40 years of Bangladesh Foreign Policy: Successes, Misjudgments and Challenges




 This year, we observe 40 years of our independence and it is appropriate to look briefly into the foreign policy of Bangladesh. Foreign policy is an extension of domestic or national policy. Foreign policy and domestic policy are the two sides of the same coin. Foreign policy implements domestic policy.

Like domestic policy, foreign policy is not formulated in a vacuum but is based on certain ingredients such as, history, geography, religion, culture and natural resources. The ingredients are not changeable.

Being endowed with a small land territory compared to a huge population of the country, foreign policy needs to be devised on an objective assessment of Bangladesh’s strength and weakness as well as of national aspirations.

Domestic policy stands on two pillars: security and development. Security means not only territorial security but security of energy, food, water, environment and persons. Development means not merely economic growth but socio-economic development of people with a minimum of standard of decent life.
Foreign policy is a tool to implement the above stated goals of domestic policy and during the last forty years, Bangladesh foreign policy has gone through successes, misjudgments and in future will face challenges, some of which deserve mention below:


During the period, Bangladesh was confronted with largely four foreign policy issues:
•    Repatriation of Bengali civilian     and military officials, held up in Pakistan in camps, to Bangladesh
•    Recognition from foreign states
•    Admission into the UN and
•    Trial of the 195 Pakistani military prisoners of war, alleged to have committed genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes on Bengali population.
Except the trial of Pakistani military officials, Bangladesh had been successful in achieving the goals. With the admission of Bangladesh into the UN in September 1974, Bangladesh was fully integrated into the international community.

To expand relationship with other countries including Islamic nations, Sheikh Mujib’s visit to Washington, his attendance to the Non-Aligned Conference in September 1973 in Algiers and his participation in the Islamic conference in Lahore (Pakistan) in March 1974 was pragmatic and successful.
With the change of government in August 1975 after the tragic assassination of Sheikh Mujib, Saudi Arabia and China recognized Bangladesh. The emphasis of foreign policy was shifted from Indo-Soviet alliance to China and Islamic countries.

Bangladesh secured a seat in the Security Council in 1978, defeating Japan thus reflecting a positive image in the international community.
President Zia is to be credited to the founding of SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation). The SAARC had a long gestation period and finally it came into existence in 1985 at the Dhaka Summit.

President Ershad who came into power in March 1982 sought to reset in some ways working relations with India.  His government continued to strengthen relations with all powers, especially with the US, China, Japan and Islamic countries. The relationship towards Russia remained rather lukewarm.

During the Ershad regime Bangladesh became the President of the UN General Assembly.  President Ershad is credited for sending troops to the UN peacekeeping missions in 1988 and it is being continued with enhanced number of troops of more than 10,000 in 10 countries at present and the country has attained a good standing in the comity of nations.
After 1991, Prime Khaleda Zia strengthened Bangladesh’s overall relations with all the powers except India. The economic deregulation commenced during her regime brought foreign investment in Bangladesh.

In 1996 the Awami League returned to power and had maintained good relations with India. For example, the 30-year Ganges Water Treaty was concluded  with India in 1996

and with cooperation with India, the Peace Agreement with Tribal Representatives on Chittagong Hill Tracts was signed in 1997. On international stage, Bangladesh for the second time was elected in 1999 for a two-year period at the UN Security Council.

The visit of Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to India in January 2010 has led to a new vista of cooperation with India and to the opening of regional interconnectivity with India, Nepal, and Bhutan. It also led to the mechanisms to resolve some of the outstanding bilateral issues with India.

Her visit to China and South Korea brought some tangible political and economic results. China in principle agreed road connectivity from Chittagong to Kunming through Myanmar.

Bangladesh has been able to project its vulnerability due to global climate change at international and regional forums through active participation and diplomatic lobbying. In May 2011, Bangladesh has been elected co-chair with Sweden in one of the working streams of the proposed Green Climate Fund (GCF) under UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).


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

However many argue, his goal was nipped in the bud because of the conclusion of the 1972 Indo-Bangladesh Friendship Treaty for 25 years. 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.

During the period, the handing over to India of the 195 Pakistan senior military officers who were accused of international crimes together with other Pakistani prisoners of war is perceived to be a misjudgment as Bangladesh lost its territorial jurisdiction over the accused persons and did not have any leverage in negotiations with Pakistan or with India on the issue of trial. Eventually the accused persons were repatriated to Pakistan from India after Bangladesh granted “clemency” in 1974.

Bangladesh expelled many Russian diplomats for their “undiplomatic activities” during President Zia’s time. The Soviet Union which helped diplomatically in the birth of Bangladesh and came to assistance to rehabilitate the country felt betrayed as Bangladesh was closer to the US which opposed the independence of Bangladesh. The action was perceived as diplomatic indiscretion toward Russia.

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).
In September 2004, the then Bangladesh Foreign Minister under the BNP regime, at a public workshop organized 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 in public were perceived as diplomatic faux pas and this episode brought bilateral relations to their rock-bottom.


The direction of foreign policy aims at maximizing national human and natural endowments in pursuing cooperative policies with countries in the region and beyond and   to follow Lord Palmerston’s doctrine that there are no permanent enemies or eternal allies and what is permanent is national interests
Some of the challenging issues may be primarily grouped under three broad categories: Security Issues, Economic Issues and Social Issues.

National security encompasses not only the security of territorial integrity but also the well being of people. Internal chaos and instability are threats to security.
On economic front, foreign policy is to be geared to enhance trade, promote investment, and increase migration of people to other countries and economic diplomacy is to be vigorously pursued to attain the goals.

Bangladesh has a rich, diverse culture which is to be utilized as a cultural diplomacy for the ultimate intention of promoting Bangladesh’s standing on an international stage. The result will be in building better economic or political connections with other countries.

One of the most important challenges is to protect the country from the adverse effect of global warming. Presently, the country simply does not have the resources or will even acquire them in the near future, to take on effectively massive work for adaptation or mitigation of the adverse effects unless foreign funds of about $2 billion per year are available to Bangladesh.

The African continent with 54 countries has not been active in the radar –screen of foreign policy for a long time although Bangladesh UN peacekeeping missions have created very good name and image for the country in African nations.   Many Bangladesh diplomatic missions which were opened in the 70s & 80s in Africa have been closed, such as, in Algeria, Senegal, Nigeria and Zimbabwe..

Furthermore, Bangladesh needs to engage with countries of Latin and Central Americas. The diplomatic missions of Bangladesh opened in the 70s in Brazil and Argentina have been closed years ago.


The goals of foreign policy for short and long- term need to be formulated and they require regular monitoring and assessment, given the changing pattern of regional and global political and economic environment.  A full fledged Research Division within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs may be entrusted with the task.
Many observers find that the confrontational nature of domestic politics has hindered bipartisan agreement on core foreign policy issues and led to the absence of continuity of direction of foreign policy. This is one of the major stumbling blocks in implementation of pro-active 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 South East Asia.

In the light of the above background, many foreign policy experts in the country say that Bangladesh has no ‘foreign policy’ but only ‘foreign relations’ which respond only to external situations as they arise.

 July 16, 2011


About Ehsan Abdullah

An aware citizen..
This entry was posted in ACHIEVEMENTS - SUCCESS, BANGABANDHU - Father of our Nation, CHALLENGES, FOREIGN RELATIONS & POLICY, HISTORY OF BENGAL, Regional Policy. Bookmark the permalink.

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