Revisiting the foreign policy history of Bangladesh

Published:  12:55 AM, 10 August 2019

Opportunism and risk management

Opportunism and risk management
The Rohingya crisis poses a new type of foreign policy challenge for Bangladesh in the 21st century. Though the Rohingya problem was evident in the 1970s, it has emerged as a serious problem now because of an estimated 700,000 Rohingyas inflow into Bangladesh making the total number 1,200,000/ 1,300,000. The problem has worsened, on the one hand, due to continuous failure of Bangladesh's multiple bilateral repatriation initiatives with the government of Myanmar along with international communities' initiatives. On the other hand, because of the persistent reluctance of Myanmar government to take back the Rohingyas. Solving the Rohingya problem has become a crucial and significant issue in sustaining a viable Bangladesh and Myanmar relations. 

The article revisits the foreign policy history of Bangladesh and argues that the history of foreign policy largely fits mainly into two broad frameworks: opportunism and risk management, and to resolve Rohingya issue Bangladesh needs to do more. Risk management refers to managing the risks that emerge as the events unfold and urges responding to the events in such a way that lessens negative impact on the country. Opportunism, on the other hand, refers to availing opportunities as they unfold in the outside environment and urges seizing the opportunities to augment national interests(Layton, 2018).   

Risk management and opportunism approaches have been the core of Bangladesh's foreign policy dictum, 'Friendship to all but malice to none,'taking beneficial opportunities through friendship and managing risks by avoiding activities that may possibly have negative impact.

After independence in 1971, in the first decade the two key foreign policy challenges were managing risks of bipolar World Politics and seizing opportunities of economic benefit. Bangladesh emphasized on winning recognition and acceptance from other countries both from both eastern and western blocs and membership in international organizations, for instance, United Nations Organizations (UNO), Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC), Non-AlignedMovement (NAM). Bangladesh joined NAM to avoid risks emanating from the polarized World Politics and to take opportunities by widening foreign policy horizon of Bangladesh. In order to meet the other significant challenge, meeting indispensable economic needs of the war-torn country, foreign policy was directed to India and then Soviet Union with the goal of receiving foreign aid and grants. Bangladesh also sought to build relations with wealthy Arab countries for gaining recognition and for aids and grants side by side. Also, for balancing the risk of trade imbalance and insufficient assistance from India and Soviet Union, Bangladesh sought greater connections with the Arab and Western countries.

In the second decade, foreign policy focus extended to the West and the East; the Middle East got increased importance than before for developmental needs, obtaining aid. Manpower export and trade were prioritized. Resultantly, Bangladesh enjoyed better relations with China, Muslim countries in the Middle East. Bangladesh got non-permanent membership at the Security Councilin the meantime. With the goal of increasing regional cooperation in South Asia, Bangladesh initiated to establish South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). SAARC was also meant to be a means to manage risks of regional competition with danger of upsetting regional peace and stability.

In the third decade, foreign policy focusedsignificantly on securing trade opportunities beside aid opportunities. Bangladesh sought to strengthen cooperation with United States of America (USA), Japan, China, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries and of course within South Asian neighbors. Thisconsequently resulted in increased goods and services export, foreign direct investment inflow, and overseas development assistance inflows. Bangladesh economic diplomacy sought more economic opportunities by joining various regional economic groupings or joint ventures.

In the fourth decade foreign policy focus shifted towards East Asia and Southeast Asia through a 'Look East' policy. The core of the policy was to secure the economic opportunities available in those countries. Bangladesh also maintained good relations with the Muslim countries. At the end of the decade Latin America as well as Africa got importance with the goals of seeking trade and investment opportunities &trade and investment diversification worldwide. Such diversification also contributed to risk reduction emanating from remaining overwhelmingly dependent on any single country.

In the fifth decade Bangladesh is enjoying strategic partnership with the USA and extraordinary relation with India. Though India has always been a significant factor in Bangladesh's foreign policy thinking,presently with an 'India Positive Approach',Bangladesh is witnessing a relation of unprecedented heights exemplified by 1 billion dollars loan from India for road construction, Indo-Bangla power plant,and so forth.Bangladesh is getting assistance from Russia to construct a nuclear power plant. Besides, Bangladesh has significant cooperation with both non-state actors, for instance World Bank, Asian Development Bank, Japan International Cooperation Agency,and so forth are significant. Recently Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, and Nepal have signed regional motor vehicle agreement which is expected to pave the way for free movement of both people and good among the four countries.

A brief analysis reveals that the foreign policy history of Bangladesh has been swayed from time to time to manage or avoid risks and to secure the opportunities in the outside environment to meet immediate needsof the country which were significantly channeled by the leaders and regimes in power. The problem is that these are largely 'reactive' in nature, in other word, 'being shaped' by the events and policies of others. However, the present Rohingya challenge demands something more.In order to face the present challenge, Bangladesh needs to take the initiative to'shape' others and their policies instead of being shaped by them. So, it is high time that Bangladesh starts rethinkingits foreign policy.


The writer is aPhD student, Political Science, Northern Illinois University. He can be reached at sarwar.minar@niu.edu

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