On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of its declaration of independence from Pakistan in Bangladesh, the remarkably successful economic and social transformation is widely admired. Less attention is paid to the profound geopolitical consequences of Bangladesh’s economic rise, including a shift in the economic focus of South Asia to the east and the reintegration of an eastern subcontinent that was once divided by hostility and barely penetrable borders. Today, Bangladesh faces a second liberation – one that would end its relative isolation and allow Dhaka to play a stronger role in the region and beyond, in search of new maritime opportunities in the Indo-Pacific.
When it entered the world in a bloody war of independence with Pakistan in 1971, few in the world gave it a chance to survive, let alone prosper. For decades it was one of the most destitute countries in the world, a synonym for famine, deprivation and disease. However, the sustained high growth rates in recent years have accelerated Bangladesh’s economic development. The country is on track to move out of the Least Developed Countries category by 2026 and is expected to move into the 25 largest economies in the world by 2030. International development agencies praise Dhaka’s success in reducing poverty, improving life expectancy and increasing literacy rates. and empower women.
However, recognition of economic change in Bangladesh does not go hand in hand with recognition of its growing geopolitical importance. When we think of South Asian geopolitics, the focus has been solely on India and Pakistan for far too long. The Indo-Pakistani academic establishment, media commentary and think tank industry, short-sightedly focusing on the New Delhi-Islamabad tick-tock on Kashmir, nuclear weapons, terrorism and Afghanistan, are drawing attention from the rest of the region from.
But even a cursory glance suggests that each of the subcontinent’s other states is gaining strategic importance. This includes the smaller ones too: Sri Lanka and the Maldives, which sit astride the sea lanes in the heart of the Indian Ocean, are of great interest to the major sea powers – including India, China, Japan and the United States. Nepal and Bhutan, embedded in the Himalayas as a long chain between China and India, are the arenas for the intensifying geopolitical competition between Beijing and Delhi.
The geopolitical importance of Bangladesh depends not least on its size. With almost 170 million inhabitants, it is the eighth largest in the world. The Bangladeshi diaspora is also growing and currently stands at around 8 million. In addition to a large community in the Arab Gulf States, the diaspora is also growing in English-speaking countries.
Bangladesh’s geographical proximity to Nepal and Bhutan in the north, China in the northeast and Burma in the southeast make Bangladesh an attractive partner for everyone. For India, Bangladesh has developed into its most important neighbor on the subcontinent in recent years – with the strengthening of strategic, political and economic relations. In addition to its region, Dhaka also makes an important contribution to forces for international peacekeeping.
Bangladesh has become an export nation – largely due to its textile industry, which generated $ 30 billion in exports in 2019. The country is the second largest manufacturer of ready-made clothing after China and exports to more than 150 countries.
The geopolitics of Bangladesh, the former East Pakistan, began with his birth. Exiting Pakistan in the name of religion just 25 years after the founding of Pakistan, Bangladesh is the greatest testimony to the enduring truth that religion cannot peacefully unite a nation. Although Islam continues to play an important role in Bangladesh’s politics, the country’s religious moderation – and its success in controlling indigenous Islamist movements after a spate of high-profile terrorist attacks – remains an important political virtue in the non-Western world.
The special situation and the political character of Bangladesh would not have made much difference if the nation had not developed into an economic success. In order to understand the extent of Bangladesh’s economic transformation in relation to Pakistan and India, we consider two important facts.
First, Bangladesh overtook Pakistan in 2019 to become the subcontinent’s second largest economy – an annual GDP of $ 303 billion to $ 279 billion. The gap between the two is likely to widen, with Bangladesh continuing its growth momentum through the COVID-19 pandemic and Pakistan battling to end its economic malaise.
Second, the International Monetary Fund announced last year that Bangladesh’s GDP per capita would exceed India’s by a few dollars by 2020. Although this statistic was the result of a sharp decline in the Indian economy during the pandemic, it anticipates economic growth in Bangladesh in perspective. It also suggests that Bangladesh is no longer a sideline in the subcontinent.
It was fashionable to mourn that the rivalry between India and Pakistan has overshadowed the progress and geopolitical importance of the subcontinent. But just because India and Pakistan don’t talk or trade with each other and the regional forum – the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) – isn’t working, doesn’t mean that others in the region can’t move forward.
As Bangladesh is growing faster than Pakistan, raising its educational standards and controlling its once rapid population growth, it has begun to shift the region’s economic focus to the east. This shift has been accelerated by the uselessness of SAARC as Pakistan is unwilling to engage India economically, which has shifted the focus to subregional economic cooperation between India, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal, as well as supra-regional cooperation with Myanmar and Thailand.
It helps to look at the map: The division of the subcontinent in 1947 positioned today’s Pakistan and Bangladesh as natural bridging states in South Asia and the neighboring regions. Bangladesh is also a bridge within the subcontinent – between the Indian heartland and its remote northeastern provinces, which are only connected by a narrow, endangered corridor of Indian territory called the Chicken Neck. Old rail, road and water connections that were closed in the years after the division are now being restored.
It’s also revealing to see how differently Islamabad and Dhaka have used their geographic heritage. The strategic community of Pakistan has envisioned its unique geopolitical location rather. In contrast, Bangladesh has focused on using its geography for economic growth. Pakistan has deliberately renounced economic cooperation with the gigantic Indian market. Pakistan insists, to its own disadvantage, that trade relations with India must wait until the Kashmir issue is resolved. Bangladesh, on the other hand, has made its long border with India a source of economic opportunity. At the same time, progress was made in resolving controversial bilateral problems with New Delhi.
Until recently, Bangladesh was resentful of being trapped in India, with which it shares 94 percent of its land border. Over the past decade, Bangladesh, under the leadership of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, has transformed difficult relations with India into a productive partnership. Working with successive Indian Prime Ministers Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi, she pushed for big business: working together to fight terrorism, improving Bangladesh’s access to the Indian market, settling disputes over sharing river water and land borders, and restoring cross-border connectivity since Partition. Movement forward on this wide range of issues has resulted in an unprecedented depth of bilateral relations. Dhaka does not see itself now as a landlocked country, but as land and river bound with India and the other countries in the region. The deepening of cooperation between India and Bangladesh will help the subcontinent to overcome the negative consequences of division – at least in the east.
Not all objections were left behind. Domestic politics in India and Bangladesh continue to test bilateral relations. The movement of people across the border and the rights of religious minorities continue to create political fears in both countries. However, the vastly improved state-to-state relationship has helped to subdivide some of these tensions. Better relations with India have also freed Bangladesh to look outward beyond South Asia, particularly towards the maritime realm.
Bangladesh is at the tip of the coastal area of the Bay of Bengal and has begun to take an increased interest in maritime affairs. Dhaka took the initiative to resolve its maritime border disputes with India and Myanmar over the past decade. If Bangladesh plays its cards right, it could use the rapidly evolving dynamics in the Indo-Pacific to strengthen its maritime capabilities. Dhaka’s Indo-Pacific orientation must necessarily begin in the Bay of Bengal, which is re-emerging as the site of great power disputes between an emerging China, India, Japan and the United States.
Delhi is already striving to expand security cooperation with Dhaka and Naypyitaw. India was awakened by China’s double pipeline system from Kunming in Yunnan Province to the Myanmar island of Kyaukpyu in the Bay of Bengal, as well as by the growing forays of the Chinese Navy into the northeast Indian Ocean.
Dhaka also has a security relationship with Beijing and has bought Chinese submarines and frigates. India wants to reduce Bangladesh’s dependence on Chinese military equipment. While it cannot keep up with the level of Chinese economic investment, India is actively increasing the level of its commercial involvement in Bangladesh. Among the other Quad members, Japan is keen to expand the infrastructure in Bangladesh.
Even the United States has begun to end its traditional strategic neglect of Bangladesh. During a rare visit by a senior US official to Dhaka last October, Deputy Foreign Secretary Stephen Biegun said Washington sees “Bangladesh as an important partner in the Indo-Pacific region”. Given that US President Joe Biden is now promising “extreme” competition with China, one can imagine that the Quad nations – Australia, India, Japan, and the United States – would woo their separate and collective efforts for Bangladesh .
Bangladesh knows that closer ties with the United States and Japan would reduce the over-reliance on India or China and expand its choices. Dhaka has shown that playing on the geopolitical chessboard and taking advantage of the external environment has an increasing impact. In contrast to many other countries in Asia, the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative was not blindly accepted, but an attempt was made to win several partners. It now has similar opportunities in the maritime rivalry between China and the quad.