The Bangladeshi Dilemma: Balancing BRI and IPS

Srimedha Bandi
March 20, 2021


A littoral of the Bay of Bengal, Bangladesh is integral to the Indo-Pacific region, which has off late become a region of contention among growing powers. Bangladesh was dubbed a bottomless breadbasket during the first few years of its independence. However, it has shown steady growth for the past 20 years with a consistent increase in exports in the sectors of ready-made garments, agriculture, food grains, cattle, fish, vegetables and manpower etc. which was put to a brief halt by natural calamities, political unrest and pandemic-driven lockdown. With such growth, Bangladesh earlier surpassed India in several social, health, mortality, and fertility indices. Given such advantages in addition to its strategic location, Bangladesh has emerged as a country of great potential in the Indo-Pacific, making it all the more important for the United States which is pursuing the Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS). Alongside the United States, lies a potential opponent, China that in terms foreign investment has surpassed other countries in winning deals to build several mega projects in Bangladesh thus making it an important component in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which also crisscrosses the Indo-Pacific region, despite Beijing refusing to acknowledge the relevance of this new geopolitical construct.

The Indo-Pacific has turned out to be a new arena of great power contention, replacing earlier theatres of competition evident during the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. . The global war for power is a vicious cycle with a new competitor offering an alternate alliance and novel perspective of world order. This new face off for hegemony is now one with the Beijing Consensus vs the Washington Consensus taking place in the Indo-Pacific with both China and the United States squaring off against each other in a number of issue areas and domains, through both hard and soft power. . In this process, Bangladesh has become a region of contention, as it is a part of China’s ambitious BRI on one hand and on the other, is being seen for its potential value in America’s Indo Pacific Strategy.

BRI is one amongst many pursuits undertaken by China to establish hegemony in the Indo-Pacific. BRI is a global infrastructure development strategy adopted by the Chinese government in 2013 to invest in nearly 70 countries, which account for half the world’s population and a quarter of global GDP. Often described as the 21st century Silk Road, it is to be made up of a “belt” of overland corridors and a maritime “road” of shipping lanes. It is a multibillion-dollar Chinese Marshall Plan backed by the state with a singular motive of global dominance. Through this, the dragon aims at connecting Asia, Africa and Europe through a novel form of economic imperialism thus giving China too much leverage over other countries, often those that are smaller and poorer. Bangladesh officially joined the BRI during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s October 2016 visit to Dhaka. During the visit, the two countries also signed a Memorandum of Understanding for projects worth over USD $25 billion.

America’s IPS on the other hand as described by Washington is “an ironclad and enduring commitment to” a region that spans from the Pacific Ocean to the Indian subcontinent. Focusing on economics, governance and security, it aims at establishing a free and open Indo-Pacific where all countries prosper as sovereigns and independent states. With a shared vision, the US wants to expand economic ties with the countries in the region by involving greater private sector participation while engaging partners and regional iinstitutions. Bangladesh seems to be a perfect ally for the US not just because of its strategic location but also because of its evident economic and social development. During US Deputy Secretary of State, Stephan Biegun’s visit to Bangladesh last year, he observed that Washington was looking towards Bangladesh’s co-operation as a key partner in its IPS. It is given that IPS could help Bangladesh in securing funding for developmental work.

Bangladesh is now in a critical situation; on one end it has to support China given the massive investments by the dragon while on the other end, it cannot overlook its relationship with Washington because it is the second biggest investor in Bangladesh. Dhaka must undeniably choose a meticulous middle path that would balance the hegemon against the rising power through choices that would not upset either blocs’ interest, for any disruption in relations would welcome harsh measures that would put Bangladesh in a tricky position. Given Bangladesh’s foreign policy that believes in ‘friendship to all and malice to none’, the growing great power competition between the US and China is creating a situation in which Bangladesh will have to adroitly manage ties with both the powers; through Dhaka’s engagement with both BRI and IPS. In the words of Maj Gen (retd) ANM Muniruzzaman, “We need to be cautious in avoiding the area of competition being created in this region by the big powers. We are seeing shadows of a new Cold War. This does not bode well for any small country. It would be better for us not to join any particular strategy or initiative.” Despite the U.S. vision for the Indo-Pacific clearly indicating that it excludes no nation and not ask countries to choose between one partner or another, Dhaka has its own set of apprehensions and scepticism. Alongside, given the uncertainty surrounding the rise of a new power, Dhaka will have to choose with caution an ally that will not just provide economic support but will also provide security. Only future will tell how successful Bangladesh is in maintaining a non-aligned strategy while keeping up with its friendly foreign policy.

*** The author is a Research Intern at Kalinga Institute of Indo-Pacific Studies (KIIPS) ***