The Zia synthesis: foreign policy

Posted in China, foreign policy, India, West Asia by jrahman on June 26, 2012

Updated: 28 June 0950 BDT (the original post was incomplete).

Last May, I started a series on my understanding of the politics of synthesis initiated by Ziaur Rahman.  The first installment was on politics and governance, while the second one was on society and economy.  My main contention is that when things work in Bangladesh, they work along the path set by Zia, and they work because the politics of synthesis crafted by this military strongman turned popular politician had continued from the work of his predecessors, and his successors saw the merit in keeping them.

This theme of continuity is nowhere more present than in the realm of foreign relations.  And yet, the political needs of the present era has resulted in deliberate obfuscation of Zia’s foreign policy by both his political heirs in the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and their opponents in the Awami League.

Let’s start with the continuity from Zia’s predecessors.  Arguably, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s core foreign policy priority in 1972 was securing Bangladesh’s place in the comity of sovereign states.  This was trickier than might appear today.    Much of the world had their own territorial disputes, or were a theatre of cold war, or had their own issues of nationalist discontent, or combinations thereof.  As a result, even one of the worst humanitarian crisis in history failed to generate as much sympathy for Bangladesh as we might believe today.  Indeed, at the United Nations, only the Soviet bloc countries supported India (and by extension Bangladesh) in December 1971.  And even that wasn’t unconditional — the Polish resolution called for demilitarisation (that is, withdrawal of Indian as well as Pakistani forces, and disarming of Mukti Bahini) merely days before Dhaka was liberated.

Against that backdrop, prolonged presence of Indian forces would have reinforced the notion prevailing in most of the capitals that behind the human tragedy, the events of 1971 represented essentially a superpower-backed grabbing of a new state’s territory by a hostile neighbour.  Sheikh Sahib grasped that fundamental misperception clearly.  That’s why he chose to return home in a British carrier instead of an Indian one.  That’s why he insisted on a speedy withdrawal of Indian forces.  Arguably, the thrust of his foreign policy was to demonstrate to the world that Bangladesh’s independence was not only from Pakistan, but also from India.

It’s that need to demonstrate the independence, as much as the practical needs such as access to the Gulf labour market or the return of stranded Bengali officials from Pakistan, that led to Mujib’s trip to the 1974 OIC Summit in Lahore as the leader of ‘Muslim Bengal’.  Of course, this assertion of independence did not come with any overt anymosity towards India.  There may have been sharp rise in anti-Indian feelings in the ‘Bangla bazaar’, but it didn’t manifest itself in Mujib’s policies.

There was, however, apprehensions about Farakka and border infringements.

As of August 1975, Bangladesh was yet to be have relationships with Saudi Arabia and Red China. But both countries were in the process of recognising Bangladesh. It is easy to conflate correlation with causation — that just because the Saudi-Chinese recognition came after the August massacre, there was a direction of causation. But post hoc doesn’t always mean propter hoc.

If one were to abstract from the domestic political upheavals between August 1975 and April 1977, Zia’s foreign policy would have seemed as a seamless evolution from Mujib’s.  Like Mujib, Zia emphasised the relationship with the world beyond India while maintaining a cordial relationship with the giant neighbour.  Of course, we can’t just abstract away from the turbulent last third of 1975.  The thing is, Zia’s approach in those months actually support the notion that he didn’t represent a fundamental break from Mujib.

In November 1975, Bangladesh was nearly a failed state.  Not only was its civilian political leadership dead or stood discredited, its army was in total disarray with jawans killing dozens of officers.  Meanwhile, Kader Siddiqui was setting up an insurgency across the border, and fires started in the Chittagong hills.  And there were reports of an imminent Indian invasion.  If the country’s independence wasn’t secure in January 1972 when Mujib returned, in November 1975 its very existence was in doubt.

Zia’s first task, just like Mujib’s, was to secure the state’s existence.  Instead of ramping up the anti-Indian rhetoric — which would have seemed politically attractive given the fate of Khaled Mosharraf (killed on 6 November under false accusation of being an ‘Indian puppet’) — Zia assuaged Indian concerns by firmly committing to Mujib’s policies, including the controversial 25-Year Treaty.  The result was that by the end of 1975, the possibility of an Indian invasion diminished significantly, and Siddiqui’s insurgency was nipped in the bud (the continued conflict in CHT reflected a major blunder by Zia — subject of a different post).

Since early 1976, the Indo-Bangla relationship has essentially remained steady, characterised by moments of concerns and anticipation in Dhaka, usually followed by apathy and ignorance in New Delhi.  Depending on the specific issue and the counterpart, Zia’s approach was essentially the same as any of his successors.  Zia moved strongly on the Ganges water issue, but so did Hasina Wajed two decades later (and indeed, Mujib himself explicitly raised the Farakka issue even before independence).  Zia secured a more generous Ganges water deal than Hasina Wajed, but hers is longer term and thus provides more certainty than his three-year temporary agreement.  On pretty much any other issue, a cold hard look would reflect little change over the years as far as Indo-Bangla relations are concerned.  As I’ve said many times before — don’t believe the hype.

Beyond securing independence, and stabilising the relationship with India, Zia’s foreign policy (as Mujib’s would have been had he lived, and as everyone else’s has been since, at least in theory) was complementary to his main domestic agenda — uplifting the people’s standard of living.  Of course, foreign aid or financing of development project was a part of that.  But Zia realised that this couldn’t be a lasting strategy of development.  Hence, he focussed on building a lasting relationships with Gulf states and China.  It’s worth noting that these relationships have survived half a dozen changes in government.

The relationship with China bears specific mention.  Prophet’s tradition has it that one should visit even China to seek knowledge.  This was literally practised by Zia.  His time in office coincided with the rise of Deng Xiaoping and beginning of reforms in the larger People’s Republic.  Zia closely observed the experiment underway over there, applying the lessons in domestic policies across a number of sectors.  Technical assistance from China, and the Sino-Bangla relations more broadly, reflects bi-partisan continuity unmatched by anything else in Bangladesh.

Having seen the power of global media in highlighting the plight of his people in 1971, and then see Bangladesh’s image tarnished as a basket case in the post-war years, Zia embarked on a major PR drive to enhance what we now call ‘Brand Bangladesh’.  He travelled widely, and invited major journalists and cultural celebrities to Bangladesh.  The result was that by the early 1980s, major western publications like the Economist or Foreign Affairs were writing articles about a miracle-in-the-making.  Ironically, more recent BNP governments have shown little appreciation of global media (going so far as to jail foreign journalists in early 2000s), while until recently, the current prime minister had been following in Zia’s footstep.

The current government has also pursued the idea of connectivity, which was first pushed by Zia — though he characterised it as regionalism, and tried to promote SAARC as the vehicle.  Whether these objectives are worth much in practice is a separate debate — I am sceptic.  The point here is that there is bi-partisan continuity about the basic idea of regionalism and connectivity.

Finally, as the leader of a small, insignificant state, Zia believed in the importance of a ‘rules-based’ global order.  He believed that without global rules, Bangladesh would forever remain at mercy of stronger countries.  Accordingly, during his presidency, Bangladesh participated actively in the global arena.  The two year stint in the Security Council — see the clip, or the shuttle diplomacy between Baghdad and Tehran, are the relatively well known example of this.  But a number of competent bureaucrats — many of whom did not share his domestic politics, and had eventually came to be associated with Awami League (including two finance ministers under Hasina Wajed) — pushed Bangladesh’s agenda in fora such as the ILO, UNCTAD, WHO or FAO.  While his successors, from all parties, have tried to emulate his approach, most have failed, not the least because of the sidelining of career diplomats for partisan hacks.

Of course, it doesn’t suit BNP to highlight Zia’s pragmatism when it comes to India.  And it’s naive to expect anything positive about Zia from the pro-AL quarters.  But I remain hopeful that someday someone more qualified than this blogger will do justice to Zia’s foreign policy synthesis.


5 Responses

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  1. Rumi said, on June 28, 2012 at 6:36 am

    As another dimension to Zia’s foreign policy success, you may add on Zia’s charisma and ability to convince foreign leaders. Starting from Carter of US to Ne Win of Burma, Tito of Yogoslavia to Sekuture of Senegal, European bureaucracy to Gulf royals — somehow he earned everybodies’ special attention. On his death Time Magazine termed him as a rising star in south Asian politics.

    • jrahman said, on June 28, 2012 at 11:04 am

      I will post on his personal qualities separately. The ‘brand Bangladesh’ element of his personal diplomacy is mentioned in the updated post.

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