Bangladesh Foreign Policy over Last Fifty Years

Monaem Sarker

27th November, 2020 12:01:28 printer

Bangladesh Foreign Policy over Last Fifty Years

We the Banglees fought the Liberation War in 1971 against Pakistan brutal army to achieve emancipation from deprivation and uplift our economic advancement to make the society egalitarian in a democratic and non-communal political entity where multi-religious, multi-cultural and multi-lingual people would live in peace and harmony.

Contemporary practice acknowledges that although governments do not bear the whole burden of bilateral relations, governments lay down policies and remain responsible for responses to issues between countries.

The foreign policy stands on two pillars: security and development. Security means not only territorial security but the security of energy, food, water, environment and persons. During the last fifty years, Bangladesh foreign policy has gone through three phases which are described as follows:

The first phase of foreign policy commenced after 16th December 1971. It is noted that the direction of the foreign policy of Bangladesh did not begin with a ‘clean slate’ because the impact of foreign policy during the provisional Bangladesh government could not be shaken off easily.

The second phase began after August 1975 and the direction underwent a drastic change after the tragic assassination of the founding Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

The third phase was to reset and balance foreign policy with neighbours, economic and military powers and the pragmatic direction of policy has continued until today with some nuances and variations, depending on the political ideology of the government in the country.

Let me discuss the salient points of each phase of foreign policy in the following paragraphs.

The provisional government found it necessary to consider the responses of major powers after the military crackdown on the people of Bangladesh on the 25th March 1971 and during the difficult period, India and the Soviet Union with its allies lent their support to the War of Liberation of the people of Bangladesh, while China and the US Nixon-Kissinger administration supported Pakistan. Naturally, the provisional government had aligned with India and the Soviet Union and its allies in East European countries.

Bangladesh government leaders and people were grateful to these countries for the assistance they extended to them during the War of Liberation. The role of China and the US were disappointing and public was not in a mood to enter into government to government relationship immediately with these countries.

Indo-Soviet support has an impact on Bangladesh's foreign policy after independence. Relations with India and the Soviet Union became more consolidated with the passing of each day after independence.

Immediately after the birth of the country, Bangladesh had sent its Ambassadors to India, Soviet Union, German Democratic Republic (East Germany) and Yugoslavia, signalling Bangladesh's close engagement with these countries.

Sheikh Mujib declared that Bangladesh would be the “Switzerland of the East” and by this declaration, he meant that Bangladesh would steer clear from the Cold War and would remain non-partisan in the tug of Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union.

However non-partisan policy, many argue, was nipped in the bud because of the conclusion of the 1972 Bangladesh-India Friendship Treaty. The Treaty was counter to this concept of distancing from two great rival powers because India had a similar Treaty with the Soviet Union in August 1971 and as a result, Bangladesh was perceived by the Western countries to be within the sphere of influence of the Soviet Union. It was imperative due to the then situation. India gave shelter for one crore Banglees and USSR used veto power 3 times in favour of Bangladesh in UNO. During the period, Bangladesh was confronted with largely four foreign policy issues:(a) repatriation of Bengali civilian and military officials, held in Pakistan in camps, to Bangladesh (b) recognition from foreign states (c) admission into the UN and (d) trial of the 195 Pakistani military prisoners of war, alleged to have committed genocide and crimes against humanity on Bengali population, out of 95 thousand Pakistani army surrender in 16th December.

Except for the trial of Pakistani military officials, Bangladesh steadily and patiently pursued a pragmatic policy to integrate the country with international community as an equal partner. With the admission of Bangladesh into the UN in September 1974, Bangladesh leaders had succeeded in their goal of putting the country on the international stage.              

Pakistan recognised Bangladesh in February 1974. The Trilateral Agreement of Bangladesh, India and Pakistan of April 9, 1974, led Bangladesh to grant ‘clemency’ to the 195 Pakistani prisoners of war held in India to be repatriated to Pakistan having regard to the appeal of the “Prime Minister of Pakistan to forgive and forget the mistakes of the past”.

Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib was keen to develop friendly relations with the USA and in January 1972 granted full diplomatic status to the US Consul General who was stationed in Dhaka, although the US had not recognised Bangladesh at that time. The US recognised Bangladesh in April 1972.


Sheikh Mujib knew that the main source of aid to the new country would come from the USA. His visit to Washington in September 1974 sent a strong message to the world that Bangladesh had moved away from the perceived Indo-Soviet alliance.

His attendance at the Non-Aligned Conference in September 1973 in Algiers and his participation in the Islamic conference in Lahore (Pakistan) in March 1974 were motivated by his desire to widen and broaden his relationship with other developing countries including Islamic nations. Bangabandhu's Foreign Policy was friendship to all, malice to none. He was eager to save his people from hunger and poverty.

The 1975 change of the government after the tragic assassination of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib had drastically altered the direction of foreign policy. With the change of government, Saudi Arabia and China recognised Bangladesh. The emphasis of foreign policy was shifted from the Indo-Soviet alliance to China and Islamic countries.

Equally, India saw the change of regime with deep suspicion and when President Zia took over after 7th November as the so-called “strong man” of the country, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi took a hard line in negotiations in bilateral issues. No bilateral issue moved to a positive outcome until Morarji Desai became Prime Minister in 1977. However, when Indira Gandhi resumed power in 1980, the old hard-line towards Bangladesh was adopted. President Zia met one-to-one with Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in New Delhi in 1980 but the meeting ended reportedly with a candid exchange of words between them.

Relations with the Soviet Union had soured when Bangladesh protested some of the “undiplomatic activities” of the Soviet Embassy and expelled many Russian diplomats during President Zia's dictatorial regime. During the period although Bangladesh's relations with India and Russia were at the bottom of the ladder, it secured a seat in the Security Council in 1978, defeating Japan thus reflecting a positive image in the international community.

The third phase saw to reset in some ways working relations with India under the military dictator President H.M. Ershad who came into power in March 1982 through a military coup.

The direction of foreign policy was to strengthen with all powers, especially with the US, China, Japan and Islamic countries. The relationship with Russia remained rather lukewarm.

Some analysts argue that to placate the local Islamic forces and Islamic countries in the Middle East, President Ershad amended the Constitution inserting that “The State religion of the Republic is Islam, but other religions may be practiced in peace and harmony.”

During the Ershad regime, there was a tilt towards Iraq as against Iran and the country failed to secure a seat in the UN Security Council (Malaysia was elected) although Bangladesh became the President of the UN General Assembly.

Bangladesh is credited for sending troops to the UN peacekeeping missions. Bangladesh topped the list of countries in sending its personnel for peacekeeping missions. It has become an important component of foreign policy and the country has attained a good standing in the comity of nations. Our peach keeping personal is also earning a good amount of money.

In 1996 the Awami League under Sheikh Hasana's leadership returned to power after 21 years and had maintained good relations with India. For example, the 30-year Ganges Water Treaty was signed with India in 1996 and with cooperation with India, the Peace Agreement with Tribal Representatives on Chittagong Hill Tracts was signed in 1997. On the international stage, Bangladesh for the second time was elected in 1999 for a two-year at the UN Security Council.

During the UN General Assembly session in 2010, both the UN Secretary General Ban ki-moon and the USA President Obama conveyed their appreciation of the role of Bangladesh peacekeeping forces to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

Thereafter the BNP came into power in 2001 and formed a coalition government with the Islamic parties and relations again with India deteriorated. In September 2004, the then Bangladesh Foreign Minister at a public workshop for Young Indian Journalists, organied by a private think-tank in Dhaka, went all the way to criticise India's policy towards Bangladesh in the presence of the Indian High Commissioner. The unexpected outbursts reportedly “hurt” the sentiments of India and this episode brought bilateral relations to their rock-bottom.

Relations with other countries were consolidated by bilateral high-level visits. However, the period was rocked by a series of bomb explosions by extremists within the country and such violent incidents had a negative image in the international community. Bangladesh failed to bag the post of Secretary General of OIC (Turkey was elected).

Present direction

The direction of foreign policy aims at maximising national human and natural endowments in pursuing cooperative policies with countries in the region and beyond that, there are no permanent enemies or eternal allies and what is permanent is national interests.

Sheikh Hasina visited India, China, South Korea and Japan during 2010 apart from a few European countries. She visited Bhutan as well.

She had participated in a number of multi-lateral conferences and meetings of intergovernmental organisations and presented among others, not only Bangladesh's environmental woes due to global climate change but also the attainment of a middle-income country by 2021.

The visit of Bangladesh Prime Minister to India in January 2010 has led to a new vista of cooperation by agreeing to the regional interconnectivity with India, Nepal, and Bhutan and use of Bangladesh ports by India and other South Asian nations and China.

However, the main opposition party (BNP) has voiced its opposition to the grant of transit rights and use of Bangladesh ports to India on the ground that the agreement is tilted heavily in favour of India without obtaining any concrete benefits for Bangladesh.

Meanwhile, in terms of the Delhi communiqué, it is reported that the government is planning to establish road and rail links with Nepal and Bhutan along with India and Myanmar as part of the move for regional connectivity. China expressed its support and assistance in establishing regional connectivity through Myanmar to Kunming (Yunnan province) from Bangladesh, first by road and then by railways.

In recent times Prime Minister has underscored the direction of foreign policy towards Africa. It is timely and appropriate. The continent with 54 countries was not on the radar screen of foreign policy for a long time.

Many African countries are sparsely populated and have vast agricultural farming lands. Bangladesh may take the advantage of such factors in sending people for farming on lease-hold lands in African countries.

Bangladesh's low-end merchandise together with pharmaceuticals may enter into large African market. Bangladesh's private sectors together with the government may take initiative to achieve these objectives by organising trade missions and exhibitions in African countries.

Furthermore, Bangladesh needs to engage with countries of Latin and Central Americas. It is time that the Bangladesh government may seriously consider opening missions in several countries in that part of the world as part of economic and cultural diplomacy.

Lack of continuity of foreign policy

Regrettably, there is no continuity of foreign policy of Bangladesh as there has been no consensus on the direction of core foreign policy. It has often been affected by the political complexion of the party in power. If one government pursues a close relationship with a particular country, that direction is changed by a government belonging to another party.

It is quite natural that opposition parties will have different views on certain issues but on core issues of national interest, there ought to have been a bi-partisan policy which is formulated by the government in power in consultation with other political parties. Furthermore, debate in foreign policy is almost absent in Parliament. In a fragmented society and divisive political environment, such a course has not been put into practice by successive governments in power.

A foreign policy is successful if it is proactive and result oriented. It must not respond only to situations but plans ahead of strategy so that no situation surprises the country within the region or globally.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs should have a full-fledged Research Division that will prepare goals of foreign policy for short and long terms, say five, ten or twenty-five years and submit to the government which thereafter will be debated with representatives of mainstream political parties in Parliament to reach bipartisan consensus.

Many observers find that the confrontational nature of domestic politics has hindered bipartisan agreement on foreign policy direction and the absence of consistency or continuity of direction of foreign policy is one of the stumbling blocks in smooth implementation of pro-active and pragmatic policy in taking advantage of Bangladesh's geographic location, sandwiched between the two rising powers such as India and China as well as connecting South Asia with Southeast Asia. For the last few years, Bangladesh under the Charismatic leadership of Bangabandhu's daughter Sheikh Hasina as an unquestioned leader who did exactly what her people wanted to do, to salvage the country. Under Sheikh Hasina's pragmatic and dynamic leadership, Bangladesh has taken a special place in the global arena. So Bangladesh matters today from UN to many world forum.

The author is a politician, writer, columnist and presently Director General, Bangladesh Foundation for Development Research.