Relative power distribution is one of the key elements for understanding a country’s sphere and degree of influence within its own region and beyond. Although the concept is commonly used to comprehend the power dynamics between and among the great powers in a hypothetical multipolar world, it is also useful to understand the growing influence of different types of states.
The Lowy Institute, a Sydney-based think-tank, uses this type of index to explore major shifts in power in the Indo-Pacific. The 2021 Asia Power Index names four countries that have shown improvement in over the past year: the United States, Brunei, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. Analysts of International Relations (IR) should note that despite the presence of the big league powers, what the index describes as “minor powers” are the ones achieving positive trends.
An interesting case in this regard is that of Bangladesh. Over a short span of 50 years, the South Asian country has simultaneously developed diplomatic influence, cultural impact, economic ties, and defense networks as parts of its partnership model. These four factors are classified by Lowy as “influence measure” variables.
The next group of variables are the “resource variables,” which might be more important in terms of the weight they carry in traditional IR (i.e. economic/military capabilities, resilience etc.). Nevertheless, in the case of Bangladesh, it will be more relevant to examine the “influence measure” variables, which are the prime sources of its growing power.
Tapping on Diplomatic Chips
This is a critical moment for Bangladesh. The Bay of Bengal has recently regained its strategic importance, resulting in a troubled polarization of the region between India and China. Additionally, there is heightened U.S. interest in the Indo-Pacific region and Washington’s efforts to contain China by forging an axis with India in the Bay of Bengal have intensified. In these circumstances, the role of Bangladesh, a littoral country of the Indian Ocean, has grown. It has had to play smart in the midst of this growing geopolitical contest.
Bangladesh’s geopolitical, economic, and strategic profile equips it with several bargaining chips. It provides Beijing with an alternative passageway to the Indian Ocean via the Bay of Bengal, to reduce its excessive dependence on the Malacca Strait, which is vulnerable to potential conflicts in the South China Sea as well as those on land-based fronts.
Given Bangladesh’s geography – it is surrounded by India on three sides – India is omnipresent in Bangladesh’s foreign policy decisions and the country has to maintain a balanced relationship amid the polarizing conditions in South Asia. Although there was the possibility of Bangladesh’s relationship with India running into a bit of trouble over Bangladesh’s preference for purchasing submarines and COVID-19 vaccines from China, Dhaka handled the situation wisely.
Over the past year, the world has seen Bangladesh-India relations being thrown into some turmoil. China’s warning to Bangladesh against joining the Quad ruffled feathers in Dhaka in May. More recently, Bangladesh-U.S. relations came under a cloud after Washington imposed sanctions on Bangladesh’s Rapid Action Battalion and its top officials.
In all these situations Bangladesh maintained displayed diplomatic maturity and equipoise, and ensured that economic ties with these countries were not impacted by differences on other issues.
More Friends, Fewer Enemies
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a perilous impact on Asia’s economies and according to the Lowy Asia Power Index report, this was one of the reasons for the declining positions of many Asian states. However, Bangladesh played its cards well. It has been pushing for diplomatic engagement with more actors amid the pandemic. Not only is it managing its relations with major powers like the U.S., China and India but it is also engaging with other middle and minor powers in a holistic manner in order to materialize its policy of “friendship to all and malice towards none.”
Bangladesh has been extending help to countries in its neighborhood and beyond for a long time, even at times when it was burdened with its own problems. It has, for instance, been hosting around 1.1 million forcibly displaced Rohingya people from Myanmar, when it has around 164 million people of its own to feed. In addition, Bangladesh helped India with COVID-19 aid in early 2021 when New Delhi was going through a period of crisis. It also announced $200 million currency swap with Sri Lanka to ease its $3.7 billion foreign debt burden.
During Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s recent visit to France, defense, trade, and climate cooperation between Bangladesh and France witnessed an upturn. Hasina’s visit to Maldives in December strengthened Bangladesh’s security cooperation in the Indian Ocean region. Importantly, the Central Bank of Bangladesh announced a $200 million loan to the Maldives. In the same month, Bangladesh received a commitment of approximately $129 million in investment from Switzerland for the next four years. For a country like Bangladesh, this kind of “engaging” diplomatic approach is very important for exerting its diplomatic influence in the region.
‘Hedging’ the New Great Game
With the rise of an assertive China and the decline of the American unipolar moment, the Indo-Pacific region is witnessing deep structural changes in the form of great power transitions. Many scholars have described these intensified power tussles between and among the great powers (the Sino-U.S. rivalry) and regional powers (the Sino-Indian rivalry) as the “New Great Game” or “New Cold War.”
Given its location on the Bay of Bengal and at the meeting point of South Asia and Southeast Asia, Bangladesh finds itself in the hot seat of great power rivalries. With its rising economy and geopolitical importance, Bangladesh faces the dilemma of how to deal with its major development partners, China, India, the U.S., Japan, and Australia, who are grouped in rival strategic orbits like the Belt and Road Initiative, the Quad, and AUKUS.
Given these geopolitical realities, any decision by Bangladesh to tilt towards one power or group of powers will turn its “strategic convenience into [a] strategic burden.” Bangladesh, therefore, needs to be more vigilant in its “strategic hedging” in order to reap geopolitical gains and secure its long-term national and strategic interests.