In recent years, the term “Indo-Pacific” has transitioned from obscurity to prominence in international affairs. A growing number of countries, including the United States, Australia, Britain, France, India, Indonesia, Japan, the Philippines, Mongolia, and most recently, Bangladesh, have adopted Indo-Pacific strategies. On April 24, 2023, Bangladesh made a significant geopolitical move by formally announcing its “Indo-Pacific Outlook” (IPO) to the world.
The Bangladesh IPO envisions an Indo-Pacific region that is free, open, peaceful, secure, and inclusive, with shared prosperity for all nations. The government of Bangladesh highlighted various dimensions of its Indo-Pacific Outlook, with key determinants including the region’s substantial contribution to global GDP, its significance in international trade, its commitment to enhanced climate action, and its growing technological dynamism. The IPO aims to deepen sub-regional partnerships, ensure maritime security, combat transnational crime, achieve sustainable development, promote climate action, enhance supply chain resiliency, and foster technological connectivity. Notably, the IPO emphasizes peace in the Indo-Pacific through dialogue and understanding, as Bangladesh seeks to strike a balance between its interests and relations with both Washington and Beijing.
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The timely release of the IPO occurred just before the prime minister of Bangladesh embarked on a diplomatic visit to Japan, the United States, and the United Kingdom. The government of Bangladesh presented the IPO, which encompasses 15-point objectives based on four guiding principles. Let us explore these guiding principles and the accompanying 15-point objectives in detail first.
|THE FOUR GUIDING PRINCIPLES|
|1. Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s foreign policy dictum ‘Friendship towards all, malice toward none.’|
2. Constitutional mandate on the conduct of international relations based on the principles of respect for national sovereignty and equality, political independence, non-interference in internal affairs, peaceful settlement of international disputes, as well as respect for international law and the principles enunciated in the United Nations Charter; and striving for renunciation of the use of force in international relations and for general and complete disarmament.
3. Adherence to the relevant UN treaties and international conventions, as applicable, including the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
4.Constructive regional and international cooperation for sustainable development, international peace and security, humanitarian action, and fundamental rights and freedoms.
|THE 15-POINT OUTLOOK|
|1. Strengthen mutual trust and respect, forge partnerships and cooperation, and promote dialogue and understanding with the aim of ensuring peace, prosperity, security and stability for all in the Indo-Pacific.|
2. Strengthen existing mechanisms on maritime safety and security in the Indo-Pacific, including response to emergencies at sea and conduct of search & rescue, and uphold the exercise of freedom of navigation & over-flight, in accordance with international law and relevant international conventions, including UNCLOS, 1982.
3. Maintain meaningful and value-driven contribution to international non-proliferation, peacekeeping, peacebuilding and counter-terrorism efforts, including with partners in the Indo-Pacific.
4. Support regional and international efforts towards combating transnational organised crimes in the Indo-Pacific through both normative and practical actions.
5. Expand global lead on the flagship agenda of a ‘culture of peace’, enhance focus on the ‘women, peace and security’ agenda, promote interfaith harmony and work towards building peaceful, just and inclusive societies in the Indo-Pacific.
6. Promote open, transparent, rules-based multilateral systems that enable equitable and sustainable development in the Indo-Pacific and beyond through inclusive economic growth, right to development and shared prosperity for all.
7. Enhance physical, institutional, energy, digital and human connectivity, facilitate movement of goods, services, capital, and people in a systematic manner, and promote technology transfer, access to innovations and responsible behaviour in open and secure cyberspace and outer space.
8. Leverage the domestic agriculture, manufacturing and services sectors towards building resilient regional and global value chains to better manage future crisis and disruptions and to promote unimpeded and free flow of commerce in the Indo-Pacific.
9. Promote conservation, sustainable use and management of oceans, seas, and marine resources in the Indo-Pacific in pursuance of SDG-14 and other relevant internationally agreed development commitments.
10. Engage proactively in promoting food security, water solidarity, and disaster risk reduction in the Indo-Pacific, including through disseminating home-grown good practices.
11. Continue tangible work towards addressing the challenges of climate change, biodiversity loss, marine pollution, and other significant and harmful impacts on the environment in line with relevant international conventions and commitments.
12. Foster cooperation among Indo-Pacific countries to ensure energy security for all, including through investment and technology transfer on renewable energy.
13. Work towards developing coordinated response to future pandemics and ensuring health security, including through access for all to global public goods like vaccines, diagnostics and other treatments.
14. Collaboration with sub-regional partners and relevant organisations towards bolstering regional cooperation and enhancing mutually beneficial complementarities.
15. Strengthen collaboration and cooperation in science, technology, research and innovation for shared benefits of all, in keeping with the vision of ‘Smart Bangladesh’.
Bangladesh’s decision to formulate its Indo-Pacific Outlook (IPO) has been significantly influenced by its 720-kilometer-long coastline along the northern littoral of the Bay of Bengal, which underscores the country’s focus on maritime security. While maritime security remains a key aspect, the IPO also resonates with the goals of the United States’ Indo-Pacific Strategy, particularly in addressing challenges such as piracy, terrorism, and transnational organized crime. Notably, Bangladesh’s IPO places a strong emphasis on the sustainable management of oceans and seas to foster the development of the “blue economy.”
Bangladesh has demonstrated a cautious approach by carefully identifying specific areas of cooperation and collaboration, rather than solely adopting the narratives put forth by other powerful actors in the Indo-Pacific region. The IPO’s tone and objectives emphasize the need for cooperation, collaboration, assistance, and mutual gains among diverse actors, despite any existing differences.
The IPO steers clear of militaristic and non-peaceful agendas, focusing instead on non-traditional security issues that directly impact human development. It aims to prioritize non-traditional security challenges in the Indo-Pacific and actively engage with regional and global actors to address these threats, ultimately seeking to promote economic progress and prosperity for its people. By envisioning a “free and open Indo-Pacific,” aspiring to contribute meaningfully to international non-proliferation, peacekeeping, peacebuilding, and counterterrorism efforts, and emphasizing the importance of dialogue and diplomacy in ensuring peace, prosperity, security, and stability for all in the region, Bangladesh highlights the integral role of these principles in its economic and national prospects. Hence, the overarching goal of Bangladesh’s Indo-Pacific Outlook is to enhance its regional engagement, expedite economic progress, and collectively tackle shared challenges alongside other nations in the region.
TILTING, REBALANCING, OR ELSE?
Bangladesh has long adhered to a nonaligned foreign policy and, despite considerable pressure from the United States and its coalition partners, has chosen to pursue its own unique Indo-Pacific strategies aligned with its “Friendship to all, malice towards none” dictum. By adopting the “Indo-Pacific Outlook,” Bangladesh aims to articulate its own perspective on strong socioeconomic regional cooperation. The IPO outlines its stance on inclusive development, highlighting regional integration, trade and investment for revenue generation, peace and stability, technological advancement, environmental concerns, and security protocols for implementation. However, some observers believe that Bangladesh is moving closer to embracing the Indo-Pacific Strategy pursued by the United States and its regional partners, which focuses on countering China. They argue that Dhaka’s IndoPacific Outlook aligns with the objectives of the Western IndoPacific Strategy, such as advocating for a free, secure, and peaceful region.
Since the formal announcement of the IPO, and even before that, various interpretations have emerged at a broader level, particularly regarding speculation about whether Bangladesh is strategically tilting towards the West. Those who perceive a potential westward tilt point to Bangladesh’s vision of a “free, open, peaceful, secure, and inclusive Indo-Pacific for shared prosperity for all,” a phrase repeatedly used by the spearhead of the concept, the United States. However, such interpretations run the risk of misjudging Bangladesh’s strategic orientation towards the IndoPacific Strategy by cherry-picking specific wordings from the IPO.
Instead of viewing Bangladesh’s IPO solely through a lens of bloc politics, it should be seen through the lens of Bangladesh’s human security and economic interests.
Over the past 15 years, during Sheikh Hasina’s three consecutive terms in power, her government has been widely praised for delicately and adeptly balancing relations with the United States, China, and India. This balancing act is a crucial yet challenging task, given the increasingly strained relations among these powers. Bangladesh has thus far managed to avoid leaning towards any extreme or being categorized as a strategic follower of any global or regional powerhouse, thanks to its diplomatic maturity, deftness, and equilibrium.
As the Indo-Pacific region becomes a focal point of superpower hostility, with the potential for a major conflict between China and the United States looming, Bangladesh, like other littoral states in the region, is growing increasingly concerned about the potential consequences of a geopolitical catastrophe. In this context, the IPO is not merely a compilation of Bangladesh’s previously announced foreign policy initiatives or a declaration of good intentions and practices in international and regional politics. Rather, it represents a relatively explicit assertion of its own conceptual framework within the evolving geopolitical conception of the Indo-Pacific Strategy.
Instead of viewing Bangladesh’s IPO solely through a lens of bloc politics and focusing narrowly on specific ideological expressions that are objectively relevant and crucial for the greater regional good, it should be seen through the lens of Bangladesh’s human security and economic interests. A “peaceful, just, and inclusive” Indo-Pacific region is of paramount importance to Bangladesh’s national security and broader interests, as its future largely depends on how the Indo-Pacific region evolves. So, an initial examination of the outlook substantiates the speculations that Bangladesh will uphold its commitment to non-alignment in foreign policy and refrain from tilting towards the West and will continue to maintain a careful balance in the tripolar regional power struggle among the Western allies, India, and China.
HOW IMPORTANT IS THE INDO-PACIFIC REGION IN THE CURRENT GEOPOLITICAL CLIMATE
Since the United States shifted its strategic focus to the Asia-Pacific region in 2011, the Indo-Pacific has gained increasing prominence as the global “centre of geo-strategic gravity.” The United States, through the concept of the Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS) and the vision of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP),” has been realigning its strategic resources to the region. This repositioning has been driven by the growing confrontational dynamics between the United States and China, marked by China’s assertiveness in political, economic, and military spheres across the region.
As the Sino-US rivalry intensifies, middle and minor powers in the region find their manoeuvring space for maintaining a balanced approach narrowing. Against this backdrop, Bangladesh has unveiled its 15-point “Indo-Pacific Outlook (IPO).” This declaration is influenced by both domestic and international contexts. Globally, the Indo-Pacific has become a fiercely contested arena for strategic competition and economic dominance, resembling a new Cold War theatre between the United States and China. Initiatives like the Indo-Pacific Strategy, Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, Belt and Road Initiative, Australia-UK-US defence treaty, and Indo-Pacific Economic Forum have further securitized the region, impacting the interests of developing countries like Bangladesh. Ongoing conflicts, such as the Ukraine War, contribute to the increasing animosity and rivalries in the region.
For Bangladesh, the Indo-Pacific holds special significance due to its strategic position in the Bay of Bengal sub-regional setting. With peaceful settlements of maritime disputes with Myanmar and India, Bangladesh has emerged as a significant maritime nation in the region. The country’s future, along with other littoral nations, relies on a free and open Indo-Pacific. Currently chairing the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) and promoting its blue economy plan, Bangladesh’s announcement carries immense importance for its present and future role in the region.
Given its central location in the Indo-Pacific and proximity to the vital maritime corridor of the Bay of Bengal, Bangladesh enjoys a strategic advantage. The country’s geopolitical position, regional integration efforts, and socio-economic development have positioned it as an important player in the Indo-Pacific. Bangladesh’s participation in organizations like IORA and the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) further enhances its regional standing.
With its favourable relationships with the United States, the Quad members, and many European countries, Bangladesh is viewed as a valuable partner due to its strategic location, bordering India and serving as a gateway to South and Southeast Asia. These factors contribute to Bangladesh’s significance and make it an attractive partner in the Indo-Pacific region.
WHAT THE OUTLOOK MEANS FOR BANGLADESH
Bangladesh’s adoption of the Indo-Pacific Outlook is primarily motivated by its aspirations to enhance its geopolitical influence and economic standing in the region, aligning with its Vision 2041 goals. The country recognizes the significance of the Indo-Pacific region in terms of its share of global GDP, maritime supremacy, global trade dominance, climate action efforts, and technological innovation, all of which are crucial for Bangladesh’s long-term sustainability and prosperity.
In clarifying its position on the Indo-Pacific, Bangladesh aims to dispel any misperceptions or misinformation about its stance. Dhaka has made it clear that it holds no preferential treatment for either China or the United States in the region’s evolving geopolitical dynamics. The government emphasizes the importance of security as a prerequisite for economic growth within the framework of its 15-point perspective. Bangladesh refrains from promoting any contentious narratives within its Indo-Pacific Outlook. While the United States prioritizes free movement and trade, Bangladesh raises concerns about safeguarding its sovereignty and seeking peaceful resolutions to international disputes.
It is essential to recognize that the twenty-first century is marked as the maritime century, with the Indo-Pacific region encompassing 65% of the world’s oceans and contributing to 60% of global GDP.
In light of this, Bangladesh advocates for the development of cooperative mechanisms, fostering Indo-Pacific solidarity to address the maritime context, seize opportunities, and tackle challenges faced by the country.
By emphasizing cooperation, security, and peaceful solutions, Bangladesh seeks to leverage the Indo-Pacific region’s potential for the benefit of its own development and the collective progress of the participating nations.
WHAT CHALLENGES LIE AHEAD FOR EXECUTING THIS IPO?
The Bangladesh government’s Indo-Pacific Outlook (IPO) has been seen by many as a wish list, and they anticipate challenges in its execution due to the fluid geopolitical situation prevailing worldwide. The current global scenario is marked by difficulties, with some referring to it as a new cold war due to events such as the Russia-Ukraine conflict and tensions surrounding Taiwan. Given these circumstances, the successful implementation of Bangladesh’s IPO becomes crucial.
As experts view, the IPO, being a generic document developed based on multilateral visions, cannot be executed by Bangladesh alone. It necessitates a careful balance between national interests, including economic growth, security, and overall development, and international cooperation. To address the challenges ahead, Bangladesh needs to devise a more specific and concrete strategy that takes into account the risks of polarization and aligns with its national priorities.
While Bangladesh supports its IPO, it is essential for the country to demonstrate a clear understanding of the future of regional and global sustainability with prosperity. This clarity will contribute to the effectiveness of the IPO and help navigate the critical path ahead.
In conclusion, the Bangladesh Indo-Pacific Outlook places a strong emphasis on the imperative of peace, stability, and the promotion of military de-escalation, regional connectivity, and economic cooperation within the Indo-Pacific. While the term “outlook” reflects Bangladesh’s cautious approach in fully committing to the Indo-Pacific concept, the release of the Outlook is consistent with Bangladesh’s longstanding foreign policy principle of fostering friendship with all nations and harboring no ill intentions.
The IPO serves as a significant response to the concerns and queries raised by both small and major powers in the region who were uncertain about Bangladesh’s stance. By announcing the IPO, Bangladesh has effectively eradicated any room for manipulation or misinterpretation of its position on the Indo-Pacific. This move has not only solidified Bangladesh’s reputation but has also enhanced its leadership by outlining a comprehensive agenda that prioritizes stability and prosperity through partnership and multilateralism, aligning with the aspirations of the Indo-Pacific region.