Badirujjaman

Evolution of the foreign policy of Bangladesh

 

Introduction

Today’s world is an interconnected world. Here is the basic idea of internationalism: the states conduct their external relations on political objectives or national interests. And acquiring such objectives states require to formulate some national policies—foreign policies. Here, foreign policy refers to a state’s external policies. 

Like a state’s national policies or domestic policies, a country’s foreign policies are also influenced by both domestic and external compulsions. Foreign policies are essential for any state, not only for its political and economic thriving but also to survive in the chaotic international system.

Therefore, as an independent state, Bangladesh always feels it is essential to establish relations with the external world through some basic principles according to her constitution. However, for 50 years, the foreign policy of Bangladesh has been rotating in ups and downs. Like many other developing countries, this evolution of foreign policies is full of failures and successes. 

So in this writing, we will try to describe the basic principles of Bangladeshi foreign policy, how this policy has been influenced over the years, and the failures or successes of the ruling parties or governments foreign policy orientation since the independence of Bangladesh.

Principles of Foreign Policy of Bangladesh:

The foundation of Bangladeshi foreign policy had developed in a Cold War context. During that time, the world was divided into two great powers: the USA and the Soviet Union

Both of the blocs structured the system on ideological basis—communism versus capitalism—and newborn states like Bangladesh had to be very careful in choosing between these power struggles. 

So for the betterment of its own interests, Bangladesh took defensive measures by entering the non-aligned countries bloc, though she got much support from the Soviet Union. 

The decision was beneficial for Bangladesh. She got much support from non-aligned countries and became the part of the largest organization in the world, the United Nations. 

Hence, the principles of the foreign policy of Bangladesh were much inspired from the charters of both non-aligned movements and the United Nations. The Article 25 in the constitution of Bangladesh outlines the very principles of foreign policy direction for Bangladesh, namely [1]. 

25 (1)” The State shall base its international relations on the principles of

  • respect for national sovereignty and equality,
  • non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries,
  • peaceful settlement of international disputes, and
  • respect for international law and the principles enunciated in the United Nations Charter,

25 (2), and on the basis of those principles,

(a) Strive for the renunciation of the use of force in international relations and for general and complete disarmament;

(b) Uphold the right of every person freely to determine and build up its own social, economic, and political system by ways and means of its own free choice; and

(c) Support oppressed peoples throughout the world, waging a just struggle against imperialism, colonialism, or racialism”.

Moreover, the thematic development of the foreign policy of Bangladesh was inspired from the first president, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. On January 8, 1972, after being released from Pakistan jail, Bangabandhu flew to London and discussed many things with Queen Elizabeth II

During the discussion, Shaikh Mujib clarified by saying that Bangladesh, as a small country, is always ready to make friendships with all and malice with none. 

During the discussion, he also emphasized that Bangladesh needs to be neutral in world politics and tried to act like Switzerland of the East, and the principles of its foreign policy have mostly been evolved under this theme.

Aims and objectives of foreign policy of Bangladesh:

Bangladesh is an independent and sovereign nation. And this independent state has an independent foreign policy as well. Like any other state, the foreign policy of Bangladesh has been designed to achieve some essential political objectives, namely [2]:

  • One of the prime goals of Bangladeshi foreign policy is to maintain independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity. Bangladesh has always played a defensive role in securing its existence.
  • Bangladesh has adopted many policies regarding economic development. Now it is exemplified as an emerging economic power. Bangladesh has, since the beginning, wanted to be part of the developed states and formulate policies to reach those positions.
  • As an independent and sovereign nation, Bangladesh has always agreed to continue its friendship with all nations. She neither interferes with anyone’s internal affairs nor is she expected by others to do so until the case is on a humanitarian basis.
  • Bangladesh foreign policy has always supported every struggle against imperialism, illegal occupation, apartheid, colonialism, and expansion policy. And many others.

 

Evolution of Bangladesh Foreign Policy

At the beginning, the prime aims of Bangladeshi foreign policy were to stabilize post-war socioeconomic conditions and rebuild the war-affected economy. But international realpolitik compelled Bangladesh to take conscious steps in acquiring her political objectives. 

But Bangladeshi foreign communication began during the Liberation War of Bangladesh because international recognition was very essential to legitimate their fight for self-determination

The Mujibnagar government opened its foreign section after discussion with India. The government emerged as a de facto institution, and it facilitated Bangladesh’s acquisition of more international aid, media attention, and global public support.

But the situation was not favorable to Bangladesh; China and the USA were against Bangladesh and tried to define this struggle as a separatist movement; and they supported Pakistan with logistics, military, and political dimensions. Luckily, Bangladesh got both India and the USSR on her side, though they had some strategic interests in doing so [3]. 

Moreover, Bangladesh sent many of her intellectuals worldwide to acquire more support as well as recognition, and they were meeting many powerful leaders and discussing the massacre the Pakistani army was doing. 

Consequently, when the US and China wanted a ceasefire in this struggle, the Soviet Union vetoed it. However, on December 6, India and Bhutan gave diplomatic recognition to this struggle. This recognition opens the doors for Bangladesh to reach others.

As I mentioned above, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the first President of Bangladesh, laid the foundation of the country’s foreign policy principles. 

We know that by demanding six points, Sheikh Mujib became the national leader; by winning the 1970 election, he became a political figure in South Asian politics; and by declaring independence in 1971, he became a de facto leader in the world community [4]. 

His long political career developed his ideology of peaceful coexistence with self-determination rights. And after taking power, he tried to continue these legacies. He suddenly faced two challenges:

One is international recognition, and the other is rebuilding socio-economic structures. Both of the challenges were so acute that Mujib badly needed them as soon as possible. But his idiosyncratic nature influenced others, including Chinese and Middle Eastern leaders. Hence, Sheikh Mujib’s contributions to Bangladesh’s foreign policy were great, namely [5]:

  • During his rule, Bangladesh got recognition from four out of five permanent members of the United Nations, except the People’s Republic of China (PRC). But he reopened the trade relationship with China, and later China gave recognition.
  • Within 1974, Bangladesh became a member of major international organizations such as the United Nations, OIC, Commonwealth, World Bank, etc. This was a great achievement for Bangladesh.
  • Development of the relationship with India, signing of the friendship treaty, the Ganges River water sharing treaty, etc. with India
  • Establishing a special relationship with the USSR
  • Establishing good relations with Western Europe for rebuilding war-affected economies And many others.

After the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Mostak Ahmed took charge for a few months; later, Major General Ziaur Rahman became the President of Bangladesh. 

Basically, Ziaur Rahman carried out Mostak Ahmed‘s legacy in foreign policy, who was very interested in making good relationships with Chinese and Western capitalist states, creating special relationships with Muslim majority Arab states, and supporting peaceful settlement of disputes. 

The Zia government tried to lessen their dependency on India. His remarkable progress in Bangladeshi foreign policy includes [6]:

  • Farakka Barrage Treaty in 1977; 
  • Demarcation of the Bangladesh-Myanmar border line and repatriation of second Rohingya displacement;
  • Socioeconomic structural development with the help of the Western capitalist bloc; and
  • Taking the initiative of regional cooperation (SAARC) and many others. 

After Zia, General Ershad took the power and carried out Zia’s legacy on foreign policymaking and implementation. He further enhanced the external relations with donor agencies and donor states in the Middle East, West Europe, and Scandinavia. Ershad emphasized both India and China for military and economic development. 

Ershad was much busier with his domestic affairs than his foreign affairs. After Ershad, Begum Khaleda Zia came to power. He followed Ziaur Rahman’s foreign policymaking. In addition, Begum Zia was focused on the following issues:

  • Good affiliation with international organizations;
  • Follow neo-liberalism as an economic concept;
  • Enhanced good relations with India;
  • Taking a look east policy; and 
  • Taking economic diplomacy as a method of foreign interaction, and many others.

In 1996, Sheikh Hasina became Prime Minister of Bangladesh. Hasina’s government brought about some modifications in their international relations, such as:

  • Besides India, they emphasized bilateral relations with its neighbors;
  • More investment facilities for overseas agencies;
  • Promotion of Bangabandhu’s dictum “Friendship to all, malice to none”; and
  • Encouraging trade and commercial operations.

Success of Bangladesh’s foreign policy:

If we want to evaluate the success history of Bangladeshi foreign policy, recognition can be incorporated at the top of the list. 

Bangladesh’s historic struggle to achieve self-determination through a bloody war badly needed international diplomatic recognition. Mujibnagar’s de facto government became de jure Bangladesh through this recognition. 

But being born into a bipolar world, it was very difficult for Bangladesh to get this recognition. The postwar government under Sheikh Mujibur Rahman laid the very foundation of diplomatic recognition. Sheikh Mujib’s thematic development of “friendship to all, malice to none” in the Cold War context was perfect. 

The Sheikh Mujib regime had achieved diplomatic recognition for Bangladesh from almost 30 countries, including major powers in world politics like the USA, USSR, India, Britain, and France. 

Diplomatic recognitions from the USA, the Middle Eastern countries, Pakistan, and China were a great success for Bangladesh’s foreign policy because these actors directly or indirectly opposed the nationalist movement in Bangladesh. Besides, this recognition was also crucial in getting membership in international organizations [7].

Since the beginning, Bangladesh has had territorial issues, both sea and land, with both India and Myanmar. Though the Mujib regime, a friendship treaty was signed with India upon settlement of some contentious issues like demarcation of land boundaries, solving enclaves questions, and others. 

But for a long time, the issues of land demarcation haven’t been solved yet. Recently, both Bangladesh and India solved these enclave problems [8]. Besides, maritime delimitation zone demarcation has been contentious among India, Myanmar, and Bangladesh [9]. 

After a long period of work in the International Court of Justice under UNCLOS, a historic verdict has come. Bangladesh has almost its own maritime boundaries, including exclusive economic zones. It is a great achievement for our diplomatic effectiveness.

During the Bangladeshi Liberation War, besides global powers like the USA and Soviet Union, it was a geo-strategic battle between India and China. However, after 1975, China diplomatically recognized Bangladesh, and since then, the Sino-Bangladesh relationship has developed over the years. 

But as China becomes a regional superpower day by day, it becomes wise for Bangladesh to engage with China more and more. Bangladesh also adopted the “Look East Policy” in particular in relations with China. But another regional power, India, has been contentious about China. 

In addition, Bangladesh has a large dependency on India for both the political, economic, and cultural sectors. So the crisis between these two regional giants makes every other country in the region a concern. But Bangladesh has, since the beginning, successfully balanced between the powers. 

Recently, Sino-Indian border conflicts put Bangladesh in a concerning situation, but through a diplomatic approach, Bangladesh took this crisis as an opportunity and wanted to sell herself for better prices. So this continuing balancing remains a major accident in Bangladeshi foreign policy.

One of the major achievements of Bangladeshi foreign policy is taking initiatives on regional cooperation on an institutional basis, for example, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). Bangladesh had played a major role in the establishment of the regional organization [10]. 

Though the historic rivalry between India and Pakistan has been an impediment to the efficiency of SAARC, Besides, Bangladesh plays a hub in connecting South Asia with Southeast Asia through BIMSTEC

Failures/ Weakness [11]:

  • Water sharing of 53 inter-state rivers, including the Ganges River. Due to Bangladesh’s strong and skilled diplomatic pressure and lack of well-planned policies regarding water sharing,
  • The Rohingya crisis remains one of the major weaknesses in Bangladesh’s foreign policy. Periodical failures from 1978 to present influxes created a worse-affected country, Bangladesh.
  • The abolition of GSP facilities is one of the major failures of Bangladeshi foreign policy. The USA has been the biggest market for the apparel sector in Bangladesh. At the beginning, Bangladesh garments had the facilities, but due to some human rights issues in apparel manufacturing, the USA cut the benefits. Though Bangladesh possessed much diplomatic discourse over the issue, it hasn’t succeeded yet.
  • One of the major failures of Bangladeshi foreign policy is that policies are often chosen party-wise. Very few issues are termed national issues. Most often, the policies are incorporated in accordance with party views. Even issues like water sharing, transit issues, or external interactions are seen from party lance.

Conclusion

For 50 years, the foreign policy of Bangladesh has been rotating between ups and downs. Like many other developing countries, this evolution of foreign policies is full of failures and successes. But here, success and failure depend on the efficiency of foreign policy implementation methods such as diplomacy and negotiations. 

Like the constitution of Bangladesh, experts say the principles of Bangladeshi foreign policy are sophisticated ones. Internal political instability, clashes among interested groups, and external factors seem to be these weaknesses. 

But some great achievements of Bangladesh foreign policy, including maritime demarcation and continual regional balancing between China and India through adaptive policy, hoped Bangladesh about its potentiality through skilled diplomacy and negotiation. 



Bibliography: 

[1] MOFA Bangladesh (2018) Foreign policy of Bangladesh https://mofa.gov.bd/site/page/0498e3d1-9bb7-45f0-988c-cb360e9949e2/Foreign-Policy-of-Bangladesh

[2] Rashid H. 2015. Bangladesh Foreign Policy: Realities, Priorities and Challenges. Dhaka: Academic Press and Publishers Library. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/43310022-bangladesh-foreign-policy

[3] Khan, S.E. 2016. Foreign Policy of Bangladesh: Roadmap for 2041. The NDC Journal.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ahmed, B. 2020. Bangabandhu’s foreign policy: An example of peace and harmony. https://thefinancialexpress.com.bd/views/opinions/bangabandhus-foreign-policy-an-example-of-peace-and-harmony-1608562274

[6] Hossain M, A. 2008. Foreign policy under Ziaur Rahman. https://www.thedailystar.net/news-detail-38950

[7] Rizvi G. 2019. ‘Foreign policy saw spectacular success’. https://www.thedailystar.net/city/news/foreign-policy-saw-spectacular-success-1732660

[8] The Foreign Ministry of Bangladesh. 2022. Success story of Bangladesh. https://mofa.portal.gov.bd/sites/default/files/files/mofa.portal.gov.bd/page/37199c6d_96b8_4715_bf54_d999c9b02ff9/Bangladesh%20Rising%20January%202022.pdf

[9] Watson, S. 2015. THE BANGLADESH/MYANMAR MARITIME DISPUTE: LESSONS FOR PEACEFUL RESOLUTION. https://amti.csis.org/the-bangladeshmyanmar-maritime-dispute-lessons-for-peaceful-resolution/

[10] Haque, S. 2023. The Role of Bangladesh in Sub-Regional Connectivity. https://csep.org/reports/the-role-of-bangladesh-in-sub-regional-connectivity/

[11] Rashid H. 2008. Realities and challenges to Bangladesh foreign policy: Regional scenario. https://www.thedailystar.net/news-detail-17802

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