serve its North-East. That will provide India with a bargain power. I don’t see China to use Chittagong because that will need them to negotiate deals with India, Myanmar and Bangladesh.
    I am not sure how Switzerland model applies to Bangladesh. There are too many “Switzerlands” in Asia – why not Bhutan, Nepal be “Switzerland”? Why not even Myanmar? Or even Afghanistan :)?
    In current world Geography is less relevant and I feel Singapore has already taken the role of Switzerland in Asia. A lot of multi-country deals go through that country.
    The same thing applies for “Afghanistan argument” as well.
    Bangladesh will remain Bangladesh in the foreseeable future. To align its policies to some historic success stories may be lucrative, but not viable.

  3. kgazi said, on May 4, 2012 at 11:24 am

    No country whether Swiss or Sing, ever grew big by trying to tamper with ‘foreign policy’. Such games only end in self-destruction, not self construction. USA can play such egotistic games, and they too end up in downfall.
    The best policy for Bdesh is DOMESTIC. Forget the backhand, covert, advisor -driven tampering with India Burma China. Instaed, Bdesh can only become a Switzerland by developing its own backyard, not the other brothers’ !!

  4. […] at Mukti has a response to my foreign policy post, noting that we at AoD wanted a conversation more than anything […]

    • purboposhchim said, on May 6, 2012 at 2:56 am

      Right back at you chief!

  5. […] Sino-Indian rivalry, Bangladesh should avoid becoming like Afghanistan and be like Switzerland; I said Bangladesh need not be either because it need not be a theatre of Sino-Indian rivalry, rather it […]

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