Refocusing on the Growing Geo-strategic Importance of Bangladesh in 2023

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Bangladesh has undisputed geopolitical significance to the neighborhood and beyond. There is an ample scope to positively highlight critical importance of Bangladesh, coupled with unprecedented economic prosperity for regional and sub-regional peace and stability. Bangladesh sits at the heart of a geostrategic polity, bordered with India to its west and separated states of the former’s northeast, Myanmar to the southeast, laying access to ASEAN countries and China, and separated from Nepal and Bhutan by the chicken’s neck corridor, with the Bay of Bengal in the South, connecting a vast majority of the world’s nations and population, and its rise as a middle power, has increased its geo-strategic importance to the regional and extra-regional powers. Andersen (2012, p.72), for instance, writes that Bangladesh’s ‘geo-strategic position gives it a role in stabilizing this critical area [Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal region] through linking the various regions together’. A former Japanese Ambassador to Bangladesh, Horiguchi assesses the geopolitical importance of Bangladesh and argues that ‘Bangladesh, located between Japan and India and between India and the ASEAN region, may not be able to sit idle. Rather, it can take advantage of such geographical position for participating in regional economic changes. Bangladesh can be a strategic base in South Asia’ (Horiguchi, 2004). Similarly, in a lecture at the University of Dhaka, JICA President contends that ‘Bangladesh, in other words, is the linchpin of the Indo-Pacific region. It stands to gain a great deal from the shift in global economic dynamism toward the Indian Ocean’ (JICA, June 16, 2014).

One can argue that trying to include Bangladesh in the Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS) led by USA, Belt and Road Initiative led by China, the Naya Disha or Security and Growth for all in the Region (SAGAR) policy of India, Belt and Growth Initiative in the Bay of Bengal (BIB-B) led by Japan, point to the fact that Bangladesh’s geopolitical and geostrategic importance have grown to the regional and extra-regional powers.

On the occasion of fifty years of Bangladesh. C. Raja Mohan wrote in Foreign Policy magazine that ‘there is widespread admiration for its remarkably successful economic and social transformation. Less noted are the profound geopolitical consequences of Bangladesh’s economic rise, including a shift in South Asia’s center of economic gravity to the east and the reintegration of an eastern subcontinent’ (Mohan, 2021). Mohan acknowledges that now Bangladesh has the ability ‘to play a stronger role in the region and beyond, seeking new maritime possibilities in the Indo-Pacific’ (Mohan, 2021). In fact, if one critically analyzes the global diplomacy on climate change, Bangladesh has already played crucial role in the global climate negotiations and other global forums.

In an email interview with this researcher, Jabin T. Jacob, Professor of International Relations at Shiv Nadar University said that ‘Bangladesh is doing well economically and therefore it has many suitors but these are also powerful countries like India, China and the US and each have their own specific interests which also aim to exclude other countries and seek Bangladesh’s exclusive attention and responses’.

Since the 1960 and 1970s, there is a growing strategic and economic significance of the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal Region and its bordering states for regional and extra-regional powers. And within the Indian Ocean Region, ‘the Bay of Bengal holds the key to act as the forerunner for enhanced bilateral and multilateral engagement’ (Chaudhury and Chatterji, 2019, p.241). Ellen L. Frost argues that ‘Even as maritime disputes in the South China Sea rightly capture the world’s attention, the Bay of Bengal is coming into focus as an emerging strategic and economic hub in the greater Indo-Pacific region’ (Frost, 2017, p.1). The Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS) led by the USA, Belt and Road Initiative led by China are few examples of geo-political connectivity projects centering on Bay of Bengal region implies the growing significance of the region, including Bangladesh.

There is a growing naval competition between China, India, USA in the Indian Ocean Region over spheres of influence, economic interests and security of its sea lanes of communication (SLOCs). Ward (2017, p.18) writes that ‘As China’s global economic footprint increases, its Indian Ocean dependency is increasing in kind’. This geo-political competition can also create impediments for peaceful Bangladesh.

So, it can be reiterated that the ‘geographical advantage’ and the increasing geostrategic importance due to the changing geopolitical dynamics, Bangladesh has become one of the important country’s for the major powers. Consequently, Bangladesh has already developed cooperation on political, diplomatic and strategic aspects with the major powers.

This write-up argues that there is a growing geo-political and geo-strategic significance of Bangladesh to the regional and extra-regional powers, which needs to be utilized by the policy and foreign policy establishments in Bangladesh. In fact, maintaining good relations with Japan, India, China, USA, and Russia becomes important for Bangladesh for several reasons, including for the continuation of its rise as an economic power. One can also argue that the rise of Bangladesh as economic power, its political stability (since 2009) and its geo-strategic location and importance would be imperative for the country to become an established middle power in 2023 and beyond.

– Md. Shariful Islam, PhD. is an Assistant Professor at the Department of International Relations at the University of Rajshahi. He is also an adjunct research fellow at The KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA, Dhaka).

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