5 years ago

Tectonic shifts in foreign policy: Keeping eyes open to remain ahead of the game

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Bangladesh's foreign policy has turned almost full circle since those testy 1971 days. Battling Pakistani troops back with Indian help then structured what kind of a foreign policy trajectory the country got off with. India was instrumental in getting Bangladesh recognised by other South Asian countries, plunging, as it did, into the socialist bloc. Although the release of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman opened up other foreign policy windows, the country still began navigating more in known territory within friendly waters than diving into the unknown in mostly murky waters. Non-alignment was just a whisker away from the socialist camp, at least in terms of membership, and since India had worked out a modus operandi with Pakistan in Simla in 1972, Bangladesh also followed. Pakistan's key supporters warmed up to Bangladesh, but an arms distance was still kept.

Looking back 47 years, we see some tectonic shifts matched by their creeping glacial counterparts. Perhaps the next turning point after Bangabandhu's return was his 1975 assassination: that independently accelerated rapprochement with Pakistan, brought Islamic countries closer faster, and opened the China window. Just as 1975 marked a turning point, as too did the 1980s when the RMG exports roared into newer markets, dispensing the 'socialist' label in the process. What was more important is how the RMG-propelled upward economic climb gave Bangladesh far more leverage abroad. It was no longer just the "new kid in the bloc."

Against those crucial turning points, Bangladesh foreign policy orientation looks less like it wants to placate itself: India remains pivotal, but must contend increasingly with Chinese presence, especially as it has been knocked out of Bangladesh's top-trading partner slot by China; neighbours still matter, in spite of the Rohingya influxes eliciting stonewall or ambiguous Myanmar responses against diminishing Bangladeshi resources and patience; the non-aligned movement remains more a name than filled with an active agenda, since too many technical issues demand attention for this movement to be able to coherently address; Islamic countries have deepened relations and absorbed many Bangladeshi workers, but also face their own domestic limits and other restructuring problems; the European Union relationship has  moved from strength to strength, although without satisfying its 27 members with our more acceptable labour policy reforms and transparency-driven democratic elections, we may still have to settle for less than the maximum available; and the United States has swung all the way around from neglecting our 1971 plight to staunchly supporting our Rohingya policy approach and connectivity projects.

These were all unforeseen developments in 1971, but one lesson in adjusting to them is how the fewer blinders we keep, the more windows open up and opportunities spring out, literally from thin air. Give or take Pakistan, we do not have to have any more blinders. That socialism eroded as a pillar was not a Bangladeshi-specific phenomenon: it was evaporating from being too high-handed and producing diminishing economic returns worldwide, one reason why the Washington Consensus could bury it after 1989 very quickly with its completely opposite platform of market-driven, private-sector centred transactions. Although neo-liberalism suits our RMG-anchored economy, we remain sticky in dismantling some of our overburdened nationalised industries, beginning particularly with banking. Without the proper tools and safeguards in place, venturing too far down the neo-liberal highway might have crippling class-based domestic consequences. Nevertheless, although we are well known in the neo-liberal camp, lightening up the bureaucratic procedures that impede full neo-liberal engagement could prove to be another foreign policy window-opening moment. Clearly we must enter free-trade agreements, and they require laborious foreign policy negotiations, not just to find new markets, but also coordinating domestically to build the necessary and smoothly-flowing infrastructures (from customs policy to investment openness).

One of our two great challenges remains the relationship with India. This is a sine qua non relationship: at times we cannot live with each other, but equally forcefully, we cannot live without each other. How Bangladesh has adjusted to the BJP administration may look like a major accomplishment for two countries whose symbiotic relations were rooted in the Gandhi-Mujib dynastical domain. Forces from below, such as the Hindu extremists completely disdaining Bangladesh, may jolt this relationship. We cannot put too many eggs in this basket. Yet, without cultivating this relationship, we face greater transaction costs: India's Act East policy-approach, which depended upon a Bangladesh transit, might find alternate routes, for example, north of Bangladesh through Silguri, or across the Bay from Kolkata or Chennai to Sittwe in Myanmar. That would be an enormous missed opportunity for us, particularly if one development project after another goes where the cash comes from, that is, China. These competing policy options differ markedly from their 1971 counterparts, when China sided with our enemy, and India's alignment with the Soviet Union made it even more of a China target (and Pakistani revenge, with the United States possibly behind it).

The other challenge remains Pakistan. Whereas 1971 was filled with war crimes that had to subsequently be played out to do justice to our liberation war martyrs, today the trials to settle those crimes are all done. Pakistan was not expected to be happy, and our refrain from cultivating this relationship was understandable. Yet at no previous instance has the cliché that time is a healer, been more pertinent than now. Another window could open here to slowly stabilise those relations, much as the United States did with its colonial power, Great Britain, slowly after 1776, but unavoidably by the end of the 19th Century, so much so, in fact, that a 'special relationship' emerged.

We are too far from any such potential outcomes with Pakistan, and nowhere does India's relationship with us matter more than in the case of Pakistan: the length, breadth, and depth, as well as the degree of warmth exuded. This may be the slowly gathering topic of importance in the next 47 years: Bangladesh's recalibrated relationship with Pakistan, just as it rekindled ties with China and the United States from the mid-1970s, without losing an arm or a leg (or even India).

Policy-makers have all the plots and ploys in their war-chest, but increasingly public voices have intervened critically to shape outcomes just about everywhere. This is where we need to keep our open eyes in order to remain ahead of the game.

Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.

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