Half a century is not an inconsiderable span of time in the life of a post-colonial successor state. Bangladesh, at 50, has risen like a phoenix, from the ashes, to post impressive gains in all recognizable socioeconomic indicators. The inherent resilience of the people of the land has manifested in burgeoning trade and a dynamic economy. The world belatedly has started to take notice of the coming of age saga of this deltaic region of the Indian sub-continent. Justifiably, as individual citizens, and collectively as a nation, we have a lot to be proud about.
An inherent testament to the economic vigour of the country is the RMG driven tensile export competitiveness and the upward tick in expat remittance from overseas and the maturing of the large domestic market. All this, in spite of the global slowdown due to the onset of the COVID pandemic. Commendable indeed is the unyielding attitude of the people of the country, who refuse to throw in the towel, no matter how daunting the challenges are.
Yet, it would be naïve not to recognize the perilous times that we live in. The chaos and carnage of COVID-19 has threatened to undermine the cumulative hard earned gains of the past five decades, with its heavy toll on lives and livelihood. The pandemic has unearthed the brittle foundation of the ‘Cult of Growth’ in emerging economies and exposed the subterranean fault lines that threaten to unravel the flimsy glue that hold our society together.
Nations around the world are reeling from the unstoppable and ever mutating surge of corona and unfashionable terms such as global economic downturn; K shaped recovery; herd immunity and vaccine nationalism have almost attained popular culture status. The pandemic has been likened to past iterations like the Justinian Plague, Black Death and the Spanish Influenza in its wide ranging pernicious scope of devastation.
Running deficit budget, providing subsidy to hard pressed industries and widening social security net are temporary measures even in the best of times. For a country like Bangladesh, which is constrained by limited resources and inadequate physical and social infrastructure, the longer the duration of the pandemic, greater would be the hardship heaped on the lower and middle income groups. Loss or reduction in income has not only relegated greater numbers of people below the poverty line, but has severely limited upward mobility for the aspiring classes. COVID has exposed the limits of growth and raised fundamental questions about how societies are run and more importantly brought about much needed introspection about how societies ought to be run.
Age of flux
The sense of uncertainty has been heightened by the ever expanding global and regional struggle for dominance. The United States of America is fighting for dear life to stave off the challenge for the ‘Numero Uno’ slot posed by the inexorable rise of China. The world is witnessing an age of transition, where USA’s preeminence is no longer a given nor is China’s rise an accomplished fact. Then there is Russia, looming large across Eurasia, a potent force of geography, biding its time to reassert its centrality in global affairs. European Union, post Brexit and the global economic downturn, shows ever increasing signs of fission and fragmentation, in the post Merkel era.
The Gulf States, too, look towards an uncertain future as they come to terms with a post oil mode of growth, (bereft of cheap migrant labour) and address rising demands for greater political representation of its citizens and growing concern with uneven wealth distribution and issues of infighting and contested succession. The long running undeclared war between Iran and Israel routinely threatens to turn a volatile, Sykes-Picot construct of the Middle East into a raging inferno. Turkey, straddling across Europe and Asia, continues its attempt to project its influence and reach across and beyond former Ottoman era lands.
India, which had proudly upheld a long cherished tradition of respect and tolerance for multiplicity of thoughts, religions, creeds, vigorous debates and philosophical thinking has seen a corporate driven, turbo charged, saffron majoritarian takeover. Old neo liberal certainties of free trade and globalization and multilateral cooperation are increasingly found to be inadequate in this age where the rules of playing the game have irrevocably changed. In this changed climate of growing uncertainty, Bangladesh which has close trade, business and investment related ties with most of these countries, may be adversely affected.
War by other means
The ongoing Sino American rivalry has resulted in Currency War; Trade War; TechWar; Vaccine War; Supply Chain War (semiconductors, rare-earth minerals);Infrastructural Investment War; 5G War; Information War and the incipient Space War. In fact, we are witnessing every facet of war, save conventional war, between nuclear powered adversaries. Weaponization of human rights, political rights, minority rights, regional secessionism, climate change and global warming, continue apace. Africa is witnessing a renewed race for its resources and markets between China and the West. Wary of acts of subversion and terrorist attacks on Infrastructural installations, the Middle Kingdom is reportedly turning to Chinese private military companies to provide greater security and protection in countries, with elevated risks such as Kyrgyzstan, Cambodia and Myanmar. It is following the example of the Americans and Russians, in employing private security providers, to protect its strategic investment assets across the New Silk Route.
Closer to home, the ubiquitous cyclical Indo-Pak stepsibling rivalry has been subsumed by the specter of Indo-China struggle for supremacy in the South Asian theatre of operations. This has manifested itself in the form of border conflicts to forming mutually exclusive groupings, whether it be in the name of BRI investments, Indo-Pacific Strategy, China-South Asian Countries Emergency Supplies Reserve (for vaccines) or Poverty Alleviation and Cooperative Development Centre or E-Commerce Economic Cooperation . The battle for winning hearts and minds across South Asia is underway at breakneck speed.
Few nations are exempt from the stress and strain of these titanic struggles (whether regional or global) that threatens to engulf the entire world. Lines are being drawn in the sand and smaller nations like Bangladesh are caught in the cross hair of this New Cold War, with precious little room to navigate between the contending camps. In a world of Manichean divide, where “Us vs. Them” mentality predominates, a strategy of Equiproximity or Equidistance, though eminently advisable, may not be feasible in the long run.
Afghan arc of crisis
The recent withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan has served to highlight the growing regional security implications of a looming Taliban takeover of the battle scarred, war ravaged country. After spending $2 trillion over a period of two decades and losing over 2300 military personnel,(not to mention the loss of countless lives of innocent Afghans caught in the middle) the Americans have left the Kabul government of Ashraf Ghani, at the tender mercy of a resurgent triumphalist Taliban. Neighbours and near neighbours like Pakistan, Iran, China, Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are increasingly getting sucked in the ensuing power vacuum, in a futile bid to stabilize the eternally volatile region. Judging by the pragmatic switching of alliances of warlords and the desertion in droves of US trained Afghan National Army personnel and the abandoning of cache of weapons and bases in Northern Afghanistan, only a significant miracle will prevent the once reviled Taliban from wresting reins of National Government at Kabul.
Bangladesh must keep a wary eye that Afghan nationals engaged in transnational terrorism do not manage to land up in our shores and imperil national security
The reemergence of Al Qaeda and ISIS (not necessarily in alignment with Taliban) and the possible disintegration of the National Army would serve to potentially disrupt a wide swathe of area, including Pakistan (Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan) Iran (Sistan-e-Balochistan), India (Kashmir Valley), Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Russian Caucasus and Xinjiang region of China.
There is a risk of trained Afghan army personnel joining radical outfits or mercenary militias for either protection or employment and be used as pawns in proxy wars of ever increasing viciousness and violence. Look no farther than the recent assassination of the Haitian President Jovenel Moïse. Most of the mercenaries who were engaged in the assassination were ex Colombian soldiers; some of them had received training in the US during their stint with the Colombian army. Not only Afghanistan may turn into a net exporter of radicals and mercenaries, but it may turn into a hub for arms and drug trafficking in the neighborhood. Afghanistan, historically, has long served as a catalyst for spreading turbulence across South and Central Asia. Bangladesh must keep a wary eye that Afghan nationals engaged in transnational terrorism do not manage to land up in our shores and imperil national security.
On the Eastern flanks, there is the unresolved Rohingya crisis, with Myanmar being able to saddle Bangladesh with 1.1 million of its people in a pre-determined, cold blooded genocidal pogrom. Despite severe resource constraints and limited foreign assistance, the Bangladeshi government and the people have tried to provide sanctuary to these people out of humanitarian considerations. Yet, in spite of a wave of condemnation and symbolic chastisement, the Bamar, Buddhist majoritarian, Tatmadaw approved government of Aung San Suu Kyi, managed to get away relatively unscathed. Well not quite. In a bizarre Frankensteinian plot twist, the military Junta has seized power and is fighting a low intensity campaign to suppress pro-democracy activists and disparate ethnic groups fighting for regional autonomy or outright secession.
In the midst of the shock and dismay surrounding the putsch and the outbreak of COVID 19, Naypyidaw has reneged time and again with Dhaka, over repatriation of Rohingyas. With the global media attention fixated on the pandemic, the Junta believe that they can sweep this vexatious issue under the carpet. The Rakhine State has seen significant Chinese investments in setting up a Special Economic Zone deep water port at Kyaukphyu (to escape the Malacca Strait chokepoint) and Indian Investment in setting up the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project (connecting the eastern Indian seaport of Kolkata with Sittwe seaport in Rakhine State, Myanmar). This, to a certain extent, explains the reticence of both these countries to actively denounce the ethnic cleansing carried out on the Rohingyas.
The Americans, though quite vocal in condemning the Rohingya genocide are not in a position to exert considerable pressure to bring the recalcitrant generals to heel. Plus, American led western intervention in a country, which forms the epicenter of CMEC (China-Myanmar Economic Corridor) would draw a very swift retaliation from China. Russia is tied up by its long standing diplomatic and military relations with Myanmar. It is the second largest supplier of arms to Myanmar (after China) and a large number of Myanmar’s army officers receive training in Russian military academies. ASEAN, would not push fellow member, Myanmar, too hard on the Rohingya issue.
In a changing clime of angst, volatility, unpredictability and heightened danger, one needs to have an appreciation of the potential sources of shocks and formulate ways and means to effectively deal with it. An old Latin proverb best encapsulates this line of thinking, Praemonitus, Praemunitus-' forewarned is forearmed'
Despite this forbidding climate, Bangladesh has tried hard to pursue international forums and multilateral platforms, to highlight the plight of the Rohingyas and the need for their peaceful repatriation, though, frank, constructive dialogue. However, this has largely fallen on deaf ears at Naypyidaw. What has further exacerbated the crisis is the demographic composition of the forcibly evicted Rohingyas. A large portion are comprised of young children, who over time may be susceptible to radicalization, borne out of the memory of oppression and persecution. This in turn would have serious security implications for the entire South and South East Asian regions and fuel subterranean centrifugal tendencies. Not to mention, the added burden of hosting over a million refugees, over a period of time, is akin to being subjected to a vicious economic warfare.
There is also the remote, but not farfetched probability of the Junta, ratcheting up border tensions, with Bangladesh, to deflect attention from ongoing political instability and domestic COVID devastation. Robust military preparedness must be always in place, to discourage any kind of misadventure, from our truculent neighbour. If necessary, there may be a need to change tack. If negotiation and intermediation continue to yield meagre results, we may have to embrace our Historical Imperative. Bengal, or more specifically Ilyas Shahi and Hussain Shahi rulers, and formidable Mughal governors like Shaista Khan have long acted as kingmakers in erstwhile Arakan (precursor to Rakhine State). Arakan has historically been within Bengal’s sphere of influence, longer than it has been under that of the Bamar heartland. Myanmar’s myopic intransigence may well pave the way for a repetition of history.
The aim of the article is neither to create alarum nor tilt at windmills like Cervantes’s eccentric Don Quixote, who saw imaginary giants and monsters at every turn. In a changing clime of angst, volatility, unpredictability and heightened danger, one needs to have an appreciation of the potential sources of shocks and formulate ways and means to effectively deal with it. An old Latin proverb best encapsulates this line of thinking, Praemonitus, Praemunitus-' forewarned is forearmed'. If one knows about a problem in advance, one would be better able to address it. Bangladesh, needs both foreknowledge and foresight in order to transit through times of trouble.
Parvez Karim Abbasi is a Geo-economics and Geo-politics Specialist, with an avid interest in History. He is currently Assistant Professor at the Department of Economics of East West University, Dhaka, Bangladesh.
This article was originally published on Prothom Alo.(English) Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.