Forty years of Bangladesh foreign policy

Friday, April 8th, 2011

Barrister Harun ur Rashid

We are observing 40 years of our independence and it is appropriate to look briefly at the foreign policy Bangladesh has pursued during this period.


Foreign policy is not formulated in a vacuum but is based on certain ingredients such as, history, geography, religion, culture and natural resources.


Being endowed with a small land territory compared to a huge population of the country, foreign policy needs to be devised on an objective assessment of Bangladesh’s strengths and weaknesses.  It is inextricably connected with promotion of national interests, reflected through national aspirations and wishes.


Bangladeshis fought the Liberation War in 1971 to achieve emancipation from deprivation and uplift their economic advancement to make the society egalitarian in a democratic and non-communal political entity where multi-religious, multi-cultural and multi-lingual people would live in peace and harmony. Contemporary practice acknowledges that although governments do not bear the whole burden of bilateral relations, governments lay down policies and remain responsible for responses to issues between countries.


The foreign policy stands on two pillars: security and development. Security means not only territorial security but security of energy, food, water, environment and persons.


Development means creating an environment and infrastructure where foreign investment and trade with foreign countries are accentuated and national budget and official development assistance are used for removing poverty, malnutrition, availability of primary health care, human resources development and creating employment.


Three phases:


During the last forty years, Bangladesh foreign policy has gone through three phases which are described as follows:


• The first phase of foreign policy commenced after 16th December 1971. It is noted that the direction of foreign policy of Bangladesh did not begin with a “clean slate” because the impact of foreign policy during the provisional government could not be shaken off easily.

• The second phase began after August 1975 and the direction underwent a drastic change after the tragic assassination of the founder of the nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

• The third phase was to reset and balance foreign policy with neighbours, economic and military powers and the pragmatic direction of policy has continued until today with some nuances and variations, depending on the political ideology of the government in the country.


Let me discuss the salient points of each phase of foreign policy in the following paragraphs.


First Phase:


The provisional government found it necessary to consider the responses of major powers after the military crackdown on the people of Bangladesh on the 25th March 1971 and during the difficult period, India and the Soviet Union with its allies lent their support to the War of Liberation of the people of Bangladesh, while China and the Nixon administration in the US supported Pakistan. Naturally, the provisional government had aligned with India and Soviet Union and its allies in East European countries.


Bangladesh government leaders and people were grateful to these countries for the assistance they extended to them during the War of Liberation.  The role of China and of the US was disappointing and public was not in a mood to enter into government to government relationship immediately with these countries.


The Indo-Soviet support has an impact on Bangladesh foreign policy after independence. Relations with India and Soviet Union became more consolidated with the passing of each day after independence.


Immediately after the birth of the country, Bangladesh had sent its Ambassadors to India, Soviet Union, German Democratic Republic (East Germany) and Yugoslavia, signalling Bangladesh’s close engagement with these countries.


Sheikh Mujib declared that Bangladesh would be the “Switzerland of the East” and by this declaration he meant that Bangladesh would steer clear from the Cold War and would remain non-partisan in the tug of Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union.


However non-partisan policy, many argue, was nipped in the bud because of the conclusion of the 1972 Indo-Bangladesh Friendship Treaty. The Treaty was counter to this concept of distancing from two great rival powers because India had a similar Treaty with the Soviet Union in August 1971 and as a result, Bangladesh was perceived by the Western countries to be within the sphere of influence of the Soviet Union.


During this period, Bangladesh was confronted with largely four foreign policy issues:(a) repatriation of Bengali civilian and military officials, held up in Pakistan in camps, to Bangladesh (b) recognition from foreign states (c) admission into the UN and (d) trial of the 195 Pakistani military prisoners of war, alleged to have committed genocide and crimes against humanity on Bengali population.


Except the trial of Pakistani military officials, Bangladesh steadily and patiently pursued a pragmatic policy to integrate the country with international community as an equal partner. With the admission of Bangladesh into the UN in September 1974, Bangladesh leaders had succeeded their goal in putting the country in international stage.


Pakistan recognized Bangladesh in February 1974. The Trilateral Agreement of Bangladesh, India and Pakistan of April 9, 1974 led Bangladesh to grant “clemency” to the 195 Pakistani prisoners of war held in India to be repatriated to Pakistan having regard to the appeal of the “Prime Minister of Pakistan to forgive and forget the mistakes of the past”.( Paragraph 15 of the Agreement).


Sheikh Mujib was keen to develop friendly relations with the USA and in January 1972 granted full diplomatic status to the US Consul General who was stationed in Dhaka, although the US had not recognized Bangladesh at that time. (The US recognized Bangladesh in April, 1972).


Sheikh Mujib knew that main source of aid to the new country would come from the USA. His visit to Washington in September, 1974 sent a strong message to the world that Bangladesh had moved away from the perceived Indo-Soviet alliance.


His attendance to the Non-Aligned Conference in September 1973 in Algiers and his participation in the Islamic conference in Lahore (Pakistan) in March 1974 was motivated by his desire to widen and broaden relationship with other developing countries including Islamic nations.


Second phase:


The 1975 change of the government after the tragic assassination of Sheikh Mujib had drastically altered the direction of foreign policy. With the change of government, Saudi Arabia and China recognised Bangladesh. The emphasis of foreign policy was shifted from Indo-Soviet alliance to China and Islamic countries.


Equally India saw the change of regime with deep suspicion and when President Zia took over after 7th November as the “strong man” of the country, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi took a hard line in negotiations in bilateral issues. No bilateral issue moved to positive outcome until Morarji Desai became Prime Minister in 1977. However when Indira Gandhi resumed power in 1980, the old hard line towards Bangladesh was adopted.


President Zia met one-to-one with Indira Gandhi in New Delhi in 1980 but the meeting ended reportedly with a candid exchange of words between them. Some analysts believe that the sour relations with India led President Zia to come up with the idea of Saarc when he found that none of India’s neighbours were happy with India’s “big brotherly” attitude. The Saarc had a long gestation period because of suspicion of India and Pakistan towards it. Finally it came into existence in 1985 at the Dhaka Summit.


Relations with the Soviet Union had soured when Bangladesh protested some of the “undiplomatic activities” of the Soviet Embassy and expelled many Russian diplomats during President Zia’s regime.


During the period although Bangladesh’s relations with India and Russia were at the bottom of the ladder, it secured a seat in the Security Council in 1978, defeating Japan thus reflecting a positive image in the international community.


The third phase:


The third phase saw to reset in some ways working relations with India under President H.M. Ershad who came into power in March 1982 through a military coup. The direction of foreign policy was to strengthen with all powers, especially with the US, China, Japan and Islamic countries. The relationship towards Russia remained rather lukewarm.


Some analysts argue that to placate the local Islamic forces and Islamic countries in the Middle East, President Ershad amended the Constitution inserting that “the State religion of the Republic is Islam, but other religions may be practiced in peace and harmony”


During the Ershad regime there was a tilt towards Iraq as against Iran and the country failed to secure a seat in the UN Security Council (Malaysia was elected) although Bangladesh became the President of the UN General Assembly.


President Ershad is credited for sending troops to the UN peacekeeping missions and it is being continued with enhanced number of troops of more than 10,000 in 13 countries at present. This year, Bangladesh topped the list of countries in sending its personnel for peacekeeping missions.  It has become an important component of foreign policy and the country has attained a good standing in the comity of nations.


During the UN General Assembly session in 2010, both the Secretary General Ban ki-moon and US President Barack Obama conveyed their appreciation of the role of Bangladesh peacekeeping forces to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.


After 1991, when BNP formed the government after elections, it found it difficult to engage in a working relationship with India to resolve bilateral issues but followed the policy of strengthening bilateral relations with China, Japan, and Islamic countries.  Furthermore balance was restored in relations with both Iraq and Iran.


In 1996 the Awami League returned to power and maintained good relations with India. For example, the 30-year Ganges Water Treaty was concluded with India in 1996 and with cooperation with India, the Peace Agreement with Tribal Representatives on Chittagong Hill Tracts was signed in 1997. On the international stage, Bangladesh for the second time was elected in 1999 for a two-year period at the UN Security Council.


Thereafter, the BNP came into power in 2001 and formed a coalition government with the Islamic parties and relations again with India became stagnant, even deteriorating.


In September 2004, the then Bangladesh foreign minister, at a  public workshop for young Indian journalists organised by a private think-tank in Dhaka, went all the way to criticising India’s policy towards Bangladesh in the presence of the Indian High Commissioner.. The unexpected outburst reportedly “hurt” the sentiments of India and this episode brought bilateral relations to rock-bottom.


Relations with other countries were consolidated by bilateral high-level visits. However the period was rocked by a series of bomb explosions by extremists within the country and such violent incidents had a negative image on the international community. It failed to bag the post of Secretary General of OIC (Turkey was elected).


Current Direction:


The direction of foreign policy aims at maximising national human and natural endowments in pursuing cooperative policies with countries in the region and beyond and  it seems to follow Lord Palmerston’s doctrine that there are no permanent enemies or eternal allies and what is permanent is the national interest.


Sheikh Hasina visited India, China, South Korea and Japan during 2010 apart from a few European countries and the UN.  She visited Bhutan as well. It is speculated that she might visit Canada, Russia and other countries in 2011.


She had participated in a number of multi-lateral conferences and meetings of inter-governmental organisations and presented among others, not only Bangladesh’s environmental woes due to global climate change but also attainment of a middle-income country status by 2021.


The visit of the Bangladesh prime minister to India in January 2010 has led to a new vista of cooperation by agreeing to the regional interconnectivity with India, Nepal, and Bhutan and use of Bangladesh ports by India and other South Asian nations and China.


However the main opposition party (BNP) has voiced its opposition on the grant of transit rights and use of Bangladesh ports to India on the grounds that the agreement is tilted heavily in favour of India without obtaining any concrete benefits for Bangladesh.


Meanwhile in terms of the Delhi communiqué, it is reported that the government is planning to establish road and rail links with Nepal and Bhutan along with India and Myanmar as part of the move for regional connectivity. China expressed its support and assistance in establishing regional connectivity through Myanmar to Kunming (Yunnan province) from Bangladesh, first by road and then by railways.


In recent times, the prime minister has underscored the direction of foreign policy towards Africa. It is timely and appropriate. The continent with 54 countries was not in the radar of foreign policy for a long time.


Only five Bangladesh diplomatic missions exist in Africa, three in Arab northern Africa. Many Bangladesh diplomatic missions opened in the 1970s & 1980s in Africa have been closed, such as in Algeria, Senegal, Nigeria and Zimbabwe. Many African countries are sparsely populated and have vast agricultural farming lands. Bangladesh may take the advantage of such factors in sending people for farming on lease-hold lands in African countries.


Bangladesh’s low-end merchandise together with pharmaceuticals may enter into large African markets. Bangladesh’s private sector together with the government may take initiatives to achieve these objectives by organising trade missions and exhibitions in African countries.


Furthermore, Bangladesh needs to engage with countries of Latin and Central Americas. The diplomatic missions of Bangladesh opened in the 1970s in Brazil and Argentina have been closed years ago. It is time that Bangladesh government may seriously consider opening missions in several countries in that part of the world as part of economic and cultural diplomacy.


Lack of continuity of foreign policy:


Regrettably there is no continuity of foreign policy of Bangladesh as there has been no consensus on direction of core foreign policy.  It has often been affected by political complexion of party in power.  If one government pursues close relationship with a particular country, that direction is changed by a government belonging to another party.


It is quite natural that opposition parties will have different views on certain issues but on core issues of national interest, there ought to have been a bipartisan policy which is formulated by the government in power in consultation with other political parties. Furthermore debate in foreign policy is almost absent in Parliament.  In a fragmented society and divisive political environment, such a course has not been put in practice by successive governments in power.


In the light of the above background, many foreign policy experts in the country say that Bangladesh has no ‘foreign policy’ but only ‘foreign relations’ which responds only to external situations as they arise.




A foreign policy is successful if it is proactive and result-oriented.   It must not respond only to situations, but also plan ahead of strategy so that no situation surprises the country within the region or globally.


The Ministry of Foreign Affairs should have a full-fledged Research Division that will prepare goals of foreign policy for the short and long term,  say five, ten or twenty five years, and submit these to the government which thereafter will be debated with representatives of mainstream political parties to reach bipartisan consensus.


Many observers find that the confrontational nature of domestic politics has hindered bipartisan agreement on foreign policy direction and the absence of consistency or continuity of direction in foreign policy is one of the stumbling blocks in smooth implementation of pro-active and pragmatic policy in taking advantage of Bangladesh’s geographic location, sandwiched between the two rising powers such as India and China as well as connecting South Asia with South East Asia.


  1. Deocyx
    July 1, 2011 at 11:29 am

    Interesting article. Where did you got all the information from?

Leave a Reply

  • National
  • International