Foreign policy is a reflection of domestic policy – a sovereign state is keen to fulfil its national interest through external affairs. It can formulate, adopt, pursue, and may change from time to time, varies from situation to situation, and the main purpose is to clinch the country’s desired goal in overseas nations.
Since there is a big positive shake in Bangladesh’s progressive economic development and image, the country is now scheduled to officially become a developing nation by 2026, recently resolved by the UN General Assembly.
However, this is not the last nod because they will reevaluate in 2024, and the boomerang of the Covid-19 pandemic could hinder delaying the target dates achieving the goals. Apart from this, some years are very important for Bangladesh, such as 2030, 2031 and 2041.
C Raja Mohan, a columnist at Foreign Policy and the National University of Singapore’s Institute of South Asian Studies’ director, remarks that Dhaka is likely to jump into the 25 largest economies worldwide by 2030.
Consequently, the Sustainable Development Goals adopted by all UN Member States are to be achieved by 2030. According to the Bangladesh government, the country foresees graduating into higher middle-income status by 2031, and it has the vision to be a developed country by 2041 when Bangladesh celebrates its 70 years of independence.
So the moderate foreign policy of Dhaka must re-instigate fulfilling these goals and visions and keep the continuity of the stability and integration. What other alternative is there?
If we study the articles in various media outlets such as foreignpolicy.com, thediplomat.com, iiss.org and related, we see that most of the write-ups related to Bangladesh praise Dhaka’s impressive economic prosperity. Foreign missions in Bangladesh and International development institutions such as World Bank, Asian Development Bank, World Trade Organization and International Monetary Fund also acknowledge the country’s fastest-growing economies.
In this stage, what should be Bangladesh’s current foreign policy priorities? Dhaka has to consider several issues adopting its external policy. The present government of Bangladesh prioritises economic diplomacy and embraces regional economic integration in South Asia, intending to establish Dhaka as a regional hub of transit trade in Asia.
Trade and security
It is seen that the government has formally made little progress on the “Look East” policy in recent times. Several reasons could be behind this. Since the Bangladesh Nationalist Party-led alliance government adopted the policy after taking power in 2001, the Awami League government bypassed the issue.
Though Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina is willing to broaden the economic ties with China, she has kept silent to focus on the diplomatic term. Look East policy gains momentum in India but it seems neglected in Bangladesh. New Delhi has included Dhaka in its policy because the realm thinks its close neighbour should have a different view than the previous, whereas Bangladesh’s policymakers overlook the terminology for an unseen reason.
If you just Google “look east policy”, you will find about 2,240,000,000 results. Most of the pages have come based on India’s foreign policy issue. New Delhi commenced the Look East policy in 1991, and PM Narendra Modi re-named it the “Act East Policy” in 2014. It is an endeavour of a diplomatic aspiration to bolster India’s economic, strategic, and cultural relations with the vast Asia-Pacific region to a new height. Foreign policy analysts reveal that both terms are mostly the same: rather, they are two sides of the same coin but represent the same priorities – national interest.
Conversely, Google “Look East policy of Bangladesh” shows about 140,000,000 results but not new or recent media coverage on the particular issue apart from some journal papers. I found some press articles on this, published in 2014, 2015, and a book in 2019. It means that Bangladesh has fewer activities in the Look East policy choice.
So then, it is time for Bangladesh to pursue a strategy akin to India’s Act East Policy. To enhance the country’s trade and security issues, especially with China and also Japan, Korea and Taiwan. If there is a formal policy, it is easier to implement diplomatic efforts, stakeholders get guidelines to enhance the relations, people are more aware of it, and there is a general direction for a domestic policy as well.
Since the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation can be said to be clinically dead and the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation more and less in a similar situation, what is the best way for Bangladesh to better survive in this region, especially once it is a developing country and afterwards a developed nation? There is no long-term ally in diplomacy. Each country is committed to uplifting its national interests.
Last but not least, in 2017, Dhaka did not get any support from Beijing and New Delhi during the deadly crackdown by Myanmar’s military with “genocidal intent” on Rohingya Muslims, which forced hundreds of thousands to flee across the border into Bangladesh. There is no sudden hope of resolving the burden but only diplomatic correspondence. There could be similar unrest further in the long run.
From regional economic integration, Bangladesh becoming a developing nation and afterwards, traditional security issues, resolving the Rohingya burden and fulfilling strategic membership of the Belt and Road Initiative, Dhaka appears to have few alternatives to establishing a strong Look East policy if it is to address all of the above issues.
This article first appeared in Dhaka Tribune.