Saturday, March 26, 2011

Four Decades of Bangladesh Foreign Policy

Daily Sun, March 26th, 2011
Indeoendence Day Supplement
M. Serajul Islam

During Bangladesh’s war of liberation, the state actors in international politics were against it although Bangladesh had earned the respect of the peoples everywhere by the way it fought that war. Except for India and the Soviet Union, the Indo-Soviet axis of the Cold War era, no country of the time came to help Bangladesh as they successfully defeated the Pakistani military that was involved in an act of genocide in an attempt to keep the territorial integrity of Pakistan.

That lack of support of governments of the time was made up quickly as soon as the Pakistani army surrendered to the India-Bangladesh joint command on 16th December, 1971. Countries that opposed Bangladesh not only were in a hurry to recognize Bangladesh; many came forward to help build the war ravaged country. Japan is one nation that placed Bangladesh on top of the list of recipient countries for assistance.

The first decade of Bangladesh’s independence was its best 10 years in foreign policy achievements. In the years led by Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, foreign policy was one of the most important pre-occupation of the Government. It was the period when Bangladesh pursued and won recognition from all the countries of the world as an independent and sovereign country. Simultaneously, it also became a member of the United Nations and all other major world organizations such as the Commonwealth, the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), and the Non-Aligned Movement. It also became the natural leader of the group of Least Developed countries.

Bangladesh’s foreign policy successes were also visible in the way the developed countries came to its aid with economic assistance. USA that had viewed Bangladesh’s emergence with contempt with Dr. Henry Kissinger’s insensitive remark about Bangladesh destined to become “an international basket case”, came around to meet Bangladesh’s economic needs together with Japan, the United Kingdom and a number of other developed nations known at that period as Bangladesh Aid Consortium that used to meet those days under the joint Chairmanship of the World Bank and the Government of Bangladesh.

Nevertheless, the decade of 1970 was a turbulent one in Bangladesh’s domestic affairs. The dastardly assassination of the Father of the Nation was a major blow for the country. It was more so for the country’s foreign policy. While Bangabandhu was alive, his office and the Foreign Ministry worked together hand in glove in seeking for Bangladesh a position of honor and dignity in international politics and in addition, getting for the country much needed foreign assistance to rebuild it after it was razed to the ground by the Pakistanis before they left.

Bangladesh changed its foreign policy priorities dramatically after the historic change of Government on August 15th, 1975. It cast its preference for China and in the context of China-US rapprochement, Bangladesh chose the China-US axis as its new friends in which fear and dislike for India, the country that had acted as its midwife for birth as an independent nation, was the key factor. Bangladesh had enough reasons though for withdrawing from India. Bangladesh was deeply disappointed with India on water related issues, on land boundary demarcation and trial of 193 Pakistani POWs that it wanted to try for war crimes. Many Bangladeshis felt they had bargained the Pakistani masters for Indians. Even Bangabandhu was restless by many of these insensitive acts of India and he was looking at China for leverage in dealing with India.

The new rulers of Bangladesh did not hide their contempt for India. They sought acceptance among the people by riding on the anti-India factor. Under the regime of President Ziaur Rahman, Bangladesh and China came very close in strategic cooperation, with China undertaking to build the Bangladesh armed forces that was treated with a great deal of indifference during the previous Awami League Government. China also came forward with economic assistance that was very much needed at that time for rebuilding a war ravaged Bangladesh. China, that offered economic assistance of various types that were those days extremely attractive for Bangladesh, became the major driving factor in Bangladesh’s foreign policy pre-occupations. It not just offered Bangladesh assistance at concessional terms, it also came forward to help build Bangladesh economic infrastructure that was of critical significance.

Under President Ziaur Rahman, foreign affairs were given the same importance in governance as under the previous government. President Ziaur Rahman was interested for a role for Bangladesh in world and regional politics. He conceptualized a regional organization for South Asia that ultimately became a reality with the birth of SAARC in 1985. It was due to the foreign policy initiatives of President Zia’s government that Bangladesh won a seat in the UN Security Council for the 1979-80 term, defeating handsomely a country of the stature of Japan. Bangladesh’s friendship with China that has done tremendous good to the country, both in its economic development and for strategic value, was established as an outcome of foreign policy initiatives of the Government led by General Ziaur Rahman. Shortly after his death, Bangladesh’s Permanent Representative to the UN Ambassador KM. Kaiser was defeated by the toss of the coin to the post of the President of the UNGA by Iraq’s Mr. Ismat Kittani after both candidates had tied at 75 votes each.

The 1980s decade was a step back for Bangladesh in foreign affairs. It was also the period when the institutional basis of foreign policy formulation and execution was destroyed. More importantly, the military dictator General HM Ershad who ruled from 1982-1990 took major foreign policy decisions not in consultation with the Foreign Ministry but with those working in his office and his intelligence. Foreign policy initiatives for the entire tenure of General HM Ershad which coincided with the second decade of Bangladesh’s independence were taken more with the President’s personal interests in mind than that of the nation. Nevertheless, it was during his tenure that Bangladesh hosted the First SAARC Summit in Dhaka in 1986 that was a major foreign policy success of his Government. It was also during his tenure that Bangladesh-China relations were taken to a new level of excellence. He himself visited China five times and in that period, there were two top level visits from China to Bangladesh. President Li Xiannian visited Bangladesh in 1986 and Premier Li Peng, in 1989.

During the regime of General Ershad, Bangladesh and the United States moved close in their bilateral relations in which the President’s personal interests were crucial. He befriended important people in Washington through the very important Prayer Breakfast Group in Washington. His master stroke was in joining the US led coalition for the First Gulf War. In fact, the US Government tried its utmost to keep him in power when he was being pushed out as a result of the people’s movement against him led by the BNP and the Awami League. In the end, people’s power won and the President was pushed out ending the second decade of Bangladesh’s independence. During his tenure, Bangladesh won the Presidency of the UN General Assembly when Foreign Minister Humayun Rashid Chowdhury was elected to the post in 1986. However, during President Ershad’s tenure, Bangladesh lost the election for a seat in the UN Security Council against Malaysia. It was an ill advised decision taken without consultation with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and at the insistence of the Bangladesh Permanent Representative to the UN, a close relative of the President. The loss also damaged at that point Bangladesh’s relations with Malaysia as the latter had requested Bangladesh to withdraw on its behalf as Malaysia till that point in time, had not sat in the UN Security Council. Malaysia had even offered to share that term that Bangladesh had arrogantly turned down.

There was one significant contribution of the Ershad era to Bangladesh’s foreign policy. It was in the late 1980s that Bangladesh started contributing troops to UN Peacekeeping missions. The Bangladesh Mission in New York played a major role in achieving the initial breakthrough in what is now acknowledged in the UN circles as Bangladesh’s greatest contributions to the work of the United Nations. The breakthrough has also been immensely beneficial because it has brought to the country huge amount of money. The peace keeping missions are also very attractive to the army officers and soldiers and they get a great deal of money from their peace keeping missions. In fact, the peacekeeping missions are also responsible in encouraging the armed forces to remain professional and not get involved in politics as they used to do in the 1970s and early 1980s.

The third decade was one in which Bangladesh returned to elected government after 15 years of military and extra-constitutional rule. This decade belonged half and half to the Bangladesh Nationalist party and the Awami League. The Government of Begum Khaleda Zia adopted as its foreign policy priorities those that were adopted by her late husband General Ziaur Rahman. Although the Cold war had ended and world politics was fluid and changing, Begum Khaleda Zia’s government based her foreign policy on close strategic relations with China and the West and a negative one towards India. Pakistan that had began to play a covert role in Bangladesh’s politics through its covert collaboration between its ISI and the Bangladesh intelligence during President Ershad’s regime continued to do so under the BNP Government.

When the Awami League came to power in 1996, there were a few marked changes in the foreign policy priorities. The closeness with India was a choice that the new government made consciously. It also paid good dividends. Bangladesh and India signed the accord on the sharing of the waters of the Ganges that India had kept unresolved since the change of Government in Bangladesh in August 1975. India also helped resolve the insurgency problem in the Chittagong Hill Tracts and the Chittagong Hill Tracts Peace Agreement was signed in 1997 under the Awami League Government. The Awami League Government also achieved a major success in foreign affairs when Bangladesh got elected to a term in the UN Security Council. Despite its pro-India tag, Bangladesh and India came close to a serious border conflict in 2001 and it was only due to intervention of Prime Ministers Mr. Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Sheikh Hasina that the two countries avert a major border conflict, short of a war.

The 1990s decade saw fundamental changes in international politics as a consequence of the end of the Cold War and globalization. Since Bangladesh had much earlier withdrawn from the Indo-Soviet Axis, it was not left looking for new partners in international politics and indeed benefitted from its closeness with the United States and China. Nevertheless, poor structural problem in the formulation and implementation of the country’s foreign policy did not allow Bangladesh to fully benefit for being on the right side following the end of the Cold War. Foreign policy formulation and implementation continued to remain in the hands of a very few individuals and surprisingly, continued to be significantly influenced by the military intelligence. The Foreign Office was kept deliberately weak by having its legitimate functions distributed among a number of other Ministries of the Government. An attempt by the BNP Government to bring the Foreign Ministry into the centre for formulation and implementation of foreign policy through the Morshed Committee remained an exercise in futility although the Committee had recommended that all foreign affairs functions should be brought under the umbrella of the Foreign Ministry. The Awami League Government, while unwilling to accept anything left by the previous BNP Government, accepted the way it handled foreign affairs and the Foreign Ministry. Foreign affairs under the BNP and AL Governments of the 1990s decade failed to come to the centre of governance and Foreign Ministry continued to remain sideline, with its functions distributed amongst an array of other Ministries.

The fourth decade of Bangladesh coincided with the coming of a new millennium and in the context of international politics also with the attacks on 9/11 that in its wake simply turned the way of conducting relations among nations upside down. Hitherto unheard of concepts such as doctrine of pre-emptive strike through which the US led war on terror was conducted became guiding principles of international politics. At that critical juncture, the AL gave way to the BNP that won the 2001 elections in Bangladesh. The western powers led by the USA was at that time seeking a Muslim majority country with liberal democracy , a description that fitted Bangladesh like the hand into the glove, to oppose the terrorists who were using Islam for their cause by projecting islam as a religion of pace. Instead of accepting that opportunity, the BNP led Government chose to encourage the home grown Islamic terrorists in the country thus losing a heaven sent opportunity to get the backing of the entire developed group of nations for its foreign policy interests. At that time, the government also messed its chances of winning the post of the Secretary General of the OIC that would have given the country a great handle in international politics by choosing the wrong candidate. The AL also played its part in blowing out of proportions the BNP mistakes by projecting Bangladesh abroad as a “Taliban” state.

In fact, as a consequence of its unstable and conflict ridden internal politics, Bangladesh failed to project a right image to nations abroad about the country that needed assistance in terms of trade and investment for furthering its development goals. A weak Foreign Ministry was thus unable to do much except watch Bangladesh get marginalized in international politics. In the context of South Asia, in the four decades of Bangladesh’s independence, India has gone from a minor power to a major one in international politics. Pakistan meanwhile has attained nuclear capability and become an ally of the US in the war on terror. These facts have taken these two countries head and shoulder above Bangladesh in regional politics where world leaders visiting the region do not anymore see the need to come to Bangladesh after visiting India and Pakistan.

Thus ironically, Bangladesh’s position in international and regional politics, instead of improving with each successive decade, has gone in reverse. Some of it has been out of Bangladesh’s hands and the consequences of changes of international politics. Some of it however has been contributed by Bangladesh itself by treating foreign affairs indifferently and keeping the Foreign Ministry intentionally weak. Under the present AL led Government, the country has at least half a dozen Advisers/Ministers formally and informally sharing foreign relations with the Foreign Minister in a manner that is almost absurd. At least in half a dozen important Embassies, non-cadre and political Ambassadors are in charge. Some of these missions are also in charge of Bangladeshis who have divided loyalty. To all these , we have now thought it prudent to “worry” the likes of the US Secretary of State and a host of world leaders on the issue of Dr. Yunus whose negative impact will no doubt fall on furthering our foreign policy priorities. It is difficult to comprehend how a weak Foreign Ministry would tackle the possible fall outs of such an un-wise decision of the Government for it is extremely unusual that a US Secretary of State or for that matter the US Congress or so many world leaders to be snubbed snubbed the way Bangladesh has done with the Dr. Yunus episode.

Any writing on Bangladesh’s foreign affairs will be incomplete without reference to the successive Bangladesh’s Government’s much touted economic diplomacy. True, today Bangladesh’s nearly 7 million people serve abroad and send remittance worth nearly US$ 11 billion a year in foreign exchange that has a major positive impact on the country’s economic development. Bangladesh has also done very well in exporting its product abroad. Unfortunately such successful endeavours have been largely the outcome of efforts of the private sector rather than in any way due to its economic diplomacy. The country’s foreign policy has failed in a major way in building a positive image that is more than amply reflected in Bangladesh’s poor performance in attracting FDI despite a number of natural advantages such as geographical location, cheap labour and a large market. In fact, its economic diplomacy is an amalgam of media statements and declarations that has very little basis in sound policy.

As Bangladesh starts its fifth decade of independence, its foreign policy has made a major shift towards India. After over 3 and a half decade of pursuing mutually unfriendly relations with India, Bangladesh has assured the latter of total commitment for that country’s security concerns. This can only result in weakening of Bangladesh-China strategic relations under which China has helped build Bangladesh’s armed forces almost exclusively as well as help the country’s economic development. How that works out in the new decade of our journey as an independent nation will have to be seen. One conclusion can be made at this stage. Bangladesh’s foreign policy , both it is formulation and execution, has not evolved after the first decade of our independence in a positive way where the institutional basis that was there in that decade has weakened in the course of the next three decades. It does not need much common sense to conclude that such weakening has only affected the country adversely in seeking its foreign policy goals.

The writer is a former Secretary and former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt. He can be reached on his email id

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