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Changing Balance of Power in the Indo-Pacific Region: Challenges for Bangladesh

Authors:
Changing Balance of Power in the
Indo-Paci c Region: Challenges for
Bangladesh
AKM Abdur Rahman1
ASM Tarek Hassan Semul
Introduction
China’s reemergence as a possible ‘challenger’ to the United
States (US) has given much traction to the idea of a changing
balance of power in the international system. Following the World
War II, as the alternative to the Soviet socialist political system, the
liberal order was preached by the US and its Trans-Atlantic Western
allies. Subsequently, the end of the Cold War and the triumph of
the US-led liberal order put the Northern hemisphere right at the
heart of the global power structure. However, while the global North
was struggling in the aftermath of the last global  nancial recession
of 2008, the Asian economies started to take the ascendency as the
global  nancial powerhouse. It is estimated that by 2020, four of the
world’s ve largest economies will be located in this region (" e
Indo–Paci c will create opportunity", 2019). erefore, the rise of
Asia and the eroding Pax Americana mean a gradual shift of the
geo-strategic center of gravity from the Trans-Atlantic region to
Asia.  is shift signi es two of the most important developments
which are going to shape the global geo-strategic architecture. One
is the reemergence of China as a potential great power and the
other is the relative decline of the US as the sole super power. is
has challenged the ‘unipolar’ nature of the current world order and
1 Maj. Gen. Rahman is Director General and Mr. Semul is Research Fellow of
Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies (BIISS), Dhaka
brought ‘multipolarity in the global power structure. e tiredness of
the US forces in the Middle East, Afghanistan and resurgent China
warrants a shift in the geographical focus back on the Asia-Paci c
Region (Layne, 2012). Although, to some extent, the ‘pivot to Asia’
or ‘rebalancing strategy’ by the Obama Administration has failed to
deliver on its promises, it succeeded in helping the US refocus on
this region (Ross, 2014). Fully comprehending the intuition of the
major regional powers such as Japan, India and Australia, the US has
adopted the ‘Indo-Paci c’ in its o cial vernaculars by replacing the
2nd World War old construction, the ‘Asia-Paci c (Diplomat, 2019).
One predominant hypothesis for the advent of this new geopolitical
construction is connected to the rise of China, India and the
Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). It has led to a re-
imagined space which encompasses two di erent oceans, the islands
inside them and the countries that dot their littoral (Mohan, 2014).
However, there are di erent conceptualizations regarding what
underpinned this construction. Some scholars identi ed China’s
growing strength and in uence and resultant uneasiness among
regional and global actors as the main reason for the construction
of the ‘Indo-Paci c’. For them, it is not the shift of the global power
and wealth from the West to the East, rather a strategic response
to the rise of China (Cheng-Chwee, 2008; Manicom & O’Neil,
2010; Pan 2014). Nonetheless, as the de nition of this region will
vary depending on many factors, policymakers of major regional and
global powers will continue to play a critical role in shaping what this
region will look like in near future. Given that the region is home to
some of the most dynamic states in the world in terms of economic
growth, global power and geopolitical perspective, the Indo-Paci c
is undergoing rapid changes and receiving increasing attention in
the global a airs. Introduction of the projects like ‘Belt and Road
Initiative’ (BRI) and ‘Free and Open Indo-Paci c’ (FOIP) has
made the geostrategic gamut of this region particularly interesting.
Nevertheless, it is di cult to predict possible consequences this
region holds for the fate of the world. Whereas the bulk of the
RAHMAN : Changing Balance of Power... | 83
84 | Security and Economic Challenges in the Indo-Paci c
literature on the Indo-Paci c largely focuses on the balance of power
between the US and China and, to some extent, on the other major
powers such as India, Japan and Australia, they fail to paint the full
picture of the region (Tao, 2017; Shirk, 2017). For example, how the
countries of this region will navigate through this intensi ed struggle
for power and in uence? Will they join the challenger to balance the
status quo power or bandwagon with the status quo power? How
are these small states responding to the opportunities and challenges
presented by the shifting balance of power in this region? is paper
will try to focus on the answers to these questions from a small state’s
perspective, and more precisely, Bangladesh’s perspective. e case of
Bangladesh is a very intriguing one as the country possesses a great
degree of economic and political interdependence with all the key
players in the Indo-Paci c Region, such as the US, China, India,
Japan and the ASEAN nations. However, before going into the
challenges and opportunities for Bangladesh, it is critical to discuss
the changing nature of balance of power that the Indo-Paci c Region
is going through.
BRI and FOIP: Shifting Balance of Power in the Indo-
Paci c
With the changing balance of power in the international
system, the US-led liberal order has been under tremendous strain
to continuously prove its worthiness as the global world order.  e
Cold War period should not be de ned only as the decades of the
US-Soviet great power rivalry. Rather  ve decades of the Cold War
formed an international system that morphed into today’s liberal
world order. However, since the middle of the last decade or so,
the US hegemony appears to be challenged by the rise of multiple
constellations of power (Layne, 2012).  is shift in the balance of
power happened due to the “rising powers”, which have consolidated
their positions in the international system from a gradual transfer
of wealth from the Global North to the Global South (Posen,
2009). Nevertheless, these emerging states apparently diverge on
RAHMAN : Changing Balance of Power... | 85
their world vision as one group extends its support to the existing
global governance structure and the other group wants to reform
the post-War liberal order as it perceives the order as discriminatory
against the rising powers (Florini, 2011; Terhalle, 2011). However,
this analysis provides merely a binary understanding of the balance
of power when it comes to the Indo-Paci c Region as, on the one
hand, the major rising power, such as, India is engaging China,
Russia, Brazil and other rising powers in forums such as BRICS and
G-20 to reshape the global governance, while, on the other hand, the
country has aligned itself with the US when it comes to balancing
China’s dominance in this region.
e Indo-Paci c Region has not only brought out a new type
of balancing behavior from the rising and small powers, but it
has also created a hotbed for US-China rivalry and the situation
has been famously dubbed as the ucydides Trap (Allison et al.,
2019). Consequently, for any response to be termed as balancing
or bandwagon behavior in this balancing game, there is a need for
“theory of international politics that explains how rising great powers
are likely to act and how the other states in the system will react to
them” (Mearsheimer, 2006). is great powers’ competition can be
best explained by two international relations theories; one is A.F.K.
Organski’s “power transition theory and the other is Stephen M.
Walts “balance of threat” theory which came as a complement to
Kenneth Waltz’s “balance of power” theory (Walt, 1985; Waltz, 2010).
Despite China’s insistence for a “peaceful rise”, the balance of power
theory posits, China is the challenger or revisionist power to the
existing international system since China’s rise has been increasingly
perceived as a threat to the unipolar global order led by the US, the
status quo power. erefore, the Indo-Paci c Strategy or FOIP can be
translated as a balancing response that comes with “power transition”
challenges from China. Under this strategy, the US is not only
internally balancing, building up military strength and so forth, but is
also strengthening its old partnerships and forging new alliances in the
Indo-Paci c Region, demonstrating a behavior of external balancing.
86 | Security and Economic Challenges in the Indo-Paci c
Once defunct multilateral grouping, the Quad is one such example,
which has been revitalized by the US, India, Japan and Australia with
an explicit objective to establish a rules-based Indo-Paci c economic
and security order. Although the grouping is still in its formative stage,
but all the four democracies appear to be in the same alignment to use
this as a balancing tool against China and BRI. e democratic system
of government and their support for establishing the liberal order has
been one of their bonding factors as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo
Abe puts it as “Asia’s democratic security diamond” (Abe, 2012).
Although, the “balance of power” theory explains Washington’s e ort to
balance China but it renders little utility in explaining Japan, India and
Australia’s alignment with the US in the Quad, as this theory argues
that the relatively weaker powers will automatically form balancing
alliance against the status quo power. By this theory, India, Japan and
Australia should have been balancing with China against the US and
not the other way around. To explain this paradox, Walt’s “balance of
threat” theory provides particularly four useful markers for a state for
measuring “threat” against another state. Along with the aggregate
power and military power of a state, “balance of threat” theory provides
perceived o ensive intentions and geographical proximity as two other
markers (Walt, 1985).  ese two supplementary markers of perceived
o ensive intentions and geographic proximity make Australia, Japan,
India and other regional countries relatively anxious and suspicious
regarding Beijing’s growing clout in the Indo-Paci c Region than
Washington’s might. erefore, Beijing’s geographic proximity and
Washington’s distance, along with the threat perception across the
region, will be increasingly exploited by the US Indo-Paci c strategy
to balance China.
e ‘Indo-Paci c’, as a strict terminology, was not mentioned
in Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s speech at the Indian
Parliament in August 2007. But as he referred to the Paci c and
Indian Oceans as the “con uence of the two seas”, the Indo-Paci c
started to  nd its way into o cial vernaculars of the major players
in the region. ("MOFA: Speech by H.E. Mr. Shinzo Abe, Prime
RAHMAN : Changing Balance of Power... | 87
Minister of Japan, at the Parliament of the Republic of India
"Con uence of the Two Seas", 2007). Later in 2016, Abe added
“free and open” as a pre x to the Indo-Paci c based on the ideas of
democracy and freedom.
e Indo-Paci c emerged as a regional framework for the US
strategic discourse during Obama’s Presidency. As the US-China
rivalry started to take root, the Obama administration decided
to readjust the US’s focus back to the Asia-Paci c Region as a
countervailing measure to deter China’s growing dominance in the
region. However, BRI, following its inception in 2013, previously
known as One Belt One Road (OBOR), quickly became the
centerpiece of the Chinese strategic vision not only for the Eurasian
region but also for the whole world. In the post-global  nancial crisis
of 2007-08, China became the global  nancial powerhouse. On the
other hand, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) estimates that
there is a need for US$ 26 trillion for infrastructural development
in the Asian economies during the period, 2016-2030 (Asian
Development Bank, 2019). BRI, consisting of an overland route, the
Silk Road Economic Belt, and a maritime route, the Maritime Silk
Road Initiative (MSRI), was introduced by China as a response to
the need. Beijing has been careful to insist upon BRI only being a
complementary factor to the existing liberal international structure
rather than a challenger (Ministry of Foreign A airs, Japan, 2016).
Nevertheless, the US and its regional allies in the Indo-Paci c Region
believe that Beijing can assert signi cant amount of in uence as BRI
can be used as a tool for economic statecraft to amass political clout
for China. For example, despite lacking in blue water naval capability
or a collection of overseas bases, BRI/MSRI umbrella projects
have made China an Indian Ocean power, with Beijing having
access to partner states’ ports and naval facilities (Kostecka, 2011;
Brewster 2016).  erefore, many scholars argue that rather than an
organic o shoot of global power and wealth redistribution from the
Global North to the South, the idea of Indo-Paci c is an imagined
construction which gives platform to the US and its regional allies to
88 | Security and Economic Challenges in the Indo-Paci c
formulate strategic response to the rise of China (De Castro, 2017;
Pant & Reg, 2018; Medcalf, 2018).
Under the Trump Administration, in December 2017, the White
House released the National Security Strategy (NSS). at document
identi ed China and Russia as the challengers or revisionist powers
to “American power, in uence, and interests”, attempting to “erode
American security and prosperity.” Furthermore, NSS laid out the
US understanding of the region as it said,A geopolitical competition
between free and repressive visions of world order is taking place in
the Indo-Paci c Region” ("National Security Strategy of the United
States", 2017). To underscore the centrality of this new geopolitical
reality, in May 2018, the US Paci c Command was renamed as the
‘US Indo-Paci c Command’. In that change of command ceremony
in Pearl Harbor, the US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said, “In
recognition of the increasing connectivity between the Indian and
Paci c Oceans, today we rename the U.S. Paci c Command to U.S.
Indo-Paci c Command” (Barron, 2018). However, the “increasing
connectivity” between the two oceans was not the only reason to
rename the command. Rather, it was part of a grand strategy that
the US has borrowed from its allies and builds on a ‘Free and Open
Indo-Paci c’ or FOIP. Although it often gets labeled as the answer
to China’s ‘Belt and Road Initiative’, but for geostrategic reasons, the
military dimension is at the heart of this grand strategy. e Indo-
Paci c is a hub for more than 40 percent of the global economic
yield as well as home to strategic chokepoints, such as the Malacca
and Sunda Straits. Almost 70 percent of the global trade and 75,000
sea tra cs pass through these sea lanes annually by linking Asia with
the Middle East and Europe (Hand, 2016). Hence, maintaining
open and free Indo-Paci c remains a priority for Washington.
erefore, a report published by the US Department of Defense
in 2019 explained that by “free”, Washington expects all countries
“to exercise their sovereignty free from coercion by other countries”,
while “open” is meant to refer to the regional integration and
RAHMAN : Changing Balance of Power... | 89
connectivity, in particular freedom of navigation ( e Department
of Defense, 2019). Another regional power, Australia, was perhaps
the  rst state to incorporate the Indo-Paci c into its o cial narrative
since 2013 and it is not surprising considering its unique two-ocean
geography (Scott, 2013).  is unusual geographical reality brought
Australia close to both the Western powers and Asian region and at
the same time excluded it from being considered either as a Western
power or Asian power.  erefore, Australia was one of the driving
forces to preach the Indo-Paci c construction as this narrative not
only put Canberra right at the heart of the region but it also provided
to the country the much-needed legitimacy and relevance as a major
regional power. Later in 2017, the Australian Foreign Policy White
Paper laid out Canberra’s vision regarding the region as it says, “open,
inclusive and prosperous Indo-Paci c Region, in which the rights
of all states are respected” ("Foreign Policy White Paper", 2017).
In this White Paper, Australia has explicitly expressed its dismay
regarding the militarization of the South China Sea and vowed
to collaborate with countries that share the same belief to ensure
freedom of navigation. India is one of those countries which not only
subscribes to Australia’s perspective on the Indo-Paci c Region but
also explicitly discords with China’s infrastructure projects under
MSRI and BRI. India is another country that has moved ahead with
its rapid economic development, demanding its claim over the major
global power status. Other than the suspicion of being encircled by
China, the o cial argument to oppose BRI is twofold.  is project
nanced the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (C-PEC), which
India regards as an interference on its sovereignty as it goes through
Pakistan controlled Kashmir region (which New Delhi claims as
an integral part of India). Subsequently, C-PEC gives Beijing the
much needed access to the Indian Ocean, which India regards as her
backyard and where Beijing is perceived as an outsider. Additionally,
from the Indian perspective, BRI does not have “universally
recognized international norms, good governance, [the] rule of law,
openness, transparency and equality” (Chellaney, 2018).  erefore,
90 | Security and Economic Challenges in the Indo-Paci c
in December 2012, Tokyo began to preach for westward expansion
of the previous construction of the Asia-Paci c” and replace “Asia
with “Indo”. In turn, that would bring another rising Asian power,
India, into play, which has several strategic concerns and stakes
in common with the US, Japan and Australia. For New Delhi,
‘Security and Growth for All in the Region’ (SAGAR) became the
guiding principle as it renders not only the strategic philosophy
for safeguarding India’s territorial integrity but also for deepening
economic cooperation in using maritime space. e adoption of
SAGAR means, for Indian policymakers, India’s economic rise
will increasingly be attributed to the safeguarding of the Sea Line
of Communication (SLOC) in the Indo-Paci c Region. Hence,
the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, believes for India, the
freedom of navigation and the adherence to international norms
are ‘essential for peace and economic growth in the … inter-linked
marine geography of the Indo-Paci c’ (Ministry of External A airs,
India, 2017). e persistence on establishing a “rule-based order”
in the Indo-Paci c, speci cally in its maritime space, by these four
nations vis-à-vis China means the small and medium powers of this
region have to nd a response to this emerging rivalry within the
Asian geo-strategic architecture.
Challenges and Coping Strategy of Bangladesh
Following the intensi ed great power competition in the Indo-
Paci c Region, the Bay of Bengal and its South Asian littorals are
gaining rapid economic and strategic importance. e Bay not only
connects the Paci c and Indian Oceans, but its recent impressive
economic performance makes it a bridge among the East, Southeast
and South Asia. Bangladesh with its colonial past, ridden with
extreme economic poverty, has been a part of this recent regional
economic success as it set out to graduate from a Least Developed
Country (LDC) to Middle Income Country by 2024. Rapid growth
in the manufacturing sector, coupled with massive infrastructural
development drive, has aided the country’s economic boom as
RAHMAN : Changing Balance of Power... | 91
the annual GDP growth rate has been no less than 6 percent for
the last decade. ADB forecasted for the nancial year of 2019-20,
Bangladesh’s GDP growth rate will be 8 percent, highest in the
Asia-Paci c Region (Asian Development Bank, 2019). Ready-made
Garments (RMG) sector has been playing a pivotal role in this
development as this sector alone accounted for about 4.5 million jobs
and nearly 80% of Bangladesh's total commodity exports in 2018
(Robinson, 2018). However, to sustain this growth and to move up
the industrial value chain, Dhaka is in critical need of a huge amount
of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) to diversify its export basket as
well as infrastructural development. For this reason, any great power
competition or any further intensi cation of rivalry among the global
and regional players in the Indo-Paci c Region will have grave impact
on the development of Bangladesh. SLOC in the Bay of Bengal and
the broader Indo-Paci c maritime space is increasingly playing a
critical role in the strategic thinking of Bangladeshi policymakers.
Approximately, 82 percent of the country’s global trade is taking
place along these sea lanes, which includes export of readymade
garments and import of raw materials as well as crude oil and
Lique ed Natural Gas (LNG) that fuel the growing manufacturing
sector of Bangladesh (Karim, 2018).  erefore, any con ict among
the regional or global players along these sea lanes in the Indo-
Paci c Region may severely undermine not only the countrys plan
to be a developed nation by 2041 but its security itself.
To navigate through troubled water of this Indo-Paci c,
Bangladesh’s foreign policy behavior can best be understood and
explained as a strategic hedging, which has been the coping strategy
for many other South Asian and Southeast Asian nations as well.
Hedging came into prominence in the post-Cold War period when
international relations theorists felt the inadequacy of mainstream
theoretical tools to understand and explain foreign policy behaviors
of small and middle powers in a highly volatile and uncertain
international environment, in particular in the backdrop of a rising
power - China. As unipolar moment of the US gave away for a  uid
92 | Security and Economic Challenges in the Indo-Paci c
multipolar structure, smaller or second-tier powers increasingly started
to behave in such a way that could no longer be termed either as
‘balancing’ or ‘bandwagoning’, rather their behavior demonstrated a
mixed approach vis-à-vis great powers, de ned as hedging. Instead
of picking a clear side to tackle an identi ed threat or bandwagon,
states are more inclined to minimizing risks in a capricious strategic
environment (Ross, 2006; Chan, 2012; Jackson, 2014; Kuik, 2016).
While for a state to adopt balancing as a response strategy always
requires a perception of threat from adversary(ies), “…hedging, on the
other hand, involves positioning against the possible emergence of a
threat in the future” (Haacke, 2019). Subsequently, this anticipation
of emergence of a possible threat in the future can emanate from an
uncertain strategic environment. Looming great power competition
centering the Indo-Paci c Region has been perceived as one of such
unstable milieus by Bangladesh and many other South Asian nations.
Hedging, as a response strategy to that possible emergence of threat in
the future, includes useful measures as “military strengthening (defense
spending and qualitative improvements) without a declared adversary,
increasing participation in voluntary (as opposed to rules-based)
bilateral and multilateral cooperation, absenting from rm balancing
and bandwagoning, and improving simultaneous equidistant relations
with the two greatest regional powers” (Jackson, 2014).
Consequently, Bangladesh manifests a clear intent to maintain
equidistance from this great power rivalry and also there is an absence
of any intent either to balance or bandwagon. Dhaka’s response to
this great power competition is based on the foreign policy tradition
of neutrality of Bangladesh as Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina put it,
"Our foreign policy is very clear: friendly relations with everyone …
what China and U.S. are doing, it is between them" (Robinson, 2018).
Like Bangladesh, so far most of the small states of the South Asian
region have successfully maintained reasonable distance from the big
players’ balancing game. However, maintaining mere equidistance in
the absence of a clear adversary might not be enough for these small
and middle powers in South Asia. Rather, “military modernization”
RAHMAN : Changing Balance of Power... | 93
and “voluntary participation in bilateral and multilateral frameworks”
will be critical as components of a hedging strategy for many South
Asian nations.
Military modernization has to be understood in the backdrop of
two major successes in the recent diplomatic history for Bangladesh
where peaceful resolution of the maritime delimitation dispute with
neighboring Myanmar and India was achieved in 2014 and the Land
Boundary Agreement with India was reached in 2015. erefore, with
no apparent adversary at sight, the modernization drive of armed
forces that Bangladesh started in 2009 by adopting “Forces Goal
2030” can be construed as a component of the countrys hedging
strategy. e primary rationale is to build a “three dimensional force
capable of conducting multi-platform warfare” to secure its maritime
space and resources in the Bay of Bengal, which is receiving growing
attention in tandem with Bangladesh’s dynamic industrial and
energy sector (Mushtaq, 2018). is growing impetus on defense
modernization has been re ected in the budgetary allocation for
defense and the modernization of the armed forces. While in 2009-
10  scal year, US$ 1888 million was allocated as the defense budget,
within 9 years the defense sector received more than the double of
that amount as it became US$ 3822 million in 2017-18 (Economics,
2019).  is sharp increase in the recent defense spending has been
re ected in the changed military strength ranking as Bangladesh
jumped to 45 in 2019 from 57 in 2018 (Firepower, 2019). e military
spending program has not been only limited to merely raising army
units, establishing aviation wing for the navy, building military or
naval bases, rather there has been an upward trend to purchase newer
weapon systems, ghter and training aircrafts, frigates, corvettes,
unmanned aircraft, self-propelled artillery, submarines and radar
systems. Among these purchases, two refurbished Ming-class type
035B diesel electric submarines at the cost of US$ 203 million from
China would be the most prized acquisition for the Bangladesh
Navy (Mushtaq, 2018). ese submarines came as pieces of a bigger
94 | Security and Economic Challenges in the Indo-Paci c
modernization plan to build a three-dimensional navy through which
Bangladesh can safeguard its key maritime interests; nonetheless,
the possibility of a stronger Chinese footprint in the Bay of Bengal
has created “strategic anxiety in New Delhi (Miller, 2014). is
“anxiety” among the Indian strategists also stems from the strong
defense cooperation that Beijing and Dhaka enjoy since the 1980s
which did not change in 44 years of their diplomatic relationship.
Rather, in 2002, the two countries signed a defense cooperation
agreement ( rst of its kind for Bangladesh) and in 2016 under the
incumbent Awami League government, two countries decided to
elevate their bilateral relation from ‘closer comprehensive partnership
of cooperation’ to ‘strategic partnership of cooperation’ (New Age,
2016). During Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Bangladesh in
2016, Beijing extended to Dhaka a line of credit worth US$ 24.45
billion in bilateral assistance for some 25 infrastructure projects, in
addition to a pre-existing US$ 13.6 billion Chinese investment for
joint ventures, totalling the pledged amount to US$ 38.05 billion in
Chinese assistance (Paul & Blanchard, 2016). However, when China
expressed great interest in building a deep sea port at Sonadia, an
island near Cox’s Bazar, a concern was expressed by India, Japan and
the US that this deep sea port might give stronger control of the Bay
of Bengal to Beijing. Later in 2016, the whole project was canceled
and instead two new deep-sea projects came to the forefront, one
in Matarbari (25 km away from Sonadia in Cox’s Bazar District)
and another in Payra. Japan was given the contract to build the
Matarbari deep sea port, along with a coal-based power plant and
LNG terminal, while Payra deep sea port, which includes an LNG
terminal, an oil re nery, a coal terminal for a coal-based power station
and a container terminal, is to be built by a consortium of countries,
including China, India and Japan under public-private partnership
(PPP) framework.  is deep sea port is a stark example of how well
Bangladesh has averted a budding rivalry in infrastructural projects
and maintained equidistance by bringing in all the major competing
powers to build its deep sea ports.
RAHMAN : Changing Balance of Power... | 95
Since the 1980s, Bangladesh has a strong defense tie with China
as its armed forces is largely equipped with the Chinese military
hardware, making the country as the second largest buyer of the
Chinese armaments, accounting for 19 percent of the total Chinese
defense export. Consequently, from 2013 to 2017, China remained
the biggest arms supplier with 71 percent, while Russia grabbed the
second position with 16 percent of total arms import for Bangladesh
(Pubby, 2018). However, following the Chinese footsteps in the recent
years, a trend of increased interest among the major powers for defense
cooperation with Bangladesh can be visible. Consequently, Bangladesh
has also slowly started to diversify its sources of military hardware
with notable purchases from the US, Europe and most recently from
India. For example, following Chinese President Xi’s visit to Dhaka in
October 2016, an Indian envoy headed by the Indian Defense Minister,
Manohar Parrikar, visited Bangladesh in November 2016 during which
the idea of deeper defense cooperation between the two countries was
discussed in the form of joint trainings and exercises between the
armed forces and a line of credit for US$ 500 million was o ered by
India to purchase the Indian military armaments (Rashid, 2018). As a
result, in April 2017, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s visit
to New Delhi resulted in a defense MoU signed for US$ 500 million
in loan for buying military equipment. As a part of growing Indo-
Bangladesh defense cooperation, another MoU was signed in October
2019 during the visit of Bangladesh’s Prime Minister to New Delhi to
establish coastal surveillance radar system in Bangladesh (Chaudhury,
2019). Like India, recently the US has joined the potential weapon
sellers’ club for Bangladesh as the US State Department proposed
to buy the American weapons for Bangladesh armed forces during
the visit of Foreign Minister A K Abdul Momen to Washington in
early 2019 (BDnews24.com, 2019).  is o er can be linked to the
US’s “Buy American” plan to drum up oversees arms trade for the US
weapon industry which was a part of President Donald Trump’s one
of the major 2016 election campaign promises to reduce the US trade
de cit and create more jobs for the American people. On the other
96 | Security and Economic Challenges in the Indo-Paci c
hand, while the US was criticized for showing little commitment in
terms of  nancing the Indo-Paci c Region, in June 2019, the Trump
Administration sought US$ 30 million from the US congress under
its Bay of Bengal security initiative that aims to upgrade maritime
and border security capacity of Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Maldives
through foreign military  nancing (Standard, 2019). However, it is yet
to be clari ed whether the recipient countries have agreed to accept
this fund or the modalities of its implementation. e latest example of
Washington’s interest to deepen its defense cooperation with Dhaka is
evident from the fact that the two countries are currently in negotiation
to sign the General Security of Military Information Agreement
(GSOMIA) and the Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement
(ACSA). ese two deals will enable them to forge a stronger
defense relationship by “expanding opportunities for defense trade,
information sharing, and military-to-military cooperation” (Hasib,
2019). As a hedging strategy, it is not surprising to see Bangladesh
forging defense cooperation with multiple power centers in line with
its quest for military modernization. As the center of gravity started to
shift towards the Indo-Paci c Region, defense cooperation will likely
to be more scrutinized in the coming days.  erefore, it will be more
challenging not only for Bangladesh but many other South Asian
nations to continuously maintain equidistance with the major powers.
However, as part of its hedging strategy, Bangladesh has been
showing keen interest to participate in di erent multilateral forums
related to connectivity, regional integration, energy cooperation,
economic development, non-traditional security cooperation, disaster
management and so forth. Participation in multilateral initiatives, such
as BRI, BBIN-EC, BIMSTEC and IORA has enabled Bangladesh to
tap into the much-needed FDI, energy and  nance for infrastructural
development as well as access to regional integration and cooperation
process that Bangladesh needs to sustain its rapid economic growth.
Moreover, these initiatives give Dhaka the space for diplomatic
maneuvers to navigate through an increasingly intensi ed strategic
environment that is emerging in the Indo-Paci c Region.
RAHMAN : Changing Balance of Power... | 97
Nonetheless, in this great power competition, Bangladesh tried
to maintain a delicate balance and consciously avoided any situation
which can be portrayed as taking sides.  e Constitution provides
guidelines for maintaining external relations in Article 25 which
serve as the central plank of the foreign policy of Bangladesh. For
example, Article 25 underlines the importance of promotion of
international peace by non-interference in the internal matters of
the other countries and peaceful settlement of security disputes
by upholding international laws and principles enunciated in the
United Nations Charter. In 1971, Bangladesh’s birth as a small
independent nation within a bipolar system dictated Dhaka to
enshrine neutrality in the constitution to maintain equidistance in
the great power competition. However, during the military regimes
of the late 1970s and 1980s, Dhaka’s foreign policy aligned more
with Washington and Beijing rather than Moscow. e recti cation
of the course of foreign policy took place in the post-1990 period
in conjunction with Bangladesh’s increased participation in the
United Nations Peacekeeping Operations. Consequently, under
the unipolar structure, Dhaka increased diplomatic engagement in
the regional and global forums in favour of upholding international
law as was originally mandated in the Constitution. Since then,
the Bangladeshi policymakers opine that multilateralism and
preservation of international norms is critical to the sovereignty and
security of a small state like Bangladesh. However, multilateralism
will be increasingly marked as a tool of the hedging strategy in the
Indo-Paci c Region as it has been the case for Bangladesh and many
other South Asian nations.
Conclusion
e ‘Asian Century’ or the shift of the strategic center of gravity
towards the Indo-Paci c has brought challenges and opportunities
alike for the countries in the region. A complex web of security
relationships is emerging out of the great power competition for
dominance over forging new alliances, defense or mega infrastructure
98 | Security and Economic Challenges in the Indo-Paci c
deals and shaping norms for this region. Will the catastrophic
precedence of the power transition be repeated in the case of the
US-China rivalry? How will the other big powers such as India,
Japan and Australia play this out in a multipolar system? While it is
essential to nd answers to these questions to predict the future of
this region, it might as well largely undermine the role that small and
medium powers are to play in this emerging geo-strategic gamut of
the Indo-Paci c Region. Unlike the Cold War period, conventional
power balancing or bandwagoning behavior has been taken over by
hedging, at least in the case of small states like Bangladesh, when it
comes to military modernization with no apparent threat but in the
context of a looming uncertain strategic environment and increased
multilateral engagement with multiple and often overlapping
connectivity and development initiatives, thereby maintaining
equidistance in infrastructural nance or defense cooperation.
How the globalization process and unprecedented economic
interdependence is going to shape the fate of this region can be a
subject of interest for future research.
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