All to play for in the geopolitical game

Amid sharpening debate on rebalancing the world order, one country the spotlight frequently avoids is Bangladesh, which this year marks the 100th birth anniversary of its founding father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

In its foundation in the early 1970s, Bangladesh proved itself to be a pivotal player on big power politics. Wrapped as it is within its long border with India and strategically placed on the northern coastline of the Indian Ocean, it is becoming pivotal again because of the growing rivalry between Delhi and Beijing.

Bangladesh’s population is 160 million, 90 per cent of whom are Muslim. Even though economic growth over the past 15 years has been a steady average of six per cent, per capita income is low at only $4,200.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, in office since 2009, had wanted to reach the ten per cent growth level soon but the impact of COVID-19 will inevitably cause delay. The garment industry, which accounts for some eight per cent of export income, is particularly badly hit.

Much of Bangladesh’s short-term future will depend on how cleverly Ms Hasina and her successors play their hands as the Indo-Pacific increasingly becomes a theatre of geopolitical rivalry.

So far the country has done well, despite a string of challenges.

As a predominantly Muslim nation, it has seen its fair share of Islamic-motivated violence but, unlike Pakistan and other countries, it has avoided being defined by the now fading War on Terror.

Bangladesh is highly vulnerable to climate change. Sea level rises over the next 30 years may consume more than ten per cent of its land, which will impact on millions who will need to find new homes.

It has also been buffeted by the crisis of refugees from Myanmar and is giving sanctuary to some 800,000 Rohingyas. Despite predictable tensions, the crisis had not yet prompted a sea change in political thinking or reassessment of national values as has happened, for example, with the refugee crisis in Europe.

Prime Minister Hasina – whose father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, led the foundation of Bangladesh but only survived four more years before being assassinated by political rivals – said Bangladeshis recognised the Rohingyas’ suffering because they had been through similar in their own struggle which ended with independence in 1971, after a bitterly fought war.

It was that war which redrew the geopolitical map of Asia.

The United States sided with Pakistan, pitting it against India which supported Bangladesh’s independence. Delhi immediately set up an alliance with the Soviet Union, America’s Cold War rival, and that alliance with Moscow remains very much in place today.

With new alliances being forged amid new rivalries today, Bangladesh should remain vigilant in two specific areas.

The first is in its handling of China. Bangladesh is now deeply embedded with Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, which involves some $40 billion of Chinese investment, including critical infrastructure projects. Bangladesh has asked for even more while it is giving Beijing access to its ports and is becoming a substantive buyer of Chinese military hardware.

India has been clumsier, such as with last year’s National Register of Citizens law in Assam, which has raised Bangladeshi fears of a massive influx of yet more refugees across the border.

So far Ms Hasina has been wise to help India retain its influence so an expansionist Beijing understands it is not the only show in town. Delhi’s involvement in nuclear power and other projects is an example of this.

Second is Bangladesh’s nascent democracy, or lack of it.

Ms Hasina’s administration has long faced questions from human rights agencies over alleged suppression of basic freedoms. Neither China nor India will press Bangladesh on this issue, but Western democracies will and that could result in long-term damage for the country.

Bangladesh’s short history is littered with political violence, coups and counter coups, authoritarianism with its main political parties looking too much back to the legacy of the past instead of ahead to what’s needed for the future.

The nation needs to concentrate forensically on what’s best for its own modernisation while preparing for the big power competition of the United States, India and China that is now arriving on its doorstep.

Bangladesh was pivotal before and it will be again. But unlike in 1971, it can take more control and, with political skill, it will have everything to play for.

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