Deciphering Dhaka’s position on Ukraine
Bangladesh again found itself the target of Western ire, after failing to vote on a resolution condemning Russian military aggression in Ukraine, in a rare emergency session of the UN General Assembly which was held on March 2, 2021. Abstention from UN sessions after Russian military action in Georgia in 2008 and the annexation of Crimea in 2014, and previously on the issues of Bosnia and Kosovo, the latest Dhaka’s political position should not have come as a surprise. However, hours after the vote, the former Soviet state – and now a keen NATO member – Lithuania reversed its decision to donate half a million Pfizer Covid-19 vaccines to Bangladesh – a decision seen by many as a retaliatory measure.
The sudden intensification of bloc politics left small states off guard and reduced the space for their political autonomy, placing their actions under the control of the big powers. But, upon closer examination of some of Dhaka’s more recent foreign policy maneuvers, this is not the first time he has defied Western expectations.
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No bridges to burn
Bangladesh’s “sit on the fence” policy dates back to its constitutional principle of “friendship to all, malice to none” and its non-aligned lineage. The country’s joining the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in 1973 and the Father of the Nation’s participation in the historic Algiers summit in 1974 are considered watershed moments that continue to shape Dhaka’s global outlook. These fundamental principles are still reflected in the decision-making process in Dhaka.
Last year, Dhaka surprised the world at least twice with diplomatic gestures towards its southeastern neighbor Myanmar. Despite mounting controversies following the junta’s crackdown on anti-coup protests, Bangladesh was one of eight countries to send delegations to the Myanmar Armed Forces Day parade. In June 2021, Bangladesh also decided to refrain from condemning Myanmar on a UNGA resolution.
A historical understanding of Bangladesh’s foreign policy would explain that such abstention is a continuation, rather than a deviation, of the country’s adherence to the policy of non-interference and aversion to bias. Despite a persistent disagreement with Naypyidaw on the question of the Rohingyas, Bangladesh has decided not to cut the bridges towards dialogue with its voting system, which has above all a symbolic value.
There are other pragmatic calculations that made Dhaka’s decision to abstain from voting a relatively safe bet. In the first seven months of FY 2021-22, Bangladesh’s export earnings increased by 30.34% to $29.55 billion, of which nearly $24 billion came from the manufacturing industry. country clothing. The United States, the EU and the United Kingdom – the forerunners of the anti-Russian front – were respectively the top three destinations for RMG exports from Bangladesh. A specter that has long haunted Dhaka is that its foreign policy autonomy and differences with the West could spill over into its trade ties. However, looking at the list of major RMG exporters (China, Vietnam and Bangladesh in that order, all of which abstained), it might have seemed that such repercussions, at least for now, would be unlikely.
Bangladesh is currently in the throes of a major socio-economic transformation. Thus, balanced economic diplomacy and development cooperation have always been the main driving force of its foreign policy. Western markets are major export destinations for Bangladesh’s thriving RMG industry, while Beijing has been a source of funding for vital and ambitious infrastructure projects. As a result, escalating geopolitical rivalry has Dhaka walking a tightrope.
In a rare and candid expression, Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen laid bare Dhaka’s dilemma at the Munich Security Conference in 2022: “While India had offered lines of credit and the Japan had also helped with infrastructure financing, incoming loans went down, and it was China that came forward with a basket of money and aggressive, affordable proposals.” Momen stressed the need for financial assistance and investment with less strings attached and lamented the failure of rival blocs to place counter-offers that meet the development needs of developing countries Such a candid expression clarifies that the key to Dhaka’s heart is development finance easy and affordable.Bangladesh does not want to be a ‘pawn’ in the tussle of the great powers, instead it wants to be the ‘jewel’ of the emerging economies.
A story of “historical ties”
The former Soviet Union vetoed – at least twice – US-backed resolutions to intervene in Bangladesh’s war of independence from Pakistan in 1971. Since then, Bangladesh has shared “ties historical” with Russia – the largest state with a nuclear arsenal with a permanent seat on the UNSC, and with which it has no significant area of conflicts and disagreements.
Trade relations between Bangladesh and Russia have grown to a record $2.4 billion even during the Covid-19 pandemic. In November 2021, the two countries formed an Intergovernmental Commission (IGC) on trade, economic, scientific and technical cooperation. Taking sides on the Ukrainian question will have a direct impact on Bangladesh’s search for new markets and new investments to avoid the Dutch disease.
The crown jewel of the cooperation between these two countries is the Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant (RNPP), the first such power plant in Bangladesh and the largest infrastructure project in the country’s history. Ninety percent of the $13 billion project is funded by Russia through state credit.
Russia is also an integral part of Bangladesh’s military modernization effort. Dhaka tends to balance its reliance on Chinese military hardware by buying fighter jets and other defense equipment from Russia. Given these geopolitical and economic imperatives, it is quite understandable why Dhaka did not “fall into the ranks” of the Western powers by abandoning and condemning a “revanchist” Russia on the UN platform.
By choosing to abstain, along with like-minded regional players (China, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka), Bangladesh has shown the world that it values unison in the neighborhood rather than talking openly about the war in a distant country. Dhaka’s carefully constructed declaration that “wars are in no one’s interest” and that they contradict the fundamental aspiration of developing economies like Bangladesh, a manifesto of “pragmatism”, if not realpolitik, into Dhaka’s outlook while navigating its great power rivalries. Thus, Bangladesh has told the world that “this is not my war” and that it will “avoid choosing sides” in the war(s) of others amid the intensification of the triangular, if not binary, distribution. power in world politics between and among the “rising East” and the “declining West”.
Hassan Ahmed Shovon is a research assistant at the Central Foundation for International and Strategic Studies, Bangladesh.