Friday, August 5, 2005

Foreign policy of the BNP government: Lost Opportunities

Published in The New Age, August 5, 2005

Sadly, where potentials were immense to take the country forward by successful management of foreign policy, under the BNP-government, Bangladesh lost her international credibility as a liberal Muslim democracy and has instead become identified as a fundamentalist Muslim state, writes M Serajul Islam

The international situation presented the incumbent BNP-led government a good opportunity to establish Bangladesh as a Muslim-majority country with a liberal democracy. Success in establishing that credential would have gone a long way in improving Bangladesh’s image problem that has marginalised the country in the present international context. Bangladesh’s population of 145 million makes it the third largest Muslim country and among the 10 top-most populous nations of the world –– figures not to be taken lightly. Yet due to a combination of political and foreign policy failures, Bangladesh finds herself on the sidelines of international politics.

The aftermath of 9/11: BNP came to office shortly after 9/11, the event that dramatically altered most major parameters of international politics. Islam came at the centre stage for both right and wrong reasons. Nations tailored their foreign policies to adjust, accommodate or react to the event of the millennium. Bangladesh was presented with heaven-sent opportunities to benefit from the new realities in international politics as a liberal Islamic country. Bangladesh could have used her liberal Islamic traditions to fit into the changed scenario like hand into the glove. Further, the BNP had as its ally the Islamic parties, notably the Jamaat which placed it in a good position to tackle nascent Islamic terrorism. Also, the post of the secretary-general of the OIC came up for selection/election soon after the BNP came to power. A proper handling of the Jamaat, in turn Islamic fundamentalism, together with success in OIC would have won Bangladesh support of the developed nations as well as leadership of the Islamic world, making her position as a liberal Muslim country enviable among the developing nations of the world.

Failure to handle the Jamaat and the Islamists was a political failure and thus not a foreign policy matter although had that happened, the foreign policy managers would have had a good handle to work successfully in pursuing Bangladesh’s foreign policy goals.
The OIC debacle: The loss of the OIC election was however a foreign ministry failure. The post became almost Bangladesh’s in the year 2000 when then speaker and former foreign minister Humanyun Rashid Chowdhury was the candidate. The Saudis, whose influence in such matters is unquestioned, committed support to Chowdhury till at the last moment when the king of Morocco made a personal request to the king of Saudi Arabia to give then Moroccan incumbent OIC secretary general Larakki an extension. As the Saudis had extended Bangladesh support earlier, and as the request for Larakki was for one monarch to another that could not be declined, the Saudis requested Bangladesh to withdraw with the tacit understanding that they would unequivocally support Bangladesh in 2004.

With that background, the foreign ministry must have known too well how important it was for Bangladesh to win the secretary general’s post. In effect, however, the foreign ministry failed to bring home the crucial objective. The candidature of Salauddin Quader Chowdhury was a mistake because he did not have the credentials. Furthermore, his candidature ran into deep trouble in the country from the Awami League as was predictable. That gave the Saudis and others, who were favourably disposed towards Bangladesh in 2000, an excuse from actively supporting her candidature. The foreign ministry, instead of pointing out the weakness of the candidature, played along with it as it came from the office of the prime minister. Furthermore, the ministry, in the two years or so it ran the campaign, and spent crores for it, never either found out the lack of support for the candidate or having found it, deliberately fed the country wrong information about Bangladesh’s prospects. The foreign minister toured Turkey, who ultimately got the post, just two months before the OIC Summit that elected the secretary general and told the nation upon return that the post was as good as in Bangladesh’s pocket. On the eve of his departure for the summit, he told reporters at the airport that Bangladesh had commitment of 27 countries, just 2 votes short of an absolute majority. In contrast, Bangladesh lost the election poorly winning just 12 votes. Earlier, Malaysia approached Bangladesh to compromise in their favour, seeing that the Turkish candidate was surging ahead, and offered Bangladesh bilateral advantage that was scorned.

Thus Turkey, where the Islamists are in power, won the post handsomely while Bangladesh, where the Islamists just have a very minor share of power, lost badly and in the process, Bangladesh just not lost a post that has so much importance in the post 9/11 world, she also lost her natural advantage as a predominantly Muslim country with liberal democratic traditions which would have opened for the country a rich harvest of opportunities. The loss of the OIC post started Bangladesh’s slide in international politics under the BNP-led government.

India bashing: That slide became prominent in the region, particularly with India, Bangladesh’s most important neighbour and also with most of her development partners. With India, the BNP started on the wrong foot, taken deliberately and un-diplomatically. Any party in power in Delhi prefers the Awami League for reasons embedded in Bangladesh’s war of liberation. That notwithstanding, the BJP under then Indian prime minster Vajpayee had a different perspective of India’s neighbours with whom the prime minister was eager to mend fences. In that spirit, Vajpayee was the first international leader to congratulate Begum Zia on BNP’s election victory. That message was kept pending till a similar message from Pakistan was received. Then, Vajpayee proposed to send his most trusted aide, Brojesh Misra, to Bangladesh as his special envoy which too was not announced till Pakistan named her special envoy. That start sent India the wrong signal.

The foreign ministry thereafter handled Bangladesh’s relations with India by taking the cue from the political leadership. The diatribe by the foreign minister against India while speaking at the Enterprise Institute in presence of the Indian High Commissioner was an example of that approach. Then when India postponed participation in the 13th SAARC Summit, the foreign secretary matched his minister in criticising India in harsh and undiplomatic language.

It is true that India is not always a good neighbour and Bangladesh has reasons to be unhappy with her. That notwithstanding, the foreign policy managers of Bangladesh should not forget that India gave refuge to 10 million Bangladeshis in 1971 when the Pakistani army was killing Bangladeshis indiscriminately. Further, India sacrificed a large number of her troops in defeating Pakistan in 1971 that ended Pakistan’s occupation of Bangladesh. Finally, today India is a major player on the international stage and no matter what perception Bangladesh holds of India, the country must live with India and conduct relations with her with diplomatic and intellectual skills. Instead of acknowledging those realities and developing an India policy accordingly, the foreign ministry often preferred to deal with India through the media and chose India bashing in the media as a strategy where the foreign minister spared no opportunity to accuse India in the media in a manner that were best handled through diplomatic channels. The India bashing policy adopted by the foreign ministry helped to deteriorate Bangladesh-India relations to an all-time low.

The unprofessional approach taken by the foreign ministry also allowed other ministries of the government to deal with India by-passing the foreign ministry that often saw them contradicting one another. Consequently, the foreign ministry was unable to focus on the substantive issues in Bangladesh-India relations such as trade, transit, use of her ports and sale of gas, if she has the extra amount, to create for India a stake in Bangladesh. New developments also came into play of late vis-à-vis India such as India’s desire to become a permanent member of the UN security council and win the UN secretary-general’s post, aspirations that are taken seriously in view of India’s emergence as a major power in world politics. In conducting relations with India, the foreign ministry did not take most of the above realities into consideration and emphasised too much upon sovereign equality. The foreign ministry sometimes worked against those interests, and also consciously or unconsciously helped emphasise a preconceived notion held politically that India is out to harm Bangladesh’s sovereignty for pleasing the political leadership. The foreign ministry thus failed to provide the proper direction for a professional approach to Bangladesh-India relations.

Development partners: Bangladesh’s relations with her development partners have also shown little improvement. The United States became too busy with the war on terror. Bangladesh did not matter to them in that context as she was not involved directly or indirectly with major international terrorist groups. The US did express concern from time to time with the government’s over-indulgence to home-grown Islamic terrorists that were not taken seriously till under secretary for Asia Rocco came in Dhaka in January this year and delivered a stern message which, many speculate, led to the arrests of Bangla Bhai and his associates. The former US ambassador Harry Thomas’ frequent calls earlier for action against the Islamists in Bangladesh, though not in conformity with diplomatic practices, were dismissed by the government summarily.

The rise of corruption and poor governance also resulted in the Tuesday Club, an informal gathering of ambassadors/high commissioners of development partners, to be openly critical of the government. The foreign ministry handled the Club poorly. Instead of using tact and finesse, the foreign minister openly accused the Club of trade unionism. Unlike Bangladesh, other countries let ambassadors play a crucial role in development of bilateral relations. An ambassador’s recommendation is sought and almost always taken in every matter of bilateral importance. The foreign ministry’s failure to deal effectively with the Club together with poor governance, corruption and rising Islamic militancy contributed to marginalise Bangladesh bilaterally with most of her development partners, as feedback they received from their envoys in Dhaka were critical of the government. True, they have not gone out of the way to show that in a major way by reducing for example aid cooperation, the main platform of bilateral relations with them. Nevertheless the warmth of relations has not been there at all.

With Japan and China, too, the government’s handling of relations have been poor. China has still not forgiven Bangladesh for opening of Taiwan trade office in Dhaka without consulting with her. The foreign ministry was intriguingly superseded by the board of investment in taking the initiative. The timing of the decision was poor as it came right before the Taiwanese elections. It is true that within the One China Policy, most countries have trade and commercial relations with Taiwan. China itself does so. However, the lure of investment and trade weighed heavily in prompting Bangladesh to let Taiwan open its trade office. Important as those lures were, they cannot be reasons to annoy China which is on course to become the next superpower.

Japan is Bangladesh’s most important development partner and provides loan and grant of US$ 300 million approximately annually. The loan portion is also later turned into grant. Two years ago, Japan wrote off US1.46 billion of loans. As the next possible member of the UN security council, Japan’s importance to Bangladesh cannot be over exaggerated. Yet, the government chose to cancel a project called DAP 11 with Japan soon after coming to office, overtly because it was not economically viable but covertly, because it was signed under the AL regime. Japan was deeply offended with this unilateral cancellation. They insisted that DAP 11 must be reactivated. The Japanese argued that a change of office between the two parties cannot be an excuse for a breach of international contract. They also dismissed the economic argument. DAP 11 was eventually reactivated after 2 precious years were lost and Bangladesh’s credibility questioned by Japan. Ironically, DAP 11 is now proving economically viable. The foreign ministry, which should have known the consequences of offending Japan too well, allowed the ministry of industries to take over the conduct of bilateral relations on this crucial issue and only when the PMO heard the alarm bells, DAP 11 was reactivated. It is to Japan’s professional approach to diplomacy that once the DAP 11 was reactivated, they went about business as usual, invited Khaleda Zia to Japan on an official visit that was very successful. Japan increased its Yen loans to Bangladesh from US$ 100 to US 200 million a year from January this year. The recent visit of the Japanese foreign minister to Dhaka also bears testimony to expanding Bangladesh-Japan relations.

Loss of credibility: Sadly, where potentials were immense to take the country forward by successful management of foreign policy, under the BNP-government, Bangladesh lost her international credibility as a liberal Muslim democracy and has instead become identified as a fundamentalist Muslim state. Bangladesh also ran into trouble with all her development partners on the issues of poor governance, corruption and failure to tackle home-grown Islamists. With India, relations have never been as low as under this regime. Bangladesh also lost her leadership of the LDC group in multilateral negotiations and she witnessed Malaysia make much good use of the chairmanship of NAM that she declined to accept after being offered while the AL was in power.

True, the long list of failures in foreign policy are not all entirely failures of the foreign ministry for political leadership also contributed. Yet, the foreign ministry must share the major responsibility for it did not properly guide the political leadership in responding diplomatically to the concerns of the international community to such issues as corruption, governance and terrorism. Rather, the foreign ministry handled the issues through denial, conflict and to put it mildly, un-diplomatically. The foreign policy of this government has been reactive and that too in the negative sense.

The writer is a former Bangladesh Ambassador to Japan