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Bangladesh and Australia Should Step It Up As Indian Ocean Partners

  • Dr David Brewster
  • 21st October, 2022 04:06:57 PM
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There are a lot of good reasons for Australia and Bangladesh to step up their relationship as Indian Ocean partners. Australia has long been a major aid donor to Bangladesh, including during the Rohingya crisis.   But it is now time to build a more comprehensive and multi-faceted partnership. There are also many ways that Australia and Bangladesh can work together in the Indian Ocean to enhance regional security and combat climate change.

Australia has identified the northeast Indian Ocean as a key area for enhanced strategic engagement. This should be part of a comprehensive plan to target emerging economic tigers such as Bangladesh. A strategic partnership with Bangladesh would also fit with Australia’s approach to developing a web of relationships among Indo-Pacific middle powers.

Such a partnership would also provide many benefits for Bangladesh. Australia is the biggest LNG exporter in the world, along with many other key resources.  A reliable trading partnership can become an important plank underpinning Bangladesh’s economic development.  Australia has much to offer Bangladesh to help it govern its rich maritime areas. Politically, Australia can provide Bangladesh with more options and ballast as it navigates the dangerous waters of competition among the major powers.

The two countries can work together as a regional force in helping to stabilise the unsettled Indo Pacific and building more effective cooperation in the Indian Ocean. The two countries have many shared interests in areas such as climate change, stopping people smuggling and illegal fishing and sharing of information on a range of maritime security threats.

The northeast Indian Ocean region already faces a range of transnational security threats.  Major power competition has already contributed to instability and crisis in the region.   This will only likely worsen in coming years.

Myanmar is creating new risks for the region. Extended civil unrest could lead to further population displacement.  Drugs sourced from Myanmar spaces are starting to flood the Bangladesh and Australian markets.

So, there is much that the two countries can do together.

But despite being the first Western country to recognise Bangladesh’s independence, the relationship between the two countries is still relatively thin.

The good news is that there’s a lot of low hanging fruit. 

The current world energy crises amply demonstrates Bangladesh’s need to lock in reliable sources of cheap energy and resources.  For its part, Australia also needs to diversify its economic partnerships. Recently, when Australia sought to limit foreign interference operations in its domestic politics, China responded with a raft of trade sanctions against Australian products.  Like Bangladesh, Australia needs new trading partners that don’t routinely use economic coercion as a weapon to advance its interests.

Much can be done to kick-start defence and security engagement. An initial focus should be on developing personal relationships and networks between our militaries. This is a long-term undertaking, but can provide significant benefits in times of crisis, when personal relationships can count far more than formal agreements.   

Australia can provide Bangladesh with opportunities for military professional training at defence training institutions or through institutions such as the Australian National University. Australia can also learn a lot from Bangladesh’s unmatched experience in UN Peacekeeping Operations.

An Australian naval visit to Bangladesh (and vice versa) would be an important statement.  It is hoped that a port visit by Australian ships could occur as part of a future regional naval tour.

Australia can also provide targeted capability-building assistance on selected transnational security issues. For example, Bangladesh lacks a comprehensive picture of its maritime domain hinders law enforcement and the protection of its maritime resources. Australia has much useful experience in this area. Australia can also help Bangladesh build its maritime search and rescue capabilities.

The two countries can also do much to enhance regional cooperation in the Indian Ocean, including through groupings such as the Indian Ocean Rim Association and BIMSTEC. 

The Indian Ocean region currently lacks effective regional arrangements for countries to coordinate policies on climate change or mechanisms for countries to respond to particular climate or other environmental risks.There are many opportunities for the countries to work together in developing regional arrangements to address environmental security threats.

A comprehensive economic, political and defence partnership between Australia and Bangladesh could do a lot to benefit both countries and the broader Indian Ocean region.

The writer is a scholar at National Security College, Canberra