We're Live Bangla Sunday, September 26, 2021

Bangladesh: Turning strategic weakness into strength

Top-28-09-2020 (1)
Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina talks to US President  Donald Trump at a launch hosted by UN Secretary General António Guterres at UN Headquarter in 2019.

A few years back, Bangladesh's lack of strategic clout was on global public display as the Rohingya refugees swamped the land and no superpower bothered to help. Even India, which claims a "permanent friendship" with Bangladesh, tilted heavily towards Myanmar hoping for some diplomatic and economic goodies from Yangon. The current big brother in the block, China, held Myanmar’s hand as the latter pushed the Rohingyas into Bangladesh.

But three years is a long time in global politics, and Bangladesh seems to be getting a lot of positive attention recently. The global stage has heated up with the China-US and the India-China conflicts. Curiously, "weakness" appears to have become a strategic commodity in the case of Bangladesh which is using its neutrality to its advantage.

Vaccine diplomacy 

China offered to fund the Teesta river water project which would have serious implications for India causing a lot of media furor there. Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla's dash to Dhaka showed urgency but Bangladesh didn't really roll out the carpet for him. Dhaka was sending a signal of sorts that it has other big friends now, namely China, and not just India. However, no one said anything about dams and water management bodies in the coverage of the meeting. The meeting was about vaccines, they said. This caused some mirth in Dhaka's cynical circles. However, a vaccine war is on between China and India about who gets to supply Bangladesh in bulk. 

Meanwhile, public apathy over the corona crisis is growing. Many are far more interested in livelihood that has been affected seriously. Huge corruption in the health sector hasn't increased confidence in the treatment of the victims. However, with the death rate being low, economic priorities are in priority.

US Weapon Supplies

Meanwhile, media outlet Nikkei Asian Review reported that US Defense Secretary Mark Esper rang the Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and offered to modernize Bangladesh’s army by 2030. Apparently, the US sees Bangladesh as a potential ally against China. Nikkei quotes an email sent by Laura Stone, who oversees India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bhutan and the Maldives at the State Department's South and Central Asian affairs desk. She says: "We're looking to deepen our security cooperation with Bangladesh, which is very much of mutual interest, with full respect for Bangladesh's sovereignty and independence of action. We stand ready to serve as the partner of choice for Bangladesh regarding the sale of defense articles."  

While it's nice for the US to notice Bangladesh, its military hardware is rather tiny compared to China’s. Furthermore, China has gained several critical contracts in Bangladesh. If the Teesta river funds are secured, Bangladesh may not mind the Rohingya refugees much, many of whom may be shifted to a tidal flat island soon.   

Who Wants US arms? 

Bangladesh has only two neighbours, India mostly, and Myanmar, a bit. Security wise, it can't fight one- India- and won't fight the other-Myanmar. Therefore, military weapons must serve purposes other than fending off external enemies. It has prestige value though.

The US may see Bangladesh as part of the wider pacific security plan, but Bangladesh probably doesn't. Bangladesh’s understanding of the world is largely economic and not security based. It is aware that no one wants to battle Bangladesh either. 

While arms from the US may be fine, the economic figures of Sino- Bangladesh relations look better. The US may offer arms but will probably not offer money for the Teesta project even if it could. Some arms might arrive, whether Bangladesh wants or not. This will make the army happy. This is exclusive of any strategic implications.   

Some scholars have noted the US-Bangla cooperation on counter-terrorism as an emerging field, but after the Holey Artisan attack (in 2016), the Jihadis have all but been wiped out. The US will continue to co-operate but, for the current government, terrorism is not a high priority issue. It's an issue yes but not a big one. Basically, US's misreading of the ground reality has made it peg Bangladesh as a highrisk country but nothing has proved that in the last few years. Therefore, the chances of Bangladesh’s becoming a strategic US ally seems low now. 

The Rohingya refugee influx has produced work for the NGOs. It has also made drug smuggling easier. Many powerful persons are deriving income from this.

Bangladesh is a good example of a country with a low profile whose lack of strategic weakness has become its strategic strength. Its policy of equi-distancing from as many powers as possible has borne fruit.