Indo-Pacific Outlook : A New Doctrine for Stability and Prosperity in the Region?

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Bangladesh has recently shared its groundbreaking perspective on the Indo-Pacific region, a much hyped and celebrated issue in the world. On the eve of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s tri-nation visit to Japan, the United States, and the United Kingdom, Bangladesh announced its “Indo-Pacific Outlook” (IPO) with an emphasis on expanding and engaging in constructive regional and international cooperation process, which is expected to contribute to regional as well as Bangladesh’s sustainable development and prosperity.  On April 24, 2023, State Minister for Foreign Affairs Shahriar Alam made a statement regarding this outlook.  This much-awaited outlook holds special significance in the regional and international arena for Bangladesh. Through the announcement of its IPO, Bangladesh has once again brought forward its balanced and non-aligned position in global arena where stability and prosperity of the region matter most. And peace is at the center. And Bangladesh wants to involve all parties to achieve this goal.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • In the face of increasing global polarization, the Indo-pacific region has become geopolitically important and all global superpowers are forming strategies regarding the region.
  • Bangladesh, as a major maritime nation having the Bay of Bengal bordering its territory with control over a significant water body plays a pivotal role in the Indo-pacific and has maintained strong neutral position in the ongoing polarization.
  • The Indo-pacific Outlook of Bangladesh as drafted, shows the continuation of Bangladesh’s foreign policy principle – ‘friendship to all, malice towards none’ and is a manifestation of creative diplomacy.
  • While the rest of the world is talking about a ‘free and open’ Indo-pacific region, Bangladesh also adds to it ‘peaceful, secure and inclusive’ in the discourse and grounds the IPO on ‘peace’ to its core with a development-oriented approach.

Backdrop of the Announcement of Indo-pacific Outlook

The 15-point Indo-Pacific Outlook of Bangladesh envisions a free, open, peaceful, secure, and inclusive Indo-Pacific region in contrast with the same declarations made earlier by several powers and groups in the region. Bangladesh’s IPO is more inclusive and peace-driven. While many powers such as the US, UK, and Australia dub it as a strategy, Bangladesh has conceived it as an outlook much to the liking of ASEAN. In identifying the key determinants of Indo-Pacific region that influenced Bangladesh to announce its own outlook include the region’s collective share in global GDP, preponderance in international trade, enhanced climate action and growing technological dynamism.

Bangladesh’s declaration has come against the backdrop of evolving domestic and international contexts. Globally, Indo-Pacific region has become an arena of fierce strategic competition and a battleground for economic dominance over the past decade. The so-called great power competition has vitiated the region to the extent of calling it a new theatre of Cold War between the United States and China. Meanwhile, the announcements of Indo-Pacific StrategyQuadrilateral Security DialogueBelt and Road InitiativeAustralia-UK-US defence treaty and Indo-Pacific Economic Forum and many such initiatives have securitized the region to the detrimental interests of developing countries in the region such as Bangladesh. The ongoing Ukraine War has significantly drove the region towards more animosity and rivalries.

A Major Maritime Nation

As the geopolitical scenarios in the region are becoming more hostile and explosive, for Bangladesh the region has special significance from domestic considerations. Bangladesh is a key player in the greater Indo-Pacific region with its strong position in the Bay of Bengal subregional setting. With the peaceful settlement of maritime disputes with Myanmar and India a decade ago, Bangladesh has emerged as a major maritime nation in the region. The future of many littoral countries, including Bangladesh depends to a larger extent on a free and open Indo-Pacific. Currently, Bangladesh is chairing the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA). Bangladesh has already announced its blue economy plan vastly endorsed by the international community. In this context, the announcement of Bangladesh deserves enormous significance for its present and future role in the region.

Special Attention towards Two Aspects

Two aspects of this outlook deserve special attention. First, the outlook is a continuation of Bangladesh foreign policy and strategic vision which is based on the central pillar – friendship to all, malice towards none. Bangladesh has been able to uphold its non-aligned and balanced position to the world through this declaration. In the past, vested quarters have been trying to spread confusion about Bangladesh’s position where Bangladesh is often shown with a certain pole and vice versa. The main goal behind such kind misinformation was to disturb domestic political environment. Now Bangladesh has brought forward the long tradition of practicing its own foreign policy through this outlook. It is well known that Bangladesh’s policy under the visionary leadership of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is based on its own foundation and ethos instilled from Bangabandhu’s vision, not in light of the policies formulated by the great powers. Bangladesh has proved it once again. Through this outlook, Bangladesh has got a new document to express its views about the Indo-Pacific region in bilateral and multilateral forums. It will also serve as a foundation for policymakers, especially on Indo-Pacific issues.

Second, the outlook is a manifestation of creative diplomacy of Bangladesh as it has been formulated keeping in mind the unique and independent view of Bangladesh about global affairs. On numerous occasions Bangladesh has shown to the world that the country can think of out-of-the-box. From environment to climate change to terrorism, Bangladesh has led the world with new thoughts and views. The idea of ‘Culture of Peace’ is another example that Bangladesh thinks differently to solve global collective goods problems. Rohingya problemCOVID-19 vaccine are few other examples where Bangladesh has demonstrated its creative diplomacy.

What does the Bangladesh Indo-Pacific Outlook imply?

The IPO of Bangladesh is conceptually different from others on three grounds.

First, while the rest of the world is talking about a free and open Indo-Pacific region, Bangladesh sees it in a broader perspective. To Bangladesh, it is not just free and open, it is more, for which Bangladesh has added ‘peaceful, secure and inclusive’ to understand the region. Second, Bangladesh has grounded its outlook on four guiding principles of foreign policy which emphasize peace as the core of conducting international relations. Bangladesh has referred to Bangabandhu’s timeless dictum, ‘friendship to all, malice towards none’, constitutional mandate, international documents such as law of the sea and ethos of regional and global cooperation. Third, its purpose is unique. Bangladesh has outlined fifteen objectives in the document. These objectives are all-encompassing, inclusive and peace and development oriented.

The IPO clearly sets out the central vision for building a peaceful, prosperous, and stable Indo-Pacific region. Specific objectives include

  • strengthening mutual trust and respect
  • upholding the practice of freedom of navigation and maritime safety
  • contributing to non-proliferation and counterterrorism efforts
  • combating transnational organized crime
  • promoting a culture of peace
  • supporting equitable and sustainable development
  • enhancing connectivity
  • promoting food security and disaster risk reduction
  • addressing environmental challenges
  • ensuring energy security through investment in renewable energy
  • responding to future epidemics
  • strengthening regional cooperation and complementarity
  • promoting cooperation in science technology, research, and innovation.

In today’s world Bangladesh is committed to accelerating sustainable development and the role of the Indo-Pacific region is undeniable. New communication channels will also be created through sub-regional cooperation by which development will be ensured. In the regional and international arena, therefore, this outlook will be discoursed as a comprehensive and effective document that demonstrates the core of Bangladesh’s foreign policy.  It should be noted here that everyone has to work together to ensure collective prosperity and regional stability.  The role of every nation in the region is, therefore, undisputable. Bangladesh has made this crystal clear that Indo-Pacific region cannot be prosperous and strong without the participation of all actors – big or small, friendly or hostile. Every nation should be on board on the question of peace and security.

The Indo-Pacific Outlook of Bangladesh is a bold and game changing idea that has come at a time when the world is witnessing a new form of geopolitical rupture due to the Ukraine war, the Taiwan crisis, and other international events. Polarization is once again on the surface.  When alliance-building around the Indo Pacific region and issues of power politics capture headlines in the region, Bangladesh has overwhelmingly supported trust-building process, multilateralism, collective goods, inclusivity and mutual benefit.  Bangladesh rules out any possibility of being a pawn at the hands of powerful nations to create and sustain polarization and mistrust. Bangladesh under the leadership of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina will continue to serve as a trusted partner of development, peace and stability in the region as the country is the gateway to South and Southeast Asia due to its geographical location. Dhaka will maintain its partnerships with India, China, Japan, the United States, Russia, Quad members, and European countries. The IPO of Bangladesh has certainly elevated its image to a higher level for its unrelenting commitment to global peace and humanity.

– Delwar Hossain, PhD is Professor of International Relations, University of Dhaka, Bangladesh, and the founder of the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA).

Published in The Confluence [Link]