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Speech by Mr. A. H. Mahmood Ali, MP Hon’ble Foreign Minister of Bangladesh on Bangladesh Foreign Policy at the National Defence College Mirpur, Dhaka

Commandant of the National Defence College
Participants of the NDC and AFWC Course
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Assalamu alaikum, Adab and Good morning!
I was last at this Course at the NDC, in May, 2014.
Since then, and indeed in the recent times, profound geo-political changes have taken place. Some of the changes in the recent decades have been ‘transformational’, as we reflect on global history.
State, its ‘functioning’ and ‘delivery’ by the State system - are undergoing significant changes. Focus is more at ‘Individuals’ than the States, unlike the Westphalian State structure: many of the long-held State domains are no longer as it used to be. Even in unitary States like Bangladesh, much more space is ceded to sub-national levels. At the same time, the way we understand, approach and administer ‘border’, is quietly undergoing change.
At another level, ‘nature’ of power and ‘balance’ of power are changing. The long-standing ‘balance’ in global inter-governmental architecture is on roll. We thought, in over a decade, an organic and nebulous multi-polar world order would replace the long-known ‘bipolar’ one. But, following the 2016 US election, and last few weeks’ developments in Washington, strategic analysts now increasingly apprehend about possible absence of a “balancer” in a multi-polar politico-economic world. That surely would lead us to a far more tumultuous time.
Clearly, we are compelled to re-look at conventional knowledge and approach in state-craft, political science and strategic discourse. We see new alliances forged that we hardly conceived of. For instance, a State is tying up or engaging with another State not wholesale on all sectors as used to be the case till recently. It is already evident in case of so many countries in the Asia-Pacific region. It is almost like not putting all eggs in one basket! And, this is making it most often difficult to understand, predict and project a given State’s response or engagements at international levels.
In the contemporary world, a State’s foreign policy engagements and securing its sustainable future is increasingly inter-twined. So many competing factors and actors govern that.
On the one hand, conventional military powers and alliances continue to significantly dominate global security and foreign policy agenda. On the other, ‘soft power tools’, like global norms, standards and practices on democracy – freedom – justice – governance – human rights influence development of a country’s foreign policy engagements. For instance: control over strategic waterways or high seas to protect trade, navigation and energy interests increasingly dominate inter-state relations and negotiations.
Unlike any time before, a range of non-State actors influence foreign policy discourse of the States. Bangladesh is indeed no exception. Multilateral organizations like the entire UN System, International Financial Institutions (IMF, World Bank), global and local NGOs, civil society organizations, conventional and new media have substantial bearing on a State’s foreign policy discourse and standing abroad. Negotiating platforms like G77, BRICS, G20, LDCs or the Plurilateral formations in the multilateral negotiations influence global trade, development finance or climate change influence policy approach of most States. These are far more accentuated by sharp rise of Regional Organsiations and Regional Economic Communities, especially across the developing world. Last but not the least: existing and new drivers of globalization and a State’s own economic, food, trade - energy - water security - all lend profound influence on the foreign policy vision for a sustainable future. We cannot be remiss of the fact that modes of wealth creation as also the means of their distribution have changed. So have development paradigm and development cooperation.
The writing on the wall is clear enough: so many things that we took or knew as ‘given’, are not so. And, are unlikely to remain so!
Ladies and gentlemen,
In such a complex and often unpredictable scenario, how do we articulate Bangladesh’s Foreign Policy?
Bangladesh is mindful of the complexities and the enormous resource, demographic and environmental challenges that we face. Bangladesh and the present Government led by Bangabandhu’s daughter and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, has set for Bangladesh an aspirational foreign policy vision:
“To be recognized as a regionally and globally influential Middle Income Country, with a democratic, secular and inclusive identity, contributing to global peace, progress and prosperity.”
Yet, I must underline that our Foreign Policy derives its philosophical orientation from the epochal pronouncement of our Father of the Nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, when he said: “Friendship to all and malice towards none”. The same shapes our approach to ‘national security’. As cryptic as it may appear, it dictates that, as a State, Bangladesh never intends to wage war or, go into war without convincing reason; and pursues a ‘peace and non-alignment centric’ foreign policy towards all countries globally.
Bangladesh Foreign Policy is also grounded firmly in two fundamentals of our Republic that has its rudiments in our War of Liberation.
The first fundamental lies deeply rooted in the Proclamation of our Independence on 10 April 1971 that clearly delineates our international obligations, “commitment of the new State to the Charter of the United Nations” and that ...“we may make our full contribution to international peace and cooperation in keeping with progressive aspirations of mankind”. It also lays down the fundamentals of our value-based foreign policy – where Bangladesh stands for promotion - protection – advancement of democracy, human rights, pluralism, secularism, nationalism and social justice in Bangladesh and elsewhere.
The second fundamental is enunciated in Article 25(1) of Bangladesh Constitution that upholds that the State shall conduct its international relations based on the principles of peaceful settlement of international disputes, respect for international law and the UN Charter, and strive for social and economic emancipation of peoples.
Four and half decades on, these Foreign Policy fundamentals remain unchanged. Bangladesh Foreign Ministry strives to translate this Foreign Policy vision into reality with proactive diplomatic engagement bilaterally, regionally and multilaterally through 75 Bangladesh Missions abroad and indeed in close coordination with host of line Ministries and entities at home to effectively realise the domestic policies.
Upholding these foreign policy fundamentals in letter and spirit, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government has set some key foreign policy goals for the Republic encompassing our first and second tenure in office since 2009. These were first captured adequately in our Vision 2021 (that proclaimed our ambition to graduate Bangladesh as a MIC), and further expanded in our Vision 2041 (that charts pathway for Bangladesh’s emergence as a developed country), namely:
 Safeguard sovereignty and territorial integrity of Bangladesh;
 Project:
o Bangladesh as an open, inclusive, pluralistic society in respect of her ethnic – linguistic – religious – cultural identity and diversity;
o Bangladesh’s rich repertoire of intellectual – cultural – archaeological heritage;
o Bangladesh’s contemporary accomplishments in Development as also creativity – innovation – enterprise of people – many of which are being replicated elsewhere;
 Forge, maintain and enhance outreach and partnerships with responsible civil society and private sector in Bangladesh and beyond;
 Ensure balanced and good-neighbourly relations with all neighbouring countries in South and South-East Asia and beyond;
 Promote regional and sub-regional cooperation that should contribute to regional peace, stability, prosperity;
 Deepen intra and inter regional connectivity and regional economic integration in Regional Organisations and Regional Economic Communities;
 Uphold multilateralism through the United Nations; and engage as a pro-active voice in various normative – policy – programmatic platforms, bodies, positions within the United Nations System;
 Contribute to UN Peace-keeping and peace-building activities for maintenance of international peace and security;
 Maintain pro-active engagement and pursue partnerships with various regional groups, [including OIC, EU, ASEAN, African Union and remain proactive in OIC, NAM, Commonwealth, Asian Cooperation Dialogue, IORA, ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), Asia-Europe Forum (ASEM), CICA, etc.];
 Advance Bangladesh’s economic interests by:
o negotiating unimpeded entry of Bangladeshi manufactured goods and services in existing and emerging markets and global supply chains: bilaterally, regionally and globally;
o interfacing in global political – social – economic – financial – trade architecture so as to ensure that the global norms – standards – resource flows take into account the needs, interests, circumstances of Bangladesh within wider architecture;
o contributing to creation of enabling discourse and setting to secure enhanced inflow of resources, including private capital and development cooperation for sustainable development;
o ensuring migration and mobility of Bangladeshi workforce in global labour markets in safety and security, with dignity, with particular focus on the skilled and semi-skilled migrant workers as also female workers; correspondingly, explore markets and better terms of employment for Bangladesh; and promote well-being of expatriate Bangladeshi community;
o ensure Bangladesh’s long-term ‘resource security’ on competitive – secure – sustainable basis i.e. food security, energy security;
Ladies and gentlemen,
It has been three and half years that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is continuing in her second stint in Office. Building on her first term (2009-‘13), a key Foreign Policy priority has been to steadily situate Bangladesh at international settings as a responsive and responsible People and State.
This is surely manifest in her Vision 2041. In that enterprise, Sheikh Hasina has also aggressively rolled out an ambitious ‘Digital Bangladesh’ to transform Bangladesh into a knowledge-based society.
For a populous, youthful, climatically-challenged country as Bangladesh, we obviously face a unique set of challenges to address. And, then we need to calibrate our national policies – strategies – programmes in keeping with existing and emerging national, regional and international realities.
We also recognise that as an emerging Middle Income Country, Bangladesh is expected to face a new world – where we would assume new roles and responsibilities, likely to see many of the support measures either discontinued or in new avatar. And, given the fast-changing geo-economics around Bangladesh combined with Bangladesh’s geo-strategic location, Bangladesh would quite logically be thrust in regional or global platforms together with her MIC peers to engage in new discourses.
In such an evolving context, conduct of Bangladesh Foreign Policy - as an extension of our national security, economic growth and developmental aspirations – would need to be weighed in terms of certain key drivers that exists today as also that are quietly emerging.
If one is to synthesise so many events and actions by the Foreign Ministry, our Missions abroad and other stakeholders on Foreign Policy front, I would perhaps identify certain key drivers and strategies that are dominant in our foreign policy engagement.
First, deepening regional economic integration and multi-modal connectivity
Like any other country, we do see how best to position Bangladesh in relation to the countries and wider neighbourhood around us. Bangladesh’s geographic location grants us a distinct geo-strategic advantage; Looking at the wider map of Asia-Pacific region, keeping aside the vastly unpopulated Eurasian region, it is Bangladesh is the natural connect between contiguous South and South-East Asia and beyond. Our foreign policy is, therefore, conscious to project Bangladesh as a stable country, welcoming people and culture, open economy. And, we are keen to develop ourselves as a manufacturing – distribution – trans-shipment hub as much as for us as also for our neighbourhood.
In that order, Bangladesh continues to pursue regional cooperation as an engine for sustainable growth and economic integration for one-fifth of world population and global market. Be in SAARC, BIMSTEC, BBIN or SASEC, Bangladesh is vocal and proactive on regional trade – transport – energy connectivity, economic integration, freer trade, etc. in every possible form of partnership or, modality. For instance: we are steadfastly moving to implement various recommendations and develop the suggested road – rail – shipping – air gateways out of the SAARC Multimodal Transport Study. Same should hold true for the regional Energy where we are moving fast keeping to realise the SAARC Energy Trade Study. Our bilateral engagements with India and Nepal-Bhutan on power generation is to realise a Regional Grid and eventually an attractive and mutually beneficial Regional Energy Market. Obviously, this April’s Joint Statement issued in New Delhi following Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s visit bears much more in this regard.
Bangladesh is also actively pursuing regional and sub-regional multimodal connectivity within BIMSTEC. The reference point remains the BIMSTEC Transport, Infrastructure and Logistics Study (BTILS). We have now geared up on finalising the long-stalled BIMSTEC FTA on goods, and thereafter to move on free trade in services and investment. For obvious reasons, we are pushing on BIMSTEC energy inter-connection and cooperation. As the host of the BIMSTEC Secretariat, Dhaka is well-positioned to advance our objective aspirations on regional cooperation and integration.
In both SAARC and BIMSTEC, Bangladesh is working with friends to collectively pursue a cooperative regional security agenda, specially in combating terrorism, radicalisation, trafficking and various transnational crimes.
Since 2013, Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar are engaged on development of an ambitious ‘Economic Corridor’ called BCIM–EC. This April, Bangladesh laid out the synthesis of the institutional framework of the Economic Corridor at the BCIM Joint Study Group Meeting in Kolkata. There are still some sensitivities, gaps in understanding and concerns over addressing the wide asymmetries among the partner countries. While it is likely to take some time for BCIM-EC to come to reality, it has much potential in connecting Kolkata to Kunming alongside connecting some more key nodes-ports-growth centres. In the process, a vast region hitherto under-developed and under-exposed is expected to benefit in numerous areas, and thereby complement works under other regional cooperative platforms.
Second, sharing opportunities for shared prosperity: focus immediate neighbours (India, Myanmar)
India naturally occupies a deserving space in our Foreign Policy – given our shared political, cultural, social, economic history over centuries. Today, Bangladesh’s relations with India is surely at its best in decades. I won’t hesitate to underline that there is considerable appreciation on both sides that an enduring relation and engagements between us has to be rooted in our people than the States; and it has to be based on mutual trust, mutual respect as also equitable sharing of benefits.
This is borne by the visible candour, level and intensity of conversation between the Indian and Bangladesh leadership these days. More importantly, there is a growing appreciation in India that by sharing her knowledge – resources – experience – expertise with Bangladesh and her people, a secured and prosperous Bangladesh next door can serve a superpower-cum-economic powerhouse as India the best. Yes, there are still areas like sharing common water resources where we look forward to India to travel some distance to share common resources as water equitably. Duty Free Quota Free market access for Bangladeshi products is another area. Yet, one would also recognise the progress that we could make in energy sector. We in Dhaka welcomed Prime Minister Modi’s words, when he said, “Bangladesh is ‘not merely a neighbour’ but a nation with which India shares ‘enduring links’. His pragmatic assurance that “Bangladesh-India ‘partnership can be a catalyst for regional integration, progress and prosperity and stability’, has drawn Dhaka and Delhi to engage in far more challenging areas like counter-terrorism, defense, intelligence sharing, etc. And then I suppose, that should speak of a maturing and evenly poised relationship between us.
We are also seized of strengthening our bilateral relations and increasing engagements with our other contiguous neighbour – Myanmar. Since 2009, Bangladesh is maintaining a proactive foreign policy focus to strengthen political confidence building and border and transnational security cooperation with Myanmar. Our Prime Minister visited Myanmar in 2011 and 2014. She also shares a personal relationship with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
Dhaka and Myanmar now has regular, direct air links. We are waiting for Myanmar’s concurrence to conclude an MoU on (annual) Security Dialogue, 24x7 border post and some other mutual confidence building measures. Bangladesh is actively pursuing multimodal connectivity with Myanmar bilaterally and regionally – both under BCIM-EC, BIMSTEC and under India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway connectivity. Once Myanmar engages with us and objectively addresses the issues and concerns, we see so much of economic potential to tap for mutual benefit. Obviously, we await Myanmar’s further engagement on resolving the protracted Rohingya refugee situation which involves around half a million Rohingya people staying in Bangladesh for years without any status. And, Hon. Prime Minister once categorically told the Myanmar leadership that beyond return of the Rohingya people from Bangladesh, equally important would be to grant them citizenship under their Constitution.
Third, balancing competing interests of our friends and partners and engagements in Bangladesh
As Bangladesh economy picks up, our middle and affluent class demands more goods and services and Indian and Chinese economy expands around us, we see a surging interest from our friends and partners to engage in Bangladesh across sectors on a number of strategic and development initiatives, projects. Over the past four years, our foreign policy is manifest in distinctly reaching out to all friends to join in our pursuit of attaining national development strategies and objectives. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s productive visits to Japan and China (2014), to the Arabian Gulf, to Europe – all were marked with a call for open engagement such that the partnership engagements would be in full trust and respect for each other and primarily meets Bangladesh’s needs and interests. By now, this surely is manifest in the menu of engagement by India, China, Japan, UK, US and so forth – across mega infrastructure, power and energy sector projects, etc. We have since closer ‘Comprehensive Partnership of Cooperation’ with Japan and China. This surely is also in sync with the long-professed fundamental on Bangladesh Foreign Policy.
Fourth, shared vision for democracy, inclusion, pluralism, governance, security, sustainable development
As much we appreciate our deeper engagement with partners on economic front, in the same vein we value our friends and partners, particularly in the West and EU, on nurturing, promoting and realising the universal societal and political norms and values. Again, based on the mutuality of trust and respect and an appreciation of the unique societal-cultural-religious landscape of Bangladesh, we engage in conversations with them in UN and other platforms. Yes, quite often there are differences in their appreciation of our position or approach, but a wider appreciation of Bangladesh on universal values across the UN membership is vindicated by our consecutive election to numerous Treaty Bodies, Committees in the UN System, including in ECOSOC, Human Rights Council, Peace-Building Commission, CEDAW – to name a few.
This is also borne by our bilateral relations with the US which is stronger and multi-dimensional than any time in the past. We have several institutionalized consultative platforms with Washington: (annual) Partnership Dialogue (encompassing defence, security and developmental issues); Framework Agreement with the US on trade and investment cooperation (TICFA); Military – Military Dialogue. The US considers Bangladesh an “influential partner” in the global fight against terrorism while Bangladesh considers US a ‘strategic partner’ to promote our regional and global foreign policy interests, including in the UN Peacekeeping Operations. Our proximity has drawn Bangladesh into innovative frameworks like Global Fund for countering Violent Extremism, for instance.
The EU, including the 27 EU countries, and the UK occupy a significant focus in the Foreign Policy. EU was the first region to give duty-free, quota-free access to Bangladesh exports. EU accounts for over 55% of Bangladesh’s global exports, the largest development assistance (ODA) provider, hosts the largest concentration of Bangladeshi Diaspora, a crucial partner in mitigating climate change and addressing social development, democracy, governance. On so many values and social-economic-political accomplishments, EU and Europe (as a whole) regards Bangladesh much ahead of many developing countries. Bangladesh’s objective stance on various global issues that is often beyond Bangladesh’s direct or immediate concern also got us appreciation. For instance: Bangladesh’s leadership in shepherding the Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security at UN Security Council (in 2001) and a Culture of Peace at the UN General Assembly (2000) or leadership in the Climate Vulnerable Forum (CVF), Nansen Initiative for a Protection Agenda for climate-displaced people. As much as these translate into Europe’s support to Bangladesh in global platforms, these also yield material benefits by way of EU-GSP, augmented bilateral development assistance, transfer and adaptive development of technology, etc.

Fifth, realisation of sustainable development
The 1990s Cycle of UN Conferences and Summits have ushered in new paradigm in global development and multilateral diplomacy. Adoption of the Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) comprehensively manifest that. These now usher in new debates, new ways to approach national development, brings in new responsibilities to countries. Within this multitude, Bangladesh would need to advancement of her interests and needs for support, fulfilment of the global commitments as also underline the unique challenges and circumstances she continues to face.
A key emerging challenge in our Foreign Policy would be to prepare for the scenario following Bangladesh’s graduation as a Middle Income Country around 2021. We foresee considerable stakes to optimise for our economy, business, investments vis-à-vis global development cooperation, FDI inflow, Intellectual Property (IP) protection, related regulatory and policy environment, etc. We would also be required to balance our interests, circumstances, needs and expectations on international trade-finance-investment with the competing interests of large number of MICs. For instance: Bangladesh is already facing challenge to gradually bring our entire (industrial) manufacturing and service landscape at par with global norms, norms and practices. We would have to deal with more with sustainability issues, including human rights, workers issues, environmental issues, etc.
Sixth, ensuring safe, secure, dignified economic livelihoods of people
Over half of Bangladesh population is between 15 and 35 years. In a decade’s time, close to two-third population will be young. At the same time, in a decade’s time, around 45% of Bangladesh population will be living in urban space. Already over two million young people are entering employment market every year large part of whom seek employment opportunities abroad.
Therefore, it remains an important focus for Bangladesh Foreign Policy to project Bangladesh as a tolerant, open and balanced State and with a moderate, diligent, adaptive, skilled people – so that we can secure further employment opportunities for migrant workers from Bangladesh. At the same time, we remain focussed to secure rights and dignity of around 8 million of our migrant workers, particularly living in Arabian Gulf and ASEAN countries. Of course, millions of these people remit around average of 12-14 billion US dollars a year. In that context, maintaining amiable ties with each of these countries is a significant preoccupation for us. Obviously, we often do face difficult choices in terms of exercising foreign policy: for instance, the Saudi invitation to join their alliance last year or, the most recent scenario in the Gulf on ostracization of Qatar by the GCC countries. Indeed, our engagements with these countries are much beyond employment of millions of Bangladeshis and sourcing of our energy supply.
Ladies and gentleman,
In accomplishing all these, Bangladesh diplomacy continues to employ a mix tools and options at bilateral, regional and multilateral levels.
For decades, Bangladesh has “punched over its weight” in multilateral diplomacy. At the UN as well as other fora like the Commonwealth, OIC or NAM, Bangladesh receives much greater attention. Through outreach with 193 UN member states, we do package, advance and trade off our interests and concerns on peace, security or development with others. Taking advantage of multilateral diplomacy, Bangladesh has been introducing, testing and advancing many innovative ideas as well. This is vindicated by UN membership’s electing Bangladesh in a multitude of key global policy-making bodies and institutions over decades. Currently, Bangladesh serves in ……… key UN specialized Bodies and Organisations.
In our foreign policy, Bangladesh continues to maintain a lead role in the UN peacekeeping operations. For decades, we have been a leading contributing nation of troops and police, including highest numbers of female peacekeepers. Apart from numbers, in every Mission Bangladesh participated, our troops and civilian peacekeepers left behind a high standing in terms of morale, commitment, developmental knowledge and expertise to service and to local people.
Dear Participants,
A country’s Foreign Policy and its corresponding engagements are also about curving ‘space’ for the country. In spite of all challenges and limitations that Bangladesh faces, we are no exception. Over the past one decade’s time, Bangladesh Foreign Policy is moving along that contour pro-actively. Our outreach to eastern Europe, Africa, Latin America goes in that direction – not merely to explore ‘market’ for Bangladesh exports or, dispatch more of migrant workers, but also to explore how best to ensure Bangladesh’s economic security.
Quite often, in our actions or response we use creative Foreign Policy means in innovative ways. Many times, actions are not visible; and the deliverables are difficult to recognise or measure as well. Surely, that is inevitable in Statecraft. That is why, in offering you all an ‘assessment’ of Bangladesh Foreign Policy, I consciously do not dwell upon an accounting of what we did, how many visits took place, etc.
I have essentially tried to reflect on some key cornerstones of our foreign policy vision and strategy that our government continues to pursue. Obviously, Vision 2021 and Vision 2041 embody a set of important guidance. Drawing on our modest yet rich history and accomplishments, we strive to demonstrate to the world why Bangladesh should matter, why the international community needs to take a fresh and positive look at Bangladesh and invest in a resilient nation of 160 million people.
I thank you for your patience and attention.
Joy Bangla, Joy Bangabandhu.

Media Type: 
Publish Date: 
Sunday, June 18, 2017