Shortly before leaving Bangladesh after a high profile, whirlwind visit earlier this month, US assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs Donald Lu was asked by reporters whether Bangladesh should 'join the Indo Pacific Strategy'.
Lu could only explain that the Indo Pacific Strategy (or IPS, as we'll refer to it at times here) "is not a club" that countries join, but rather a reorientation of its own foreign policy, according to which it will choose its own partners and priorities on the world stage going forward.
The question in many ways reflected the lack of understanding that has prevailed for a while now in the country surrounding the Indo Pacific Strategy, that Washington unveiled formally in 2021 but has been in the works for a while now, ever since ex-President Barack Obama talked about his 'pivot to Asia'. Following the US lead, a number of countries in the Western alliance, including key players Japan, Australia, Canada and France also unveiled their own strategies for the region.
So the need for a research and advocacy centre focused on Bangladesh's strategic manoeuvring as it seeks to balance its relations with the Western powers alongside its relations with the rising power of China, was in many ways becoming imperative. Just in December, Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen had emphasised undertaking more research in the field of strategic studies like the "Great Powers" do while attempts are being made 'to polarise the Indo-Pacific region'.
"We have to remember that the Great Powers enjoy a strong research and think-tanks strategic research, backed by facts and insights, can help governments plan and implement its survival and growth strategies," he said.
Against this background, we have the advent of the Bangladesh Centre for Indo Pacific Affairs. Based out of Jahangirnagar University, it is being led by Dr Shahab Enam Khan, professor at the university's international relations department and a former chair of the department. For years now, through his work as an academic and as an understudy to the doyen of Bangladeshi diplomats, Farooq Sobhan, at the Bangladesh Enterprise Institute, Khan has been working closely with the key countries in the IPS framework (US, India) and outside it (China), which leaves him ideally placed to lead such a centre.
The BCIPA held its first major event recently in Dhaka, a high-level discussion on "Bangladesh and the Indo-Pacific Collaboration: Priority Issues and Concerns" with participation from most of the major embassies concerned, strategic thinkers and diplomats, with State Minister for Foreign Affairs Shahriar Alam as the chief guest.
Shahriar Alam said Bangladesh has been conducting "constructive engagement" with the countries in the region in a "fair, friendly, equitable and inclusive" manner. He appreciated the proliferation of think-tanks like BCIPA, for proactively contributing to shaping Bangladesh's possible approach to this emerging area of interest.
"We will hopefully come out with our own strategy (on Indo-Pacific) very soon. And I believe that will be in line with our international partners and adhering to an inclusive approach to the Indo Pacific, largely speaking," said the state minister. It is known of course, that the government has already assigned the state-funded think tank on strategic affairs, BIISS, to come up with the country's own strategy paper on this, something that is expecteds in the next couple of months. One may expect such a strategy to be geared above all towards safeguarding its economic interests.
The economic offshoot
At the dialogue, Alam also said pulling people out of poverty is a cornerstone of the domestic and foreign policy of Bangladesh. "Economic diplomacy, therefore, occupies a large space of our external engagement."
"It is imperative that we continue to promote trade for our continued development. Rules-based engagement in the region is pivotal for prosperity, of not just the region but the whole world," he said, adding that competition in the region needs to be managed responsibly, as reported by our sister newsagency UNB.
Ambassador Farooq Sobhan, as one of the discussants, probably put his finger on the most relevant entry point for Bangladesh into the IPS, which happens to be the Indo Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), which is taking shape as an offshoot of the IPS. Last June, the United States briefed Bangladesh on the IPEF, which was launched last year by the US and 12 other countries of the Indo-Pacific region.
"The United States briefed Bangladesh on the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), and Bangladesh welcomed additional information on the supply chain resilience and de-carbonisation pillars of the IPEF," said a joint statement issued after the 2nd High-Level Economic Consultation (HLEC) between Bangladesh and the US held in Washington DC. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's adviser for Private Industry and Investment, Salman F. Rahman, and US Under Secretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment Jose W. Fernandez co-chaired the discussion.
US Ambassador to Bangladesh Peter Haas has said there will be opportunities for other countries to join the IPEF, and that there have been consultations with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs regarding Bangladesh's position on it.
The IPEF was launched in May 2022, by the United States with Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Fiji, India, Indonesia, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Malaysia, New Zealand, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. The 14 IPEF partners at that point represented 40 percent of global GDP and 28 percent of global goods and services trade.
But as Ambassador Sobhan pointed out, India has since walked away from the IPEF, or one of its four pillars anyway. The IPEF launch began discussions of future negotiations on the following pillars: (1) Trade; (2) Supply Chains; (3) Clean Energy, Decarbonisation, and Infrastructure; and (4) Tax and Anti-Corruption. It was said from the start that the IPEF is designed to be flexible, meaning that partners are not required to join all four pillars.
In September, India took advantage of that flexibility to join three of the four pillars, opting out of the trade pillar for now. The country's Commerce and Industry Minister Piyush Goyal, who was in Los Angeles to attend the first official in-person IPEF ministerial conference in September, said that the decision was taken because so far, under the trade track, broader consensus had not emerged on certain issues such as environment, labour and public procurement, reported Indian newspaper The Business Standard.
As such, Ambassador Sobhan said Bangladesh should tread with caution, but give the IPEF 'a hard look'. For the moment, he advises Dhaka should seek observer status at the IPEF, as Canada has, ahead of the grouping's next ministerial, which is due to be hosted in February by India.
"I think it will be a good idea for Bangladesh to seek to attend the next meeting of IPEF scheduled to be held in India next month as an observer so that we have a better understanding of what joining the forum means," he said.
This 'special negotiation round' will in fact be held centring three of the four pillars. That may sound odd, since during a trade negotiation, countries typically make concessions in one area in exchange for gains in another, which allows for broad compromises. But it is important to recognise that the US has repeatedly reiterated that the IPEF is not a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) like the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) or the Comprehensive and Progressive Transpacific Partnership (CPTPP). It is meant to be a new kind of trading and economic alliance, under a 'framework' to advance 'resilience, sustainability, inclusiveness, economic growth, fairness, and competitiveness' for the participating economies.
In congressional testimony, U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) Katherine Tai emphasised that market access would be off the table because, in her view, traditional trade agreements have led to "considerable backlash" in the United States - a reference perhaps to NAFTA, the erstwhile North American Free Trade Agreement between the US, Canada and Mexico, which was torn up by the Trump administration and replaced with the USMCA, which Tai has referred to as "a new model for trade agreements."
The format of the talks also suggests US domestic politics is a big concern, as an FTA would require congressional approval. That might be hard to garner in the divisive environment prevailing in America at the moment. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, the IPEF could take the form of a trade executive agreement. This could in turn raise concerns about transparency, it adds.
The IPEF partners nevertheless aim to contribute to cooperation, stability, prosperity, development, and peace in the region, and the framework is meant to offer tangible benefits that fuel economic activity and investment, promote sustainable and inclusive economic growth, and benefit workers and consumers across the region.
The security aspect and Rohingyas
The Rohingya issue came up for considerable discussion at the event. Shahriar Alam said it is one of the most challenging tasks for the law enforcement agencies to deal with the safety and security issues of the Rohingyas and the host community in Cox's Bazar, and their role should not be undermined.
He said the "complexity" in dealing with the safety and security of the Rohingyas is one of the most challenging tasks for any trained forces whether that is Bangladesh police or Armed Police Battalion (APBn).
"So, undermining their ability and sacrifices is actually undermining the challenges that our law enforcement agencies are facing," Alam said, noting that they have recently noticed that Human Rights Watch was rather critical, reported UNB.
He referred to various criminal activities in the Rohingya camps and assured of taking appropriate steps to maintain law and order situation there.
"Bangladesh, under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's leadership, will continue to set an example of humanity as long as the forcibly displaced Rohingyas remain in our territory. But we shall also not compromise on our national security if certain sections of the Rohingyas are found to be engaging in criminal activities like terrorism, human trafficking, drug running and gender based violence," said the state minister.
Alam also said Bangladesh's sustained diplomatic efforts have kept the Rohingya issue alive. He noted that the government had spent $1.2 billion on the Rohingya response in 2021 when the international community was struggling to raise even half that amount. Assistance under the Joint Response Plan (JRP) for the Rohingyas in 2022 was not encouraging either, but Bangladesh would be sitting soon with stakeholders to launch the JRP for 2023, and the state minister hoped that the international community would be able to contribute more by way of humanitarian assistance for the Rohingyas.
Ambassador Sobhan said there was now some scope for the government of Bangladesh to seriously rethink its position and approach on the Rohingya issue, taking advantage of the recent developments that have taken place in the United States regarding Myanmar. The reference was to the passing of the BURMA Act by the US Congress.
Among other things, the act codifies that it is the policy of the United States to support the efforts of the National Unity Government (NUG) in Burma, and supports the restoration of the civilian government with constitutional reforms; imposes mandatory sanctions on Burmese military officials or state-owned commercial enterprises; gives the US president authority to sanction Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE) and other entities at his discretion; requires a report within six months on sanctions for Burma's energy sector; requires the State Department Office of Sanctions Coordination to develop a strategy to promote human rights and the restoration of civilian government; authorises funding to strengthen federalism among the states, consistent with constitutional reform efforts; and encourages support for civil society groups to document atrocities.
Former election commissioner M Sakhawat Hossain said Bangladesh has been trying to repatriate the Rohingyas for several years with diplomatic efforts but not a single Rohingya could be repatriated so far. He suggested Bangladesh can now seek other options along with continuing diplomatic efforts.
Former chief of general staff lieutenant general (retd) Sabbir Ahmed said the attention of the superpowers has been shifted to the Indo-Pacific region recently but Bangladesh has to maintain a balance in keeping with its own interests. He said Bangladesh has been in a complex situation due to the Rohingya issue.
The ex-military man said the US attitude towards Myanmar as displayed by the Burma Act has created an opportunity for Bangladesh. He, however, said there might be a pressure of operating some kind of logistic support from Bangladesh should there be any action against Myanmar.
Eyes to the future
Encompassing 40 economies, over four billion people and $47.19 trillion in economic activity, the Indo-Pacific is the world's fastest growing-region. Three of the world's largest economies-China, India and Japan-are in this part of the world. By 2040-less than two decades from now-the region will account for more than half of the global economy, or more than twice the share of the United States. By 2030, it will be home to two-thirds of the global middle class, having lifted millions out of poverty through economic growth, as Canada's strategy paper on the IPS notes.
Bangladesh, as one of the littoral states of the Bay of Bengal, one of the major entry points to the Indian Ocean (the Indo in Indo Pacific), naturally occupies an important zone in the region. Now it remains to be seen whether it can position itself cleverly to take advantage of its location, and become a significant part of the IPS for various countries. The important point to note is that here, it will have to balance its relations between IPS countries on the one hand, and China on the other.
Shahriar Alam said there is no denying that the Indo-Pacific region has become a major driver of global growth and competition among the countries for their share in this growth bonanza is only natural.
Highlighting the importance of healthy competition, he said they are also witnessing a "heightening of strategic competition" in the region among some major actors. The state minister said healthy competition of course promotes growth which leads to prosperity and eradication of poverty, the all-important enemy of developing countries.
"It is imperative that we continue to promote trade for our continued development. Rules-based engagement in the region is pivotal for prosperity, of not just the region but the whole world," he said, adding that competitions in the region need to be managed responsibly.
Alam said Bangladesh believes that any international dispute can be settled through peaceful means upholding the international laws. "With the principles of the UN Charter at its core, I don't see any reason for not being able to manage competitions in the Indo-Pacific responsibly and peacefully."
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