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Bangladesh-India Relations in the Age of Multipolarity: Challenges and Prospects

  • Geopolitics
  • 18 d ago
  • 13 min read
Bangladesh,  India,  Bangladesh-India

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in New Delhi, 2017

Dr Imtiaz Ahmed
Dr Imtiaz Ahmed - Executive Director, Centre for Alternatives, Bangladesh

This article is part of a three part series by Dr. Imtiaz Ahmed who discusses Bangladesh-India relations in a multipolar world. In this first part, he highlights development and foreign policy trajectories of both India and Bangladesh. He argues that in its foreign policy, Bangladesh has been able to attract various development partners long before the concept of multipolarity caught world’s attention. 

Part I: Impact of a Changing World on India and Bangladesh 

There has been a tectonic shift in Bangladesh-India relations following Shaikh Hasina’s victory in the December 2008 parliamentary election. The reasons are not difficult to understand. Firstly, Bangladesh has never had political stability since its birth in 1971. What it had for the first time since December 2008 was regime stability, which allowed the government to carry out several durable social, economic, and mega-developmental projects. Not surprisingly, it succeeded in making a positive impression on the country globally for initiating a ‘developmental model’ or ‘South Asian miracle’! Whether protracted regime stability would contribute to political stability remains an open question or an issue to be witnessed. 

But more importantly, for Bangladesh-India relations, this lengthy regime stability allowed the relationship to transform meaningfully, benefiting Bangladesh as much as it did India. Indeed, in the last 15 years, both countries have made tremendous progress in their bilateral relationship, particularly in the context of being once called “distant neighbours” amid fear, suspicion, and prejudice.1

This brings us to the second reason. Bangladesh-India relations suffered considerably during the pre-2008 regime, more precisely during the BNP regime of 2001-2006. This is related to the 10-truck arms and ammunition haul in Chittagong on 1 April 2004 when the Coastal Guard of Bangladesh apprehended illegal weapons, presumably destined for the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), an insurgency group operating in northeast India and waging war against the central government of India. This was preceded by the ULFA operators, including its military wing chief, Paresh Baruah, having sanctuary in Bangladesh, with some living in Dhaka and even operating bank accounts. The post-2008 Awami League government made a qualitative departure from this, with Prime Minister Shaikh Hasina insisting on having a zero-tolerance policy of not providing space to insurgent groups, whether internal or external. This made India understand that having a friendly government in Bangladesh, committed to a policy of non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs, is vital to its security in the northeast. However, what are its prospects in the changing nature of international relations? Can the two countries meet the geopolitical challenges of contemporary times? Can the relationship remain exceptional to the norm in the region? Answers merit a closer exposition.

From a Unipolar to a Multipolar World

Divisive and colonial, though it were, humans got connected on a global scale for the first time in history through unipolarity, or what is referred to as Pax Britannica. However, the latter tumbled following two great wars - World War I and World War II - which created a bipolar world under the leadership of the United States and the Soviet Union. But that, too, ended in 1991 following the dismantling of the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev in the name of glasnost (transparency) and perestroika (restructuring). The world again returned to unipolarity, this time under the leadership of the United States. The fundamental difference between the first and second unipolarity is that the latter, unlike the former, came into being in the aftermath of decolonization and the membership of more than 190 independent countries in the intergovernmental organisation called the United Nations.

But more importantly, the second unipolarity emerged amid the transformation of nationally located capitalism into globalisation. The latter saw the relocation of manufacturing sectors from the developed economies to developing countries, particularly China, Thailand, Mexico, India, and South Korea, including Bangladesh. 

Capitalism, which otherwise prided itself on developing nationally with the aid of the internationalisation of trade, finance, and investment, saw, for the first time, the internationalisation of ‘production.’ The components of a finished product began to be produced not in one country but in several countries and then assembled in one location, with multinational corporations profiting the most.

However, the internationalisation of production resulted from the declining tendency of the rate of profit to fall in a capitalist economy, mainly because of the rise in the cost of labour, which could be lowered, and greater profits ensured if part of the industries, particularly the manufacturing sector, could be shifted to the developing countries with cheap labour requiring relatively little skill. The transformation also saw developing countries moving away from planned economies and towards public-private partnerships, with the former creating grounds for the latter to thrive and prosper.

Nepal’s New Coalition and its Relations with China

Representative image | Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP

The transformation of nationally located capitalism into globalisation created grounds for the rise and re-rise of several countries, including some of the former colonies. Amongst the many, the re-rise of China has been spectacular. Regarding purchasing power parity (PPP), China has been the largest economy in the world and the second largest economy by nominal GDP, behind the United States, since 2016.2India’s economy, too, saw a dramatic re-rise and is now larger than France's and the United Kingdom’s.In China’s and India’s case, it is a re-rise because, in the 18thcentury, China’s economy was the largest and (undivided) India’s economy was the second largest, having more than 20 percent share of the global economy, respectively.The transformation of capitalism into globalisation also saw the rise of several economies, including Germany, Russia, Japan, Brazil, South Africa, Turkey, Iran, South Korea, and many more. The relative decline of the Western powers and the relative rise of the non-Western powers have, for the first time, created conditions for ushering in a world beyond the earlier phases of unipolarity and bipolarity to what is now referred to as multipolarity. But more importantly, this would be a ‘fluid multipolarity’ and not a rigid one, which will make the countries making the polarities engage with one another whenever compulsions arise. Small or big countries would have more manoeuvring options than ever.

Against this transformation of capitalism into globalisation and the world from unipolarity to multipolarity, India and Bangladesh have come to play their respective roles, regionally and internationally. Let us examine their precise state of development and how they plan to deal with the changing world before we take up their bilateral relations on some of the competitive and contested issues.

The India Way

The sub-heading is the title of S. Jaishankar’s book, published in 2020. Although Jaishankar had long experience with international relations and foreign policy, having been India’s ambassador to major capitals of the world, including China and the United States, and its foreign secretary from 2015 to 2018, he could only textualise his views on the transforming world, even suggesting ways of putting them into practice, on the eve of becoming India’s Minister of External Affairs in May 2019. Therefore, a year later, the book’s publication provided enough material to comprehend India’s foreign policy in the age of multipolarity. A close reading or a review of the book will show that it consists of four critical features now quintessentially part of India’s foreign policy.

Firstly, Jaishankar was clear about the arrival of multipolarity: “India must make a virtue of reconciling global good with national interest. The challenge is to practise that successfully in a world of greater multipolarity and weaker multilateralism”.5Again, “our national strategy, to realise even the more constant goals, cannot be static in an evolving world. We know that well, having seen the world move from bipolarity to unipolarity and now to multipolarity”.6 Multipolarity otherwise creates an opportunity for India to creatively, if not boldly, play an active role in both regional and global stages.

Secondly, seeking insights from India’s past, Jaishankar noted, “The India of the Mahabharata era was also multipolar, with its leading powers balancing each other”.Interestingly, the inspiration for a return to history is not based on the ‘Western paradigm’ or its ‘norms and values,’ as had been the case with postcolonial international relations, but from the experience of China. As Jaishankar points out, “China, as the first non-Western power to seriously rise in the post-1945 era, has drawn on its cultural heritage to project its personality and shape the narrative. It is but logical that India too should follow suit”.8

This is a marked departure from the Western discourse, formulated not surprisingly in the backdrop of a ‘divided Europe’ and a less ‘cohesive Western world.’ However, this does not suggest India is blind to China’s rise. 

Instead, Jaishankar contends, “The key to a more settled Sino-Indian relationship is a greater acceptance by both countries of multipolarity and mutuality, building on a larger foundation of global rebalancing ”.9 India’s return to history and openness to engage with China in the age of multipolarity are bound to create space for newer forms of engagement between the two countries.

Thirdly, India must make ‘multipolar Asia’ pivotal in its engagement with the multipolar world. In this context, engaging with China, Japan, and other Asian countries remains critical. But at the same time, such engagements should not be done by making the West apprehensive of India’s goals in Asia and beyond. 

As Jaishankar puts it, “Japan’s predicament is conceptually the same as that of the rest of Asia. It too is engaged in multipolar diplomacy, no longer dependent completely on others nor oblivious to the growth around it… A multipolar Asia will really only come about with the participation of Japan”.10 This is where one could see the difference between India and Japan, on the one hand, and the United States and Australia, on the other, on the objectives of the Quad (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue). The idea, initially mooted by Japan in 2007 and later shared by Australia, India, and the United States, was intended not to contain China militarily but to compete with the latter economically. However, Australia and the United States had more security goals in mind, which is probably why the two Quad members shifted their gear and formed a triadic security alliance with the UK in the Indo-Pacific region named Aukus in 2021. India’s, even Japan’s, ‘multipolar Asia’ and ‘multipolar world’ can hardly entertain the idea of securitizing Asia and containing China.

Finally, India requires a greater appreciation of world politics, which, in addition to the “non-alignment and strategic autonomy of earlier periods,” would include what Jaishankar calls “multiple engagements”.11 In this quest, Jaishankar is ready to fall back on the Kautilyan tradition, which “were not given the weightage that they deserved,” and seek insights from Kautilya’s writings, particularly the “importance of ‘Sama, Dana, Danda and Bheda’ (alliance, compensation, force, and trickery)”.12 Indeed, in meeting the challenges of multipolarity, “It is important that India not be either persuaded nor pressured to restrict its options”.13 Instead, India’s influence, as Jaishankar maintains, “will contribute to world rebalancing and shape the pace of multipolarity, political or economic”.14

One could see that under the leadership of Narendra Modi, with Jaishankar as a critical foreign policy theorist and practitioner, India is ready to engage with the multipolar world with the freshness and professionalism it deserves.

But where does Bangladesh fit into India’s foreign policy oeuvre? Before taking this up in detail, let us find out how Bangladesh positions itself in the age of globalisation and multipolarity.

Bangladesh’s Development Without Enmity

Bangladesh literally does not have any enemies. Now that the territorial boundaries, land and maritime, have been resolved and fixed with India and Myanmar, there are no territorial disputes. There is a civilizational context to having no enemies. The people of Bengal, now Bangladesh, have always welcomed guests, even outsiders, as a blessing, hoping the visit will benefit the host as much as the guest. 

This was true during the visits of Faxian, Yijing, and Xuanzang from China to Bengal during the first millennium CE as it had been during the visit of Sa'd ibn Abi Waqqas, one of the companions of the Prophet Muhammad, to China via Lalmonirhat and the Brahmaputra in 648 CE.15But at times, some of the guests, particularly the British, overstayed, mainly because of their greed and exploited the people of Bengal, now Bangladesh.

However, despite the traumatic experience with colonialism and facing genocide twice in the 20th century, 1947 and 1971, Bangladesh's journey since 1971 has been spectacular. The country succeeded in making an enviable journey from ‘an international basket case,’ as it was labelled in December 1971, to a developing country.16Aided by economic growth of over 7 percent and a unique GO-NGO partnership, Bangladesh reduced poverty from 41.5 percent in 2006 to 18.7 percent in 2022, and extreme poverty has gone from 25.1 percent to 5.6 percent.17At the same time, Bangladesh has fared better in some human development indices than the neighbouring South Asian countries. The life expectancy of a Bangladeshi is one of the highest in the region, 73 years in 2019, compared to 69 and 67 years for an Indian and a Pakistani, respectively.18Infant mortality is 23 in Bangladesh per 1000 live births in 2021, while in India, it is 26, and in Pakistan, 53.19Again, 71 percent of women above 15 in Bangladesh are literate, while 66 percent are so in India and 65.46 percent in Pakistan.20The country is projected to become a developed country by 2041. However, inflation, the balance of payments, and fiscal pressures could slow Bangladesh’s economy and delay its transformation into a developed country.21

Indeed, despite being a product of the cartographical massacres of Bengal in 1947 and later Pakistan in 1971, Bangladesh has done relatively well, as indicated earlier, since 1971. Grounds, however, were laid down before Bangladesh's independence in 1970 when Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman declared that the country’s foreign policy, if his party went to power, would be "friendship to all and malice towards none”.22

However, it is surprising that when Bangabandhu first outlined the principle, Bangladesh had far fewer friends than it now has globally. Indeed, Bangabandhu reiterated the principle in the post-independence period at the Asian Peace Conference in Dhaka in May 1973. Not everyone in Bangladesh was on board, and there were sceptics about the effectiveness of the principle

However, Bangabandhu and later various regimes in Bangladesh remained committed to its foreign policy principle. Bangladesh joined various regional and international organisations - SAARC, IORA, BIMSTEC, BCIM and BBIN - although some of the organisations had members who were hardly comfortable with one another. Bangladesh went even further and became a member of the two most significant, almost opposing, alliances or groupings in the post-Cold War era, namely, the Indo-Pacific Alliance (IPA), led by the United States, and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), led by China. On top of this, Bangladesh maintained a robust partnership with Japan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and many other essential actors.

Bangladesh’s foreign policy principle otherwise came as a blessing in attracting, often opposing, developmental partners, indeed, long before multipolarity caught the world's attention. It may be noted that Bangabandhu mooted the principle at the height of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. With multipolarity becoming entrenched globally, Bangladesh has more reason to deepen its engagement with all the polarities with creative diplomacy and professionalism.

(Exclusive to NatStrat)

Endnotes:

  1. Mukharji, D. (2007). “Distant neighbours: India and Bangladesh,” in Atish Sinha and Madhup Mohta, eds., Indian Foreign Policy: Challenges and Opportunities (New Delhi: Academic Foundation), pp. 557–568
  2. Morrison, W. M. (2019). “China’s Economic Rise: History, Trends, Challenges, and Implications for the United States,” Congressional Research Service, 25 June
  3. Myers, J. (2020). “India is now the world’s fifth largest economy,” World Economic Forum, 19 February
  4. The Globalist, Global Economy: 12 Facts on China’s Economic History, 10 November 2014. Accessed on 5 April 2024, Tharoor, S. (2016).
  5. Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India (UK: Penguin Books, 2016)Frank, A. Gunder (1996). “India in the World Economy, 1400-1750,” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 31, No. 30, 27 July.
  6. Jaishankar, S (2020). The India Way: Strategies for an Uncertain World (Noida: Harper Collins, 2020), pp. 9.
  7. Ibid, p. 73.
  8. Ibid, p. 49.
  9. Ibid, p. 47.
  10. Ibid, p. 154.
  11. Ibid, p. 165.
  12. Ibid, p. 100.
  13. Ibid, p. 8, 56
  14. Ibid, p. 148
  15. Ibid, p. 207
  16. Ahmed, I. (2020). Civil Society, State & Democratic Futures in Bangladesh (Dhaka: Prothoma, 2020), pp. 116
  17. Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969-1976: South Asia Crisis, 1971, Volume XI (2005), (Washington DC: United States Government Printing Office), p. 666
  18. Hasina, S. (2023). Speech at the General Assembly of the United Nations, 22 September
  19. Sabur, M. Abdus (2021). “Bangladesh’s journey with health in the past 50 years,” The Daily Star, 26 March
  20. The World Bank (2021). Mortality rate, infant: 1960-2021, Accessed on 5 April 2024.
  21. The World Bank (2018). World Development Indicators Database (Washington DC: The World Bank).
  22. Ahmed, S. (2023). Bangladesh Stabilizing the Macro Economy (Dhaka: Nymphea Publication).
  23. Awami League Election Manifesto (June 1970). Bangladesh Documents (New Delhi: Ministry of External Affairs, undated), p. 81.

     

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