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Bangladesh’s balancing politics in the strategic Bay of Bengal

Whether Bangladesh is involved in the Indo-Pacific Strategy or Belt and Road, it must maintain peace and rule of law to reap maximum economic benefits from the Bay of Bengal, writes Pathik Hasan for South Asia Monitor 

Pathik Hasan Dec 28, 2021
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Bay of Bengal map (Photo: Wikipedia)

Bay of Bengal is a matter of pride for Bengalis. Large Indian cities are located on its shores but the sea is not named after them. Abutting Myanmar, Andaman Islands, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and south India, the reservoir of 21,62,000 sq km is named after Bengal.  

Bay of Bengal has now become a hub of international politics due to its economic and strategic importance. About 40,000 ships ply this route each year. Half of the world's goods and fuel vessels use this route. 

Now, the US, the UK, China, India and Japan has focused their attention on Bay of Bengal. The US has shifted its policy from ‘Asia Pacific’ to ‘Indo Pacific’ to counter the China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Both parties want Bangladesh in their blocks. 

Dhaka avoids involvement with the blocs. Bangladesh didn’t show any interest to sign the ACSA (Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement) and GSOMIA (General Security of Military Information Agreement) with Washington. But when China’s envoy commented that Dhaka shouldn’t join the Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS), Bangladesh protested saying it is capable of forming its own policy.  

No blocs please! 

Bangladesh’s aim is clear -- friendship with all, malice towards none. It wants and likes to go ahead with all regional and global actors. 

Bangladesh’s policy is not inclined towards bipartisan international politics. It was an active member of the Non-Aligned Movement. It has no interest in joining any bloc. It wants peaceful coexistence. It avoids any clash with any actor. Despite being provoked by Myanmar during the Rohingya refugee crisis, it abstained from using force. Bangladesh is balancing successfully vis-a-vis BRI and IPS. Bangladesh has been exploiting the strategic significance of the Bay of Bengal.  

Whether Bangladesh is involved in the US-led IPS or the Chinese-led BRI, it must maintain peace and rule of law in the maritime region to reap the maximum economic benefits from the Bay of Bengal. Bangladesh needs to acquire natural resources as well as the ability to catch fish from the deep sea. This will open the way for Dhaka to earn huge amounts of foreign exchange. 

Seaports critical 

Ports play an important role in connectivity. Bangladesh has three seaports. But due to depth constraints, it is not able to accommodate large vessels (mother vessels). The establishment of a deep seaport at Matarbari in Cox’s Bazar in collaboration with Japan will solve this problem and reduce the cost of transporting goods.  

Bangladesh reportedly trades about $9,000 crores a year by sea. About 4,500 foreign ships transport these imported and exported goods to Bangladesh. Dhaka has only 60 ships to transport goods; Bangladesh needs to increase its sea-faring capabilities. 

The sea border of Bangladesh is mammoth. Bangladesh needs training, education and infrastructure to increase its ability to extract resources from this vast ocean. At present Bangladesh has a Maritime University, an Oceanographic Department and an Oceanographic Research Center.  

Drug smuggling, piracy in the Malacca Strait and pollution from ships or land are destroying marine environment. Effective steps can be taken to address these crises jointly through BIMSTEC, SAARC and ASEAN. Bangladesh has made changes in the Maritime Act. A Marine Economy Cell has been formed. A maritime economy action plan has been adopted. Bangladesh wants to join the Colombo Security Conclave. Its aim is to tackle the maritime threats. 

Japanese role 

Japan attaches great importance to a free and open Indo-Pacific region. Bangladesh is one of the partners of Japan's Big-B initiative around the Bay of Bengal. Under this, Matarbari in Maheshkhali will be turned into a hub for import and export of electricity and energy, industry and sea. The Rohingya crisis could lead to instability in the region. So Japan should can play a significant role in the repatriation of Rohingya refugees. 

The Bay of Bengal was historically important. Due to geopolitics, its importance has increased. Bangladesh is an important player in the region. It shows the rest of the region how to balance with big powers. Its balancing capability is praiseworthy. 

The US-Japan-Australia-India formed QUAD to counter China's BRI. Despite competition over geopolitics, the US and China are each other's biggest trading partners. Bangladesh knows and understands this. It needs both America and China to ensure its business interests. The strategic significance of the Bay of Bengal is bound to make Bangladesh more prosperous if it plays its cards correctly.

(The writer is a Dhaka-based NGO activist and researcher-writer on international relations. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at pathikhasan1141@gmail.com) 

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