Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Bangladesh Foreign Policy: Missed Opportunities

Published in The Daily Sun
October 25th., 2010
M. Serajul Islam

Globalization has profoundly changed the way relations are conducted between nations. It has made the conduct of such relations more difficult and complex. In every country conduct of foreign relations has attained the highest significance. Consequently, the Foreign Ministry has been strengthened everywhere.

Bangladesh for some unexplained reasons has stood against the tide of time. It has steadily, wittingly or otherwise, weakened its ability to conduct its interests in the international environment. Its conduct of foreign relations is based on partisanship where, if the Government wants to go in one direction, the opposition would want to go the oppositeway. The Bangladesh Foreign Ministry today, instead of holding charge of formulating and implementing foreign policy, has been pushed to the periphery where the Foreign Minister’s role has been taken away and distributed elsewhere.

One does not need much common sense to predict that foreign policy formulated in partisan manner by a Foreign Ministry so weak, where the stakeholders are not consulted, cannot achieve Bangladesh’s national interests to the fullest extent possible. The history of Bangladesh foreign relations is replete with examples where the nation has missed furthering its national interests because of the way it conducts its foreign relations.

9/11 hit the world like a huge meteor, and turned it upside down. The world is still struggling to stand up on its feet. Ironically it came for Bangladesh as an opportunity. After the United States absorbed the initial shock and embarked on the war on terror, it also looked to reach out to the Muslim world to isolate the peaceful world of Islam from the fundamentalists where it knew that the majority supported peace. In other words, the US and its allies looked for Muslim countries with large population with a liberal democracy in place. In that context, Bangladesh and Turkey were the two countries on top of the list.

Just at that juncture in history, the BNP assumed office with a big majority in the elections. For Bangladesh and BNP, the stage was set to win the friendship of the US and the West instantly by aligning its foreign policy to the new realities. Instead, the BNP misunderstood the international issues and to please the Jamat, it gave the US and the West a wrong message; that it actively supported Islamic fundamentalism. The Jamat took full advantage of BNP’s indulgence to build in the country an extensive network of Islamic fundamentalist groups who threatened to establish a fundamentalist Islamic rule in the country. The US Ambassador in Dhaka at that time cried hoarse in trying to attract the attention of the Government but failed as the latter described the rising wave of Islamic terrorist activities in the country, particularly in northern Bangladesh, as media hype.

The AL that was aggrieved because it lost power that it thought was through a “conspiracy” took full advantage of the wrong line of the BNP and gave Bangladesh a branding as a Taliban state. That branding destroyed further the possibility of Bangladesh to get on the right side of the US and the West by establishing its credentials as a Muslim country with a liberal democracy. The other opportunity that the BNP Government missed was to win the post of the Secretary General of the OIC that went to Turkey. Bangladesh had destroyed that prospects by its indulgence to Islamic fundamentalists and choosing a controversial candidate. The AL helped Bangladesh lose the post by arguing the case against the candidate abroad. The post of the OIC Secretary General ,that had been promised to Bangladesh by the Saudis when Bangladesh withdrew the candidature of Humayun Rashid Chowdhury in the 2000 elections on request of the Saudi King , would have given Bangladesh a significant handle for achieving its foreign policy goals in a post 9/11 world.

In the end, but when it was too late, it was explicit that Islamic terrorism in Bangladesh was the product of BNP’s indulgence with the Islamic forces and AL’s propaganda that Bangladesh was an Islamic terrorist state, with the Indian media actively propagating AL’s stand. In 2005, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, on a visit to New Delhi referred to Bangladesh as the “next Afghanistan”, based on the briefing by the Indians. Early in 2006, Christine Rocco, the US Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia came on a visit to Bangladesh and gave Bangladesh a strong message to control elements the Islamic fundamentalists. Within a very short time after that, these elements were arrested in a fairy tale manner. They were tried and hanged under the Caretaker Government without any trouble from their supporters who, going by the media campaign about Bangladesh in the India and international media, were on the verge of taking power by force. The tame fashion of their arrests and execution went to prove that the media propaganda notwithstanding, was not a fundamentalist Islamic state but a liberal democracy.

If the BNP Government’s had understood the international forces of the time and pursued its foreign policy accordingly, it would have achieved its interests in a major way with the western countries led by the United States. Instead, it won for Bangladesh the tag of an Islamic fundamentalist state, whose negative impact fell, among other things, on its economy, particularly in attracting foreign investment. BNP’s failure to take AL on board on its foreign policy initiatives that in itself is the product of the country’s negative politics and the AL’s propaganda that Bangladesh was a “Taliban” state, have contributed to Bangladesh’s failure to pursue its international interests for which the international situation was tailor made.

The partisanship in pursuing foreign policy under the last BNP Government was thus responsible for Bangladesh missing out of a heaven sent opportunity to develop with the West a relationship that would have launched it on road to economic prosperity. It was this partisanship on foreign relations that was also responsible for the emergency. The western powers who were pursuing the war on terror, intervened directly through their diplomats in Dhaka to bring the military into power to avert the country failing that would have made it a haven for international terrorists or in Condoleezza Rice’s words, turn Bangladesh into the “the next Afghanistan”. Today many believe, particularly the business community, that the emergency has pushed Bangladesh back a few decades in its development efforts.

Politicians in Bangladesh speak of history and of taking lessons from history. However, when it comes on deciding on vital national issues, history becomes the first casualty. One expected that the Awami League would look upon the BNP’s last term and realize the historical mistake it made by not looking upon forces in international politics on a bipartisan basis. This time, the opportunity that has come Bangladesh’s way is with India, a country that is vital to its efforts to succeed in economic development, because of factors of geography and politics. Again, the AL is following the footsteps of the BNP did after 9/11, in choosing to deal with opportunities to improve Bangladesh-India relations without talking with the opposition parties and the stakeholders.

Soon after coming to power, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina announced that Bangladesh will not allow its territory to be used by terrorists against India. Before Sheikh Hasina’s visit to India in January this year, Bangladesh handed to India the top ULFA terrorists, a step that was an answer to India’s dream. Subsequently, Bangladesh also acceded to India’s long standing demand for land transit from mainland India to its seven sensitive northeastern states in the name of connectivity. During her Indian visit, Bangladesh also accepted India as the regional leader by supporting India’s candidature as a permanent member is an expanded UN Security Council which ironically is not an issue at all in the UN at this period of time. The support given in the Joint Communiqué has been strongly worded to affect China’s sensitivity, a country with whom Bangladesh has painstakingly built strategic partnership over the last few decades.

The BNP, true to the partisan way Bangladesh conducts its foreign relations, has called for agreements and understanding reached by Sheikh Hasina in New Delhi to be scrapped. Subsequently, when the Indian Finance Minister visited to Dhaka and offered a US$ 1 billion soft loan to build economic infrastructure in Bangladesh to make it a sub-regional connectivity hub with promises of great economic gains, the BNP again dismissed the Indian offer. It accused the Government of giving India its long standing demand for land transit (Bangladesh’s only major bargaining chip with India) from its mainland to the Seven Sisters without receiving anything on its own demands on water sharing, trade issues, land and maritime boundary demarcation except promises.

On a recent visit to New Delhi, a group of us who interacted with Indians who know about the recent moves in Bangladesh-India relations have returned with the impression that this time there is sincerity on the Indian part to provide Bangladesh concessions on its demands. A lot of the change in India has come because of the moves Bangladesh has made on key issues of security, transit and India’s international politics. The media in fact recommended to the Indian Government to give Bangladesh whatever it wanted after these concessions. In our discussions with the Indians, we told them that their intentions were still not understood and that unless they moved very quickly on giving Bangladesh concessions on water rights, trade issues; land and maritime boundary demarcation, politics may not wait for Indian good intentions on economics to catch up. We also told them that when the Indian Prime Minister goes on his visit to Bangladesh that is expected to take place early next year, there must be an agreement on Teesta sharing; land boundary demarcation and a political statement that on maritime boundary that Bangladesh’s principled stand would be discussed with sincerity. On trade, we said that the days of bureaucratic discussions should become history and India must provide Bangladesh with a one way trade regime where its products would be able to enter India without any tariff or non-tariff barrier. We told them that through such a gesture, Bangladesh would not even be able to come anywhere near the humongous trade deficit that India enjoys but would cause in Bangladesh a sea change in perception that India is interested in Bangladesh’s welfare.

The Indians this time are in the mood to be friendly to Bangladesh. However, they are moving slowly, not realizing that the window of opportunity that has come about in Bangladesh-India relations since the AL came to power in Dhaka and Congress returned to power in New Delhi will not remain open too long. They must consider that the BNP has already taken a public stand against the recent initiatives. India’s failure to give Bangladesh its demands quickly may change the mood in those who are not partisan, including the new generation who are otherwise fed up with partisan and conflict ridden politics of the country. The recent overtures by Bangladesh towards China could be the reflection of wariness within the AL camp about moving ahead with India with India lagging behind.

Bangladesh can achieve its full economic potentials only when it resolves its geopolitical problems and prospects which means resolving its problems with India. In this context, a historic opportunity is in front of the country. The historic opportunity to develop a friendly and sustainable relation with India could again go the other way by default like the opportunity Bangladesh wasted after 9/11 because of partisanship in the way it conducts foreign relations. Unless India makes quick and substantial concessions on the issues of concern to Bangladesh by the time the Indian Prime Minister visits Bangladesh, the possibilities for a paradigm shift in Bangladesh-India relations may just wither away. India’s US 1 billion loan may also just be wasted as the BNP’s negative campaign against India begins to find favour among those who are not traditionally BNP supporters. . There is a new problem on the Bangladesh side that was not there when BNP missed the opportunities after 9/11. The Foreign Ministry has been weakened substantially meanwhile with many sharing the functions of the Foreign Minister who are not formally supposed to have any role in the conduct of foreign relations.

Partisanship of the parties in foreign relations could thus destroy the possibilities in improvement of Bangladesh-India relations as it destroyed the opportunities that came Bangladesh’s way after 9/11. The only difference between then and now could be made by India if it reciprocates generously on the concessions made by Bangladesh and very quickly as time may be fast running out. Otherwise, there could be another opportunity lost by Bangladesh due to the partisan way it conducts its foreign relations.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt and a Director, Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies.

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