It was the month of April 2020. The global pandemic Covid-19 was devouring the world gradually panicking people. The world had come to a sudden halt – nothing was functioning, no economic activities, nobody was going outside, no transports were plying, no flights were operating – a complete full stop for all sorts of movements. Amidst such a worrying situation, a country like Bangladesh never ceased to think for the wellbeing of the other friendly nations. By order of Honourable Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, a Bangladesh Navy (BN) ship set her sail towards the Maldives to offer some logistics materials as a friendly gesture in helping the nation to fight Covid-19 with better preparedness. The Foreign Ministry of Bangladesh coordinated everything with other ministries and the host country the Maldives. Thus, a foreign policy decision was accomplished by the diplomatic role of Navy as BN committed her warship Somudra Avijan in its execution.
Diplomacy is a well-understood term by all. However, ‘Navy’ and ‘Diplomacy’ are closely tied with each other too. Naval Diplomacy, introduced and practised since medieval ages, is a term used when Navy performs any diplomatic role. It is an undemonstrative and peacetime military act. Naval diplomacy is used as a means of communication by maritime states in pursuit of their national interest. The term was introduced to settle international disputes, provide assistance, maintain good relations or avoid enmity. It is the non-belligerent and political use of naval forces. As J. J. Widen mentioned, warships and navies are described as symbols of national sovereignty and power. Thus, it contains not only a defence value, but also a symbolic, supportive, and coercive value.The “trinity of naval functions,” a phrase coined by strategist Ken Booth and explained by Royal Navy’s Kevin Rowlands, is the concept which suggests that naval forces have three leading roles: military, policing, and diplomatic. This diplomatic role is “concerned with the management of foreign policy of a state”. Booth identified seven key characteristics of warships as diplomatic instruments: versatility, controllability, mobility, projection ability, access potential, symbolism, and endurance. A Navy ship also has the unique characteristics of flexibility and logistics carrying capacity as well. All these make her independent and unique to carry out any diplomatic mission around the globe. Navies are essentially flexible instruments of national power as because naval forces offer a persistent presence in a region without the need to have bases or occupy hostile territory. Thereby, it is well proven by Navy.
Unlike land or air powers, the diplomatic role of naval (sea) power has always been significant and often exercised by the maritime states. All the greater naval nations assure the world that a good navy is the surest guarantee of peace; that it gives security against the crisis, and is, therefore, a highly beneficial institution. The diplomatic role of naval forces is much more prevalent in real life than in theory. Naval diplomacy covers a broad spectrum from hard to soft power. As said by Kevin Rowlands, “It is what navies actually do, rather than what they train for.” My experience also substantiates this statement.
The Maldives is a friendly nation to Bangladesh. It is the largest labour market of Bangladesh in South Asia. The global pandemic Covid-19 had by then affected many countries around the world and was looming on to the Maldives. Thereby, anticipating the consequences that might be confronted by the Maldives, the ‘Mother of Humanity’ Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina rightly decided to dispatch some timely logistics materials including essential medical items to the Maldives as a friendly gesture. Thus, our ship, the largest frigate of BN, Somudra Avijan sailed out for the Maldives (Male) with about 100 tons of logistic materials.
We were at sea since 05 April 2020 and returned harbour after a week for preparation to sail The Maldives responding to the diplomatic call. Within a very short notice, loading of logistics items was completed, and we started our journey on 15 April 2020. After reaching Male Port, the Commanding Officer of the ship (the writer) and the High Commissioner of Bangladesh in Maldives Rear Admiral Nazmul Hasan officially handed over the logistic materials to the representative of the government of Maldives. It was done through a small ceremony on 21 April 2020. The Foreign Minister of Maldives, the Defence Minister, and the Chief of Maldives National Defence Force were present during the ceremony. Afterwards, the delegation reviewed the ship from the jetty and endorsed their deep sense of satisfaction. The total voyage took about 15 days (including 1 day stay in Male), and we have covered a total distance of 3360 nm. The ship sailed back for Bangladesh on 23 April and reached Chattogram on 29 April.
It was a very challenging task as the primary mission of the ship under the situation was different due to Covid-19. We were not allowed to go outside in the Maldives. Unlike other foreign voyages, all of us stayed on board and never went out. Moreover, we were not allowed to proceed to any nearby countries in case of emergency during the voyage. We were all alone, self-sustained and didn’t take any logistics support from anywhere throughout the passage. So, this was the first-time experience of a BN ship operating under such tight restrictions.It is to be noted that, BN has had the long experience of conducting and participating in various diplomatic operations (Goodwill visits and so on) since 1976. BN also provided logistic supports to Maldives (2005, 2014), Sri Lanka (2005, 2016) and The Philippines (2013) previously. Besides, BN carried out Search and Rescue operations for missing Malaysian Airline’s flight MH 370. BN also regularly pays goodwill visits to many friendly countries and participates in international exercises/exhibitions. But none of the previous diplomatic operations was of this kind-under this pandemic invasion by the novel coronavirus.
Bangladesh, through her Navy, has made a benchmark of its capability to extend a friendly gesture to a nation during the global pandemic. Very few navies have a similar experience of supporting under such crisis. Relationship between the Maldives and Bangladesh is expected to be strengthened in manifold due to this. It has enhanced prestige and image of BN in particular and Bangladesh in general to the international arena. It has developed a deep sense of pride and patriotism amongst Bangladeshi expatriates too. It is of no argument that prevailing geo-strategic scenario demands cooperation and collective actions by nations to deal with all threats, including global pandemic. Bangladesh also needs to engage continuously and seize all the opportunities to showcase her friendly gesture in the international forum. Such presence can enhance mutual trust, accrue numerous benefits, boost national image, instil pride amongst Bangladeshi Diaspora and fortify regional and global peace.
BNS Somudra Avijan’s mission of delivering logistic materials to the Maldives was successful in all counts, as stated above. Her presence and performance signalled strong commitment of Bangladesh in lending helping hands in times of global crisis of COVID-19 through cooperation in line with the foreign policy guideline “Friendship to All, Malice to None”.
This mission has set a high professional standard of BN and testified her efficiency in such diplomatic deployment in a very short notice. It is well understood that in future, if any such kind of global crisis occurs, Navy will be the most suitable option to extend support to other nations as well as Bangladeshi Diaspora around the globe. So, to conduct such logistics operations during the crisis, a purpose-built logistic ship is the best platform which is at present, not available in BN.
Throughout the world, navies are pursuing the foreign policy of a nation through their diplomatic roles in the form of peace enforcement, humanitarian relief, non-combatant evacuation, goodwill visits, exercises, friendly presence and so on. From this perspective, ‘Maritime Nations’ are much luckier than the ‘Landlocked’ ones. Hence, as a maritime nation, Bangladesh should capitalise this opportunity and enrich her naval armada with purposefully built ships (Multi-Purpose Command and Support Ships, Logistics Ships) and continue such missions to pursue her foreign policy through naval diplomatic role more smoothly.
The writer is the Commanding Officer of BNS Somudra Avijan. He can be reached at: [email protected]