Eyes on the Prize

SHAHAB ENAM KHAN, Professor, Department of International Relations, Jahangirnagar University

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In a conversation, Shahab Enam Khan, Professor, Department of International Relations, Jahangirnagar University and Director of Bangladesh Enterprise Institute, explicates on the shifting dynamics of regional geopolitics, the importance of focusing on national interests and future of diplomacy in the post-COVID-19 world.


Can you tell us how Bangladesh can seek out international relations that will assist us in expanding and diversifying our export basket in the coming decade?  Eyes on the Prize

There are multiple factors that we need to rethink about to reap optimal benefits from the evolving international relations. Export-led growth in Bangladesh has been fueled mainly by a supply of low-cost labour and duty-free access to the EU and US markets. In fact, out of the top 5 items that are exported from Bangladesh, apparel and knitwear items hold the top two positions, earning $18.9 billion and $17.7 billion respectively for the country in the year of 2018.
However, ‘ ‘Bangladesh’s export earnings during July-December of the current fiscal year have registered a 5.84% negative growth to $19.30 billion, which was $20.50 billion in the same period of the previous fiscal year.  Eyes on the Prize

The apparel sector, which accounts for 84.21% of total exports, witnessed a 6.21% decline to $16.02 billion in the first half of the current fiscal year, which was $17.08 billion in the same period in 2018. As per the data, knitwear products earned $8.20 billion, down by 5.126%, which was $8.65 billion the previous year.
Although merchandise exports have snowballed over the years, the country has been slow in diversifying its export basket and export destinations. The government is quite dependent on readymade garments for export earnings, along with remittance from the Middle East and beyond.

Bangladesh’s heavy reliance on the apparel sector for attaining target growth rates exposes the country to several external shocks. For an example price hikes of cotton may affect exports adversely, thus making it hard to compete globally. The readymade garments sector may also be affected by automation since the fourth industrial revolution is underway. Since the export basket, as well as export destinations, are highly concentrated, there is a pressing need for diversification of both the export basket and export destinations.

The need for strengthening an environment-friendly manufacturing sector has never felt so critical as it is now. Of course, we should not forget that we have a colossal task to utilize our hard-earned Bay of Bengal for growth – we had to go to the international tribunals for maritime delimitation – for which strict environmental regimes and ethical norms would be needed.

We need a bolstered international trade oriented diplomacy and politics based on absolute national interest and national priorities. That’s what Bangladesh needs. Our strategy should reflect the interest of the entire economy and not specific sectors of the economy. Subsequently, we need to strengthen our financial policy to stop the leakages resulting in informal capital flights or what is known as money laundering. This is a critical vulnerability that the country, or perhaps the development spree, is facing.  Eyes on the Prize

Our strategy should continue to focus on enhancing skills, entrepreneurship, diversification of export portfolio and strengthening the domestic market. We need to reduce our reliance on foreign human resources that not only contributes to unemployment but also hinders the growth of indigenous resources. Technical and vocational institutions should be strengthened and quality of these institutions should be strictly monitored by independent bodies. Urbanization is another challenge that puts destructive pressure on the environment and public health. We need to learn from the COVID-19 fiasco. That’s a challenge to think about.

What do you believe will be the biggest diplomatic challenge for the Bangladesh government in the coming years?

The safe and sustainable repatriation of Rohingya refugees is undoubtedly the critical geopolitical and diplomatic challenge for the government. It has been three years since the Rohingya refugees fleeing genocide has taken shelter in Bangladesh. Providing protection and ensuring a constant supply of food and essential medicines has put enormous pressure on the Bangladeshi economy. We must also remember that this is a financial burden for the international community too.

Bangladesh’s generosity is often seen as weakness, and the country is bearing the brunt of humanitarian disruption that is caused by the Burmese military.


The crisis has also proven an environmental and security catastrophe for both within the refugee camps and the surrounding areas. The surrounding critical biodiverse regions such as the Teknaf Wildlife Sanctuary, Himchari National Park and Inani National Park are at risk of being obliterated due to increased human activities. However, we must remember that the Rohingyas are here not because of their will, but because of fear of persecution and they have been victims of genocide. We suffered genocide during the Great War of Liberation in 1971 too.  Eyes on the Prize

Myanmar kept strategically delaying the repatriation process despite generosity of the state of Bangladesh and wholehearted support of the international community. Bangladesh’s generosity is often seen as weakness, and the country is bearing the brunt of humanitarian disruption that is caused by the Burmese military.

The Burmese political community will continue to act delusory. The Rohingya issue will still not be their priority until ICJ proceedings are in hard implementation, international oversight, and of course, an amendment to the Burmese Constitution will require strong political will. Aung San Suu Kyi will be on the test to prove her Burmese political blood—she needs the Constitution to be amended to climb to the highest point of power. The military will be busy in guarding the Constitution against the amendment to ensure 25 percent of the seats in parliament are reserved for them.
While the Sino-Indian tussle over Galwan, Indo-Nepal or India-Pakistan tensions is reality, that means the mandarin dragon will naturally fix their terms of engagement with the Burmese generals over time. Indeed, Beijing will not be happy to see the Burmese Generals going strategically overboard with their newfound friends. Eyes on the Prize

Flying high with Pakistani built JF17s is not a substitute to the Burmese ‘generals’ romance with an old Russian-built Indian submarine. I am sure both Beijing and Washington are well aware of these equations. That too after the Rajapaksas in Colombo legibly regained their throne and the Nepalese gained alternative paths for their global connectivity. Hence, Bangladesh will have to rethink its complex Burma front if it wants to retain the spirit of ICJ to ensure dignified return of the Rohingyas.  Eyes on the Prize

News of the fresh Chinese investment for the Teesta River Project has not been very well received in India; we already have seen some aggressively misleading reporting from the country’s media. Will additional Chinese investments further sour our relationship with our closest neighbours?

Bangladesh is perceivably set to receive nearly a billion dollars from China for the Tista river project. The short visit from India’s Foreign Secretary, Harsh Vardhan Shringla demonstrates the magnitude of the country’s uneasiness towards the growing Chinese presence in its neighbourhood. Concurrently, a segment of the Indian media has been trying to portray the recent developments as a shift in Bangladesh’s foreign policy which would ultimately lead the country into a Chinese debt trap.

In reality, the Tista river project is pivotal for Bangladesh’s sustainable development. The necessity of making use of the country’s water resources surpasses the need to cater to petty regional geopolitics. The country’s water resources have been a hostage to domestic politics of other countries, hence, the country can’t wait eternally to get a positive nod from Delhi on Tista+52 other rivers deals. While around six per cent of the country’s external debt comes from China, the debt trap logic rarely makes any economic sense.

Bangladesh should not be seen through the prism of Beijing or Washington or any other capitals for obvious reasons that Bangladesh has to keep its economic growth momentum. And economic growth momentum or sustainable growth cannot be achieved without having a very solid ecosystem and environmental protection, and growth infrastructure which also includes country-wide water management. What the country needs support for economic growth not security paranoia.  Eyes on the Prize

Bangladesh and India will always remain a close trade and cultural partners. 2,256,675 visitors out of 10,557,929 foreign visitors in India were Bangladeshi tourists, and 10 percent of them went with medical visas. In fact, ‘Kolkata’s big brand hospitals, and shopping stores in New Market and Park Street undoubtedly benefit the most from Bangladeshi patients and buyers. That means a prospering Bangladesh and benefits accrued from Bangladesh-India-China trade triangle would not only help the Indian economy to prosper, but also help in stabilising the post-COVID-19 regional growth. It’s high time for the triad to cooperate leading to greater confidence-building and ensuring common welfare.  Eyes on the Prize

Bangladesh, on the other hand, will need support from India and China, as it has always received support from its Western friends and development partners, to ensure sustainable development, capacity building, and growth of a skilled society. It will need significant cost-effective support to revive its health sector plagued by inefficiency, assistance for urban governance and planning, and infrastructure development. That means, for its economic growth, it has to receive support from both the Western countries and Eastern friends. Balancing between Washington and Beijing, given the conundrums under the Trump administration, would be a challenge nonetheless. ‘  Eyes on the Prize

Do you think Bangladesh’s constitutional foreign policy “friendship to all, malice to none” will persevere in the coming decade? How can we improvise to better suit the reality of the post-COVID-19 world?

Over the last decade, Bangladesh has become one of the most important factors in regional geopolitics. With occasional see-saw in Dhaka’s tilt toward Beijing and New Delhi, Bangladesh has historically maintained moderation in its foreign policy pursuit. Our constitutional provision of “Friendship to all and malice towards none” is a very idealist option, I would say that this is an essential milestone in Bangladesh’s foreign policy. But, it’s just an option!
However, we have to be mindful of the fact that international trade or geopolitics or geo-economics doesn’t function romantically. I would certainly speak for the fact that the economy doesn’t grow in vacuum or on the basis of conspiracy theories. Neither sustainable growth can be achieved through false promises or charities.

I would certainly speak for the fact that the economy doesn’t grow in vacuum or on the basis of conspiracy theories. Neither sustainable growth can be achieved through false promises or charities.

That means the national interest of the countries will prevail when it comes to foreign relations. By default, Bangladesh’s relationship with other countries should not be seen through a linear prism too. It will have ups and downs, strategic choices and also strategic diversification.

The task is a colossal one for the government. And completing it would require augmenting the best brains and cognitive skills of the nation! That will not be possible without the best, and the brightest minds, being in the right places—be it in civil service or politics or academia.

The foreign policy community will have to think of their policies from a greater geopolitical landscape with human resources able to connect the dots. And the political community should introduce checklists to evaluate their performance.

Perhaps what should be reminded to state actors is that global politics will witness anarchy where the regional powers will be aiming at degrading strategic autonomy and sovereignty of the competing economies. More protectionism and compliance regimes are in progress across the regions. Hence, we should be prepared to return to a pre-Westphalian decade as the aftermath of Covid19.


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