At a recent roundtable organised by the Bangladesh Enterprise Institute (BEI), diplomats, security analysts, academics and international relations experts discussed various aspects of the country’s foreign policy and in which direction it was headed. The unanimous conclusion was that the aim in any country’s foreign policy was to uphold national interests, but this was not always easy if internal politics were discordant.
Foreign policy challenges
Commenting on the issues highlighted at the roundtable, columnist Sohrab Hassan wrote about how our two main political parties Awami League and BNP were in a relentless mudslinging contest, accusing each other of selling out the country’s ‘sovereignty’.
In his column on 17 May Prothom Alo, ‘The foreign policy challenge,’ Sohrab Hassan wrote that after coming to power in a free and fair election in 2009, Awami League managed well to uphold Bangladesh’s image abroad. However, the country’s image was somewhat tarnished after the 30 December election last year.
Sohrab Hassan’s column indicated that the Awami League government had established balanced diplomatic relations with regional and international powers, managing to build economic, trade and, in some cases, strategic military ties, with five influential countries, the US, China, Russia, Japan and India.
He cautioned, “Diplomatic and security experts have warned that national interests should not be overlooked in trying to strike a balance in relations with India and China.” An example of national interests, in this case, is the sharing of river Teesta’s waters, which the Indian prime minister Narendra Modi committed, but did nothing. This is a dismal diplomatic failure.
The Bangladesh government claims relations with the US are at a high, but the fact remains that the US is yet to grant Bangladesh GSP facilities.
Prudence is also required in diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia, given the turmoil in the Middle East.
Turning the Bangladesh’s foreign policy when it comes to the subcontinent, Sohrab Hassan said that the balance that had been struck when Sheikh Hasina came to power in 1996, no longer existed. Delhi has rendered SAARC totally inert.
Bangladesh’s relations with Pakistan are at an all time low, though this can also be attributed to Islamabad’s unwarranted interference in Bangladesh’s domestic affairs.
Despite the influx of Rohingya refugees into Bangladesh, we failed to highlight the Rohingya problem to the rest of the world, something which Indira Gandhi had successfully done in 1971 with the issue of refugees from Bangladesh. This is another diplomatic failure, Sohrab Hassan points out.
His column stated that there was a lack of accountability and transparency in Bangladesh’s foreign policy, as nothing was discussed in the parliament as was the norm in other democratic countries.
Hassan then turned to the recent visits of the foreign minister AK Abdul Momen to India, the US and Russia. No headway was made in convincing them about the issue of Rohingya repatriation. And in Washington, the foreign minister was questioned about the recent election and the human rights situation in Bangladesh. The UK and the European Union raised similar issues.The foreign ministry reactions
The foreign ministry reacted sharply to Sohrab Hassan’s column on the foreign policy challenge, based on the BEI roundtable, saying that neither the column nor the roundtable reflected the successes achieved by Bangladesh’s foreign policy over the last one decade.
In the rejoinder issued by the ministry, it was said that the successive governments of Bangladesh had followed the farsighted foreign policy of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. It said the development partners and friendly nations had recognised the strides made in infrastructural development, good governance and consolidating democracy. It also said that the global community had hailed the Awami League government for its absolute majority win in the 30 December elections and committed to work alongside Bangladesh.
The foreign ministry’s rejoinder said Bangladesh took a clear stand in national interests when it came to geo-politics, successfully maintaining a balance with regional and international powers. He said that the Teesta water issue with India and the GSP issue with the US were unnecessarily highlighted as irritants.
It also said that apprehensions about the MoU signed with Saudi Arabia regarding military cooperation were baseless as this would not harm Bangladesh’s diplomacy in the Middle East.
The government rejoinder said that Bangladesh was playing a strong role in rendering effective SAARC, BIMSTEC, BBIN, BCIM and other regional initiatives for the sake of poverty alleviation and cooperation in the sectors of power, energy, food, information and communications. It blamed Pakistan for the prevailing cold relations with Bangladesh.
The foreign ministry’s rejoinder rejected the roundtable’s contentions that Bangladesh had failed to take the Rohingya problem to an international level. It said that Bangladesh’s active diplomatic efforts had led to strong support in this regard from the UN Security Council, the UN General Assembly, the UN Human Rights Commission, the International Criminal Court, the European Union and other international agencies. Even India, China and Russia had expressed their concern over the inhuman treatment of the Rohingyas in Myanmar.
Castigating the roundtable’s contention that the foreign policy was neither transparent nor accountable, the foreign ministry said it always promoted open discussions on matters pertaining to foreign policy.
Concerning the recent meetings of the foreign minister, the rejoinder said that the issue of the election was not raised during the minister’s visit to India, Russia and the US. The countries had expressed their satisfaction with the advancements being made by the government after the election. And all three countries had committed cooperation regarding the Rohingya crisis. It also rejected the term used at the roundtable describing the Rohingya problem to be a dangerous time bomb.
‘Problems can’t be resolved unless recognised’
As a third ‘installment’ to this debate over Bangladesh’s foreign policy and its challenges, former foreign secretary Mohammad Touhid Hossain wrote a column in Prothom Alo on 27 May, titled ‘Problems can’t be resolved unless recognised’.
He wrote that it was only natural for a developing country like Bangladesh to face various challenges, both internal and external.
“Our foreign policy always faced challenges, though perhaps in different forms. During the liberation war the main challenge was to win the support of the international community. After independence the challenge was to win diplomatic recognition as assistance from the outside world for rebuilding the country. We managed to tackle those challenges well within our limited abilities,” wrote the former diplomat.
He noted that now the challenges were greater, but so were our abilities.
He said the first and foremost challenge of our foreign policy was relations with India. Bangladesh has assuaged India’s worries concerning its volatile northeastern states and had also made progress in transit facilities. Yet, on the other hand, the Teesta water sharing problem remained unresolved despite promises from the Indian side. Killings continued along the border and Bangladeshi goods still faced tariff barriers when entering India. India could easily resolve these innumerable irritants if it wanted to.
The biggest challenge for Bangladesh’s foreign policy was the Rohingya issue, undoubtedly, said Touhid Hossain in his column. The prime minister Sheikh Hasina had told the UN General Assembly clearly that Myanmar would have to take back the Rohingyas with full human dignity and human rights. But her words found no reflection in the deal signed with Myanmar. We simply acquiesced to Myanmar’s demands during bilateral talks.
If a permanent solution to the Rohingya crisis is to be attained, then those responsible for the ethnic cleansing must be tried and punished. This happened in Rwanda, the former foreign secretary pointed out, and it happened in Yugoslavia. It is a farce that the military which has carried out the killings are the one who are carrying out the investigations into the killings.
When the UN secretary general used the term ethnic cleansing, the international community pointed out that this was genocide. Yet we remained more or less silent. We need to speak louder, said Touhid Hossain, and speak the facts, even if it means displeasing the Myanmar authorities.
Not seeing any solution to the Rohingya crisis in the near future, the column expressed apprehensions on the economic, social and security pressure this would put on Bangladesh.
Coming to the balance the government was striking in its relations with India and China, the former diplomat said this was a correct policy but it was unfortunate that neither of the countries stood by Bangladesh on the Rohingya issue.
Another challenge that Bangladesh faced was the overseas labour market. Our labour market is steadily shrinking. UAE is not taking our workers anymore, though they are taking manpower from Pakistan, India and Nepal. Malaysia’s market is also uncertain. Touhid Hossain pointed out, corruption has pushed up migration costs and destroyed the market. And it is the politically powerful groups that are involved in this business. The government has no control over them.
He moved on to the Middle East crisis, where Syria is embroiled in a civil war, as is Yemen. Normalcy is yet to be restored in Iraq. Libya is also at unrest. Bangladesh has signed a military cooperation agreement with Saudi Arabia, but the former diplomat advises against getting involved in the war with Yemen. We should not fear that Saudi Arabia will send back our 1 million workers there if we don’t agree to join the war. They need our cheap labour to keep their wheels of their economy rolling.
Another problem that is perceived in the column is lack of unity within the country when it comes to national interests. There is no meaningful discussion or debate in parliament. No matter what differences there may be over domestic political issues, consensus is required when it comes to foreign policy and national security.
BEI and the International Republican Institute organised (IRI) such a roundtable recently which was followed by an analysis in Prothom Alo. And this was followed by a rejoinder from the foreign ministry. The former foreign secretary wrote that the objectives of such roundtables are to identify the problems and the challenges and also to help the policymakers in navigating the way ahead. But if the problems are not even recognised, then how can they be solved?
* This piece is based on a column in Prothom Alo about foreign policy challenges by Sohrab Hassan, followed by a rejoinder from the foreign ministry and then followed again by another column in Prothom Alo by former foreign secretary Touhid Hossain.
Source: Prothom Alo.