The Sixth Edition of the Indian Ocean Conference, inaugurated by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, took place in Dhaka following previous five conferences in Singapore in 2016, Sri Lanka in 2017, Vietnam in 2018, Maldives in 2019 and the United Arab Emirates in 2021. The conference has become the premier consultative platform for the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) countries on various issues including peace, security, cooperation, maritime partnership, strategic and geopolitics. Mauritius President Prithvirajsing Roopun, minister and state minister-level delegations from 25 countries, some 150 foreign guests including representatives from D8, SAARC and BIMSTEC attended the conference.
The Conference assumes significance in the global circumstances where the geopolitics of the Indian Ocean region is being shaped by new strategic and security initiatives such as China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD), Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS) and Indo-Pacific Economic Framework. Recently, the alliance has become active again due to the increase in smuggling, arms trade and human trafficking in the Indian Ocean region. Maritime security and countering terrorism and other crimes in the Indian Ocean have emerged as part of India's Indo-Pacific strategy and doctrine to enhance security for all in the region.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in her inaugural speech prioritized six area of focus: fostering maritime diplomacy, enhancing cooperation for climate resilience, strengthening mutual trust, further strengthening maritime safety, promoting culture of peace and encouraging multilateral systems. She also sought active global support to repatriate the Rohingyas to their homeland in a sustainable manner.
Previously, Bangladesh has formulated its Indo-Pacific Outlook that ‘envisions a free, open, peaceful, secure and inclusive Indo-Pacific for the shared prosperity for all’ and stresses adherence to the relevant UN treaties, international conventions and UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). By this, Bangladesh has joined several other countries in the world that are supporting a ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ (FOIP). It is along the lines of the Quad concept. This angered China, as Bangladesh is a partner in the Chinese Maritime Silk Road, which is part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). On May 10, 2021, the Chinese Ambassador in Dhaka warned Bangladesh against joining the QUAD. Bangladesh strongly reacted to this Chinese warning and pointed out that Bangladesh maintains autonomy in its foreign relations. Several countries are now realising the negative aspects of the BRI, particularly after witnessing the fate of Sri Lanka and Pakistan.
Beijing has already taken Sri Lanka's Hambantota Port on a 99-year lease as Colombo failed to service its debt by China. Pakistan, too, is crumbling under enormous debt. While debt per se is not a bad thing, China's debt comes at a higher cost which makes interest payment difficult for struggling economies like Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Its grants and lending activities remain shrouded in secrecy and have been pushing vulnerable nations into economic crises and even bankruptcy.
Pakistan economy is at serious risk due to its debt trap. One example is Pakistan-Chinese deal in Gwadar Port under CPEC. By this deal, the area is being turned into a Chinese colony and the Chinese navy could use the port as a base to strengthen its control over the region and Indian Ocean. According to International Monetary Fund data, China holds roughly $30 billion of Pakistan's $126 billion total external foreign debt which Pakistan will not be able to pay back. This will be ‘to slay the slain’ for Pakistan. Who is responsible for that? Pakistan itself, and may be the country that helped it to get into its trap.
Considering all these issues, Bangladesh has announced its decision to align itself with the Indo-Pacific. Undoubtedly, this decision proves advantageous for the nation. To simplify matters without delving into intricate details, the Indo-Pacific Strategy embodies a comprehensive framework that endeavours to uphold the principles of international maritime law, ensuring unhindered oceanic mobility for all nations. In essence, this strategy aims to prevent any singular nation from exerting dominance over the ocean within its territorial boundaries. The impetus behind this choice stemmed primarily from China's flagrant transgressions of international maritime law, persisting in its endeavours to assert sovereignty over the South China Sea while actively implementing concrete measures. The crux of the Indo-Pacific concept lies in maintaining the South China Sea as an inclusive domain accessible to all nations, devoid of any overt military alliances.
Indian Foreign Minister S Jaishankar said in the conference, “Connectivity is a crucial issue as the era of imperialism disrupted the natural linkages of the continent and created regional silos that served its own end. For countries like India, a land connect to Southeast Asia and a multi-model one to the Gulf and Central Asia offers its own distinct challenges but the more we work collectively on a smooth connectivity, we will be better off. For India, an effective and efficient connectivity to ASEAN will be a game changer.”
Under this circumstance, Indo-Pacific Outlook of Bangladesh serves to outline its geopolitical vision in the region, as well as its goals to pursue a neutral foreign policy. Bangladesh can gain confidence from the Indian government, as India is an active member of the Indo-Pacific Alliance. On the other hand, Bangladesh has intelligently dealt with China's various demands. By this, Bangladesh has largely set an example for other coastal countries with its Indo-Pacific contours. Countries like Bangladesh can adopt the method because it is 'balanced'.
Bangladesh shows a clear message of focusing largely on increasing the life standards of its people. The Indo Pacific Strategy is, literally, a military security capability building alliance in the Bay of Bengal. The “Indo-Pacific Outlook” of Bangladesh is clearly focusing on infrastructure and economic development — not security.
Under the charismatic leadership of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Bangladesh is now the 35th largest economy in the world. Extreme poverty rate has gone down to 5.6% in recent years, and our per capita income has tripled to $2,824 within a decade. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, it will be a "Smart Bangladesh" with robust physical infrastructure to support a thriving economy. By 2041, it will be transformed into a knowledge-based, modern, developed country, the 'Sonar Bangla', and by 2100, a prosperous and climate-resilient delta.
Bangladesh became an example of economic success and all its development partners are very eager to take part in the development trajectory. It is important for Bangladesh to develop a mental mapping of the Indo-Pacific based on its interest areas. Bangladesh has been open to expanding cooperation in non-traditional security areas, as many of these issues cannot be addressed without international cooperation. However, when it comes to traditional security cooperation, Bangladesh has always maintained a cautious position. Publishing Bangladesh’s outlook for the Indo-Pacific has given clarity to international partners regarding this.
Bangladesh has potential to play an active role in the Indian Ocean region. The region's oceans and seas account for 90% of world trade and 60% of oil transportation and the real value of global maritime trade has remarkably tripled in the past 15 years. It shares 64% of global population and 60% of global GDP. The time has come for Bangladesh as a major regional power to join force like India to build a peaceful, stable, prosperous and inclusive Indian Ocean region. The Indian Ocean Conference held in Dhaka marked a significant milestone.
The writer is a researcher and columnist