Shariful Islam is an Assistant Professor in International Relations at the University of Rajshahi, Bangladesh. He is the author of ‘Fifty Years of Bangladesh-India Relations: Issues, Challenges and Possibilities’ (2021, Pentagon Press, New Delhi) and co-author of ‘Covid-19 Global Pandemic and Aspects of Human Security in South Asia: Implications and Way Forward’ (2020, Pentagon Press, New Delhi). His research interests include foreign policy of Bangladesh, blue economy Diplomacy and economic diplomacy. Kamal Dev Bhattarai spoke to him to solicit his views on how Bangladesh deals with big powers, and particularly China.
Bangladesh occupies an important position geopolitically. How does it deal with big powers?
The location of Bangladesh makes it geo-strategically important for both regional and extra-regional powers. In addition, for many, Bangladesh has become a ‘development miracle’ from an ‘international basket case’. This rising socio-economic status of the country also attracts big powers. In fact, Bangladesh is one of the few countries that maintain warm relations with regional and extra-regional powers. Bangladesh sees big powers—i.e. US, Russia, China, Japan, India—as opportunities to strengthen the existing development and economic partnership.
How is Bangladesh maintaining balanced relations with India and China?
Bangladesh, under the current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina (2009-present), follows the foreign policy philosophy of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, i.e. ‘friendship to all, malice to none’. Therefore, Bangladesh under Sheikh Hasina views India and China as friends, as development partners. Bangladesh prioritizes economic diplomacy, the well-being of the people in formulating its foreign policy objectives. Therefore, Bangladesh is maintaining warm relations with both India and China, which is beneficial to the people of the country and beyond.
What lessons can Bangladesh offer to other South Asian countries on dealing with China?
In fact, every country’s context, geography, location and other foreign policy parameters are different. So there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach. But Bangladesh is an interesting case to study how it maintains warm relations with both India and China. China and India are two largest trading and development partners of Bangladesh. In this case, the leaders of Bangladesh and their foreign policy philosophy helped develop warm relations with these two Asian giants. The current Prime Minister of Bangladesh is the daughter of Bangabandhu, the founding father of Bangladesh who formulated Bangladesh’s earlier-mentioned foreign policy principle.
Bangabandhu’s foreign policy principle helped Bangladesh emancipate its people from poverty and hunger, and to make it self-reliant. Therefore, Bangabandhu’s emphasis on economic diplomacy has inspired the current prime minister as well. Thus, Bangladesh prioritizes economic diplomacy in its international relations including in its relations with China which helped the country be a ‘development miracle’. In addition, Bangladesh negotiates and calculates well while taking Chinese loans so it does not fall under the so-called ‘debt trap’.
In fact, South Asian countries cannot afford to neglect China. They need to engage China constructively for economic gains, for the welfare and benefits of the people, rather than for the narrowly defined interest of a particular regime. In case of loans from China, South Asian countries including Nepal need to negotiate well for a better deal. The case of Sri Lanka should not be repeated.
Relations with India and China often become a domestic political agenda in South Asian countries. How is it in Bangladesh?
Some previous regimes in Bangladesh, particularly the BNP-Jamaat regime, used India, China for their political purposes. For instance, existing literature suggests that the ‘anti-India’ stand was a common feature in Bangladesh politics during the BNP-Jamaat regime. But after Sheikh Hasina came to power in 2009, Bangladesh deepened its ties with both India and China as the Hasina regime realized the importance of these two countries for the socio-economic uplift of the people of Bangladesh. And consequently, Sheikh Hasina’s ‘friendship to both India and China and malice to none’ policy helped Bangladesh move forward. This is the reason that even though Sino-Indian rivalry has impacted many countries, Bangladesh is not that affected.
How should Nepal deal with emerging China?
I am afraid that I am not an expert on Nepal. But as a foreign policy student, I can say Nepal’s geo-strategic location is very important for big powers including India and China. This location can be used for the country’s socio-economic development. Nepal can study Bangladesh and shape its policies if that suits it, though Nepal’s own context will determine its foreign policy orientation. One thing I want to emphasize is the role of political regimes and visionary leaders, which are essential for Nepal. In the case of Bangladesh, the visionary and patriotic leader Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and later her daughter Sheikh Hasina changed the fate of tens of millions of people in the country, and changed the global status of the country by following peaceful international relations.
Thus the regimes in Nepal need to think about long-term welfare and benefit of the Nepali people while dealing with emerging China. Here it can be reiterated that every country in South Asia including Nepal needs to engage China constructively. The bottom-line is that Nepal needs to maintain a balanced approach with China and India with economic diplomacy as a priority. In this case, the role of the media, academia, and other civil society organizations and people at large becomes necessary.