03.11.2021

Bangladesh in the New Geopolitics of Asia

Bangladesh is emerging as an important player in Asia’s new geopolitical theatre. FES and its partners invited some of the country’s top thought leaders to the second national foresight and strategy lab to discuss the current state of play, identify emerging trends and develop strategic options for Bangladesh’s future.

Bangladesh finds itself in a challenging but hopeful geopolitical situation. The country’s success in establishing a strong economic development path is in part a cause and effect of its ability to successfully navigate the difficult geopolitical and geo-economic circumstances in South Asia by fostering good relations with its neighbours. It is therefore crucial for Bangladesh to continue building broad relationships through mutually beneficial trade, investment and technology cooperation, while also tackling important long-term challenges, including the unresolved Rohingya refugee crisis, a disrupted supply chain ecosystem and the adverse effects of climate change.

Against this complex backdrop, the FES Bangladesh Office and the FES Office for Regional Cooperation in Asia, jointly with the Centre for Governance Studies (CGS) and Research and Policy Integration for Development (RAPID), convened a diverse group of Bangladeshi decision-makers, thought leaders, academics, journalists and civil society leaders to discuss the country’s current geopolitical challenges and devise policy strategies that will help Bangladesh come out on top of the major emerging trends in the region. The two-day strategy lab was facilitated by the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy Executive Education Programme.

Current state of play

Situated in the immediate neighbourhood of India and China, the strained relations between these two regional giants are of great concern for Bangladesh. Likewise, the increasing heat in the US-China power rivalry raises the likelihood of escalating conflict in the region, a prospect that would threaten to stifle Bangladesh’s recent achievements on its way to graduating from the Least-Developed Country (LDC) group by 2026. In this context, many participants lamented the insufficient progress in regional cooperation and economic integration, which would enhance common understanding and interdependency and reduce conflict potential. On the optimistic side, Bangladesh’s good relations with both India and China were identified as a key aspect that the country should seek to preserve leveraging its unique geographic location. The wide-ranging discussion on today’s state of affairs covered impacts of the pandemic, economic and social topics, workers’ rights, the climate emergency and other risks of instability and uncertainty.

Emerging trends

Trade and economic considerations are looming large as key emerging geopolitical trends in the region. There was unison to the idea that Asia is going to continue to enjoy strong economic growth and solidify its position as the world’s economic centre of gravity in the 21st century. That said, many participants hoped for a manageable fallout of the continuing trade wars between global superpowers and emphasized the importance for Bangladesh not to be side-lined in a more fragmented global trade environment. There are also expectations that emerging social movements and a stronger plurality of voices in society will highlight the issues of high-income inequality and rising national debt burdens and help craft equitable solutions. Overall, the growing multipolarity of the global order brings with it a unique opportunity for Bangladesh to increase its geopolitical clout in the future.

Policy recommendations

There was strong agreement among participants that domestic reforms are key to achieve Bangladesh’s ambitious economic and geopolitical goals in the coming decades. Education was mentioned as a main priority in that regard. The system should be geared towards teaching skills needed for the economy of tomorrow. At the same time, Bangladesh should ensure that growth is accountable and equitable and continue to emphasize labour standards in its strategic industries, including the RMG sector. A strengthened and more efficient tax collection system, institutional reforms and improved governance were all identified as key areas that would continue to help Bangladesh realize its full potential. Participants also highlighted the importance of pursuing sustainable solutions to the Rohingya refugee crisis and taking decisive action to address climate change. 

On the foreign policy front it was highlighted that Bangladesh should continue to foster good ties with its most important neighbours China and India, while also advocating for stronger regional multilateralism to mitigate the fragmentation risk from competing trading blocs. Such regional cooperation with Bangladesh as a strategic bridge connecting the South Asia and Southeast Asia subregions would be key to successfully resolve the numerous challenges that lie ahead. The final plenary was held in the presence of a senior representative from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who reflected on the lab outcomes jointly with the participants and signalled interest to continue the cooperation on geopolitical and geoeconomic topics.

Event summary compiled by Alexander Lipke, Research Associate, FES Office for Regional Cooperation in Asia. 

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