50 Years After Independence, Bangladesh Bursts Into Geopolitics
The country is on the cusp of a second liberation—one that would end its relative isolation.
As Bangladesh marks the 50th anniversary of its declaration of independence from Pakistan, there is widespread admiration for its remarkably successful economic and social transformation. Less noted are the profound geopolitical consequences of Bangladesh’s economic rise, including a shift in South Asia’s center of economic gravity to the east and the reintegration of an eastern subcontinent that was once divided by animosities and barely penetrable borders. Today, Bangladesh is on the cusp of a second liberation—one that would end its relative isolation and allow Dhaka to play a stronger role in the region and beyond, seeking new maritime possibilities in the Indo-Pacific.
As it stepped out into the world in 1971 amid a bloody independence war with Pakistan, few in the world gave it a chance to survive, let alone thrive. For decades, it was one of the world’s most destitute countries, synonymous with famine, deprivation, and disease. But sustained high growth rates in the last few years have accelerated Bangladesh’s economic development. The country is on a firm trajectory to graduate out of the category of least developed countries by 2026 and likely to jump into the 25 largest economies worldwide by 2030. International development institutions praise Dhaka’s success in reducing poverty, improving life expectancy, enhancing literacy rates, and empowering women.
The recognition of Bangladesh’s economic transformation is not, however, accompanied by an appreciation of its growing geopolitical significance. For far too long, when we think about South Asian geopolitics, the focus has been entirely on India and Pakistan. The India-Pakistan academic establishment, media commentariat, and think-tank industry—myopically focused on the tick-tock between New Delhi and Islamabad over Kashmir, nuclear weapons, terrorism, and Afghanistan—sucks attention away from the rest of the region.
But even a cursory look suggests that each of the other states of the subcontinent are gaining in their strategic salience. That includes the smaller ones: Sri Lanka and the Maldives, sitting astride the sea lanes in the heart of the Indian Ocean, are objects of great interest to the major maritime powers—including India, China, Japan, and the United States. Nepal and Bhutan, nestling in the Himalayas as a long cordon between China and India, are theaters for the intensifying geopolitical competition between Beijing and Delhi.
Bangladesh’s geopolitical significance is not least a function of its size. Its population of nearly 170 million is the eighth-largest in the world. The Bangladeshi diaspora is growing as well, currently standing at about 8 million. Besides a large community in the Gulf Arab states, the diaspora is also growing in the English-speaking world.
Bangladesh’s geographic proximity to Nepal and Bhutan in the north, China in the northeast, and Burma in the southeast make it an attractive partner to all of them. For India, Bangladesh has in recent years emerged as its most important neighbor in the subcontinent—with strengthening strategic, political, and economic ties. Beyond its region, Dhaka is also a major contributor of forces for international peacekeeping.
Bangladesh has become an exporting nation—mainly on the back of its textile industry, which generated $30 billion in exports in 2019. The country is the second-largest manufacturer of ready-made apparel after China and exports to more than 150 countries.
The geopolitics of Bangladesh, the former East Pakistan, began with its very birth. In seceding from Pakistan only 25 years after the creation of Pakistan in the name of religion, Bangladesh is the biggest testimony to the enduring truth that religion can’t peacefully unify a nation. Although Islam continues to play an important role in the politics of Bangladesh, the country’s religious moderation—and success in controlling home-grown Islamist movements after a spate of high-profile terrorist attacks—remains an important political virtue in the non-Western world.
Bangladesh’s special location and political character would not have amounted to much if the nation had not made itself an economic success. To understand the scale of Bangladesh’s economic transformation relative to Pakistan and India, let us consider two important facts.
First, Bangladesh overtook Pakistan in 2019 to become the second-largest economy in the subcontinent—$303 billion to $279 billion in annual GDP. The gap between the two is likely to grow, with Bangladesh sustaining its growth momentum through the COVID-19 pandemic and Pakistan struggling to end its economic malaise.
Second, the International Monetary Fund announced last year that Bangladesh’s per capita GDP would overtake that of India by a few dollars in 2020. Although that statistic was the result of a sharp contraction in the Indian economy during the pandemic, it puts the economic growth of Bangladesh in perspective. It also suggests that Bangladesh is no longer a sideshow in the subcontinent.
It has been fashionable to mourn that the India-Pakistan rivalry has overshadowed the subcontinent’s progress and geopolitical significance. But just because India and Pakistan do not talk or trade with each other and the regional forum—the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC)—is dysfunctional, that does not mean that others in the region cannot advance.
As Bangladesh grows faster than Pakistan, raises its education standards, and controls its once-rapid population growth, it has begun to tilt the region’s economic center of gravity towards the east. That shift has been accelerated by the uselessness of SAARC due to Pakistan’s reluctance to engage India economically, which has changed the focus to subregional economic cooperation between India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, and Nepal—as well as transregional cooperation with Myanmar and Thailand.
It helps to look at the map: The partition of the subcontinent in 1947 positioned what are today Pakistan and Bangladesh as natural bridge states within South Asia and to the abutting regions. Bangladesh is also a bridge within the subcontinent—between India’s heartland and its remote northeastern provinces, connected only by a narrow, vulnerable corridor of Indian territory, the so-called chicken’s neck. Old rail, road, and water links that were shut down in the years following Partition are now being restored.
It is also instructive to see how differently Islamabad and Dhaka have leveraged their geographic inheritance. Pakistan’s strategic community has tended to imagine its unique location in geopolitical terms; Bangladesh, in contrast, has focused on leveraging its geography for economic growth. Pakistan consciously chose to forego economic cooperation with the gigantic market offered by India. To its own detriment, Pakistan insists that commercial links to India must wait until the resolution of the Kashmir question. Bangladesh, on the other hand, has turned its long frontier with India into a source of economic opportunity. At the same time, it has also made progress in resolving contentious bilateral issues with New Delhi.
Until recently, Bangladesh chafed about being landlocked by India, with which it shares 94 percent of its land border. Over the last decade, under the stewardship of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Bangladesh has transformed the difficult relationship with India into a productive partnership. Working with successive Indian prime ministers, Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi, she pressed for a grand bargain: cooperation to combat terrorism, better Bangladeshi access to India’s market, resolution of disputes over river-water sharing and land borders, and restoring transborder connectivity cut off since Partition. The forward movement on this broad range of issues has generated an unprecedented depth to the bilateral relationship. Dhaka now sees itself not as landlocked, but as land-linked and river-linked to India and the other countries in the region. The deepening India-Bangladesh cooperation helps the subcontinent transcend the negative consequences of Partition—at least in the east.
Not all contentions have been put behind them. Domestic politics in both India and Bangladesh continue to test bilateral relations. Movement of people across the border and the rights of religious minorities continue to feed into political anxieties in both nations. But the vastly improved state-to-state relationship has helped compartmentalize some of these tensions. Better relations with India have also liberated Bangladesh to look outward beyond South Asia, especially towards the maritime realm.
Sitting at the top of the Bay of Bengal littoral, Bangladesh has begun to take greater interest in maritime affairs. Dhaka took the initiative to resolve its sea-border disputes with India and Myanmar in the last decade. If it plays its cards right, Bangladesh could use the fast-evolving dynamic in the Indo-Pacific to strengthen its maritime capabilities. Dhaka’s Indo-Pacific orientation must necessarily begin in the Bay of Bengal, which is reemerging as a site for great power contestation between a rising China, India, Japan, and the United States.
Already, Delhi is seeking to expand security cooperation with both Dhaka and Naypyitaw. India has been woken up by China’s twin pipeline system from Kunming, in Yunnan province, to Myanmar’s Kyaukpyu island in the Bay of Bengal, as well as the Chinese Navy’s growing forays into the northeastern Indian Ocean.
Dhaka has a security relationship with Beijing too, and has bought Chinese submarines and frigates. India would like to lessen Bangladesh’s reliance on Chinese military equipment. Although it can’t match the scale of Chinese economic investments, India is actively raising the level of its commercial engagement with Bangladesh. Among the other Quad members, Japan is eager to develop infrastructure in Bangladesh.
Even the United States has begun to end its traditional strategic neglect of Bangladesh. In a rare visit to Dhaka last October by a senior U.S. official, Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun declared that Washington “sees Bangladesh as a key partner in the Indo-Pacific region.” With U.S. President Joe Biden now promising “extreme” competition with China, it is possible to imagine that the Quad nations—Australia, India, Japan, and the United States—would intensify their separate and collective efforts to woo Bangladesh.
Bangladesh knows that stronger ties with the United States and Japan would reduce excessive reliance on either India or China and widen its choices. Dhaka has shown increasing agency in playing on the geopolitical chess board and taking advantage of its external environment. Unlike many other countries in Asia, it did not blindly embrace China’s Belt and Road Initiative, but sought to engage multiple partners. It now has similar opportunities in the maritime rivalry between China and the Quad.
C. Raja Mohan is the director of the National University of Singapore’s Institute of South Asian Studies and a former member of India’s National Security Advisory Board. Twitter: @MohanCRaja