Dr. A.K. Momen’s recent visit to Delhi should be a harbinger of a new, redefined foreign policy for Bangladesh. The new Foreign Minister holds in his hands the opportunity to recast the nation’s diplomacy in light of the fast-changing pace of relations between and among nations. He has been the nation’s permanent representative to the United Nations, which certainly is an experience he can bring to bear in a reordering of the priorities for Bangladesh in its dealings with the outside world.
A major first step Foreign Minister Momen ought to take is on the issue of a promotion, in the real sense, of cooperation among the member-nations of SAARC. The organisation, moribund for years and since its birth in 1985 hamstrung by the inherent weaknesses of its charter, nevertheless remains a good vehicle for the peoples of the eight countries constituting its membership to re-power the engine of regional cooperation after the sloth that keeps it in less than suspended animation. The Bangladesh diplomatic establishment should be able, in these new circumstances, to undertake a purposeful campaign for a holding of the SAARC summit that has not been held since some member states of the organisation decided to stay away from it in Islamabad.The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, a fruit of the collaboration of regional leaders who invested their energies in bringing it about in the 1980s, is an endeavour that ought not to be lost to the winds. At this point in time, it remains the one mechanism which holds the wherewithal to keep its member-states in touch and communication with one another. Bangladesh, as the country which played a leading role in its emergence through holding the first summit of South Asian heads of state and government in December 1985, will surely be injecting new energy into its diplomacy through undertaking the task of reviving the SAARC spirit. That will fundamentally be through consulting other member-nations of the body about the need for the postponed summit to be held, which in turn should lead to newer strategies of handling crises affecting the region.
There are other areas where Bangladesh’s diplomacy requires to be given a decisive spurt, especially in such areas as engaging Myanmar meaningfully on the issue of the Rohingyas. The regime in Myanmar is characterised by a collective closed mind, which of course calls for smart diplomacy to be applied by Dhaka in dealing with it. Given that China, Russia and India have sadly and surprisingly been non-responsive to Bangladesh’s concerns about the repatriation of the Rohingyas, it makes sense to argue that the Foreign Minister and his team should shape definitive and substantive guidelines aimed at keeping Naypyitaw and Dhaka in touch with each other. It will not be far-fetched to suggest a summit between Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, the doors to such a possibility initially needing to be opened through the foreign ministers of the two countries setting up lines of communication between them. Diplomacy is never a static affair, as the Nixon opening to Beijing in 1972 suggests. There is too the matter of the ground-breaking visit made by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to Israel in 1977, a mission which catapulted the Egyptian leader to historic prominence.
The dominant truth today is that the Rohingya issue is one which only Bangladesh, for want of cooperation from outside, is compelled to tackle. It can deflect the pressure it is under through a turnaround in the situation by impressing on the global community the need to bear a goodly part of the burden, thereby providing relief of a sort to itself. Bangladesh’s approach should be two-pronged. First, the doors to constant communication between it and Myanmar should be opened and kept open. Second, diplomatic pressure by Dhaka on the global community, and we speak of the European Union, the US, UK and other nations, should be exercised – and sustained – through stressing the need for a change to be brought about in the attitude of the Myanmar leadership. Clear position papers on the issue as also on other issues Bangladesh is faced with are called for. Foreign Minister Momen can take the lead in initiating the process by utilising the services of the existing foreign policy establishment in Dhaka and consulting experts noted for their diplomatic expertise.
With Dhaka fast turning into an economic powerhouse in South Asia, it naturally follows that its clout should translate into a re-energised foreign policy aimed at stressing its significance in the powerful capitals of the world. Nothing is more appreciated by the world than a modern, independent and idea-filled foreign policy. And that is the nature of the diplomacy which must now be initiated and pursued by Bangladesh. The government, now that it is in office for a third consecutive term, should demonstrate no reticence in formulating a foreign policy structure the goal of which is to keep the country in the world’s lenses. One way of doing that is to formulate or stake out clear positions on global issues. Diplomacy suffers when it remains trapped in silence. On issues like Venezuela, the seemingly endless rift between Pakistan and India, the problems confronting Afghanistan, the implications of China’s One Belt One Road policy, et cetera, are areas where Bangladesh’s diplomacy should be dynamic and forcefully articulated.
Meanwhile, on A. K. Momen’s watch, Bangladesh should step up its efforts toward reviving the issue of the pre-1971 assets and liabilities with Pakistan together with the matter of asking Islamabad that some of the convicted assassins of Bangabandhu who reportedly have made Pakistan their frequent destination, perhaps even their homes, are identified, detained and handed over to Dhaka. Relations between Bangladesh and Pakistan have been in steep decline for quite some years. Hard-hitting diplomatic activism by Dhaka will be one of the ways of convincing Islamabad that a formal expression of apology on the part of its present leadership over the atrocities committed by its army in 1971 can and will lead to normal and better relations between the two countries.
Bangladesh’s diplomacy needs to expand, flow outward. Africa is essentially uncharted territory for the country’s foreign policy mandarins. The potential for African investment in Bangladesh, the opportunities for Bangladesh to showcase its history and heritage in Africa and have its goods enter the markets of African states are promising.The plate will be full for Foreign Minister Momen. His good fortune is that having never been a career diplomat or a career politician, he is in a position to undertake some bold new initiatives in giving healthy flesh and bone to Bangladesh’s diplomacy. With him is the young Shahriar Alam, the dynamic Minister of State for Foreign Affairs. In the coming weeks and months, the two men should be revitalising the nation’s diplomatic structure.
The country is in need of a well-pronounced foreign policy, in that proper sense of the meaning. The old clichés and the old self-satisfaction on how favourably the world looks at Bangladesh must be cast aside. Realpolitik is what matters.
The writer is a senior journalist.