What’s in store for the Indo-Pacific region? A round-table discussion on the future of regional geo-politics
On Thursday, October 28, a roundtable discussion on the Indo Pacific region in regards to QUAD and AUKUS was jointly arranged by Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies (BIPSS) in partnership with Dhaka Tribune. Some of the major strategic aspects of these two initiatives, especially in relation to Bangladesh, were discussed at the event titled Quad and AUKUS: Creating Strategic Ripples in the Indo-Pacific.
Quad, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, is a strategic dialogue between the United States, India, Japan and Australia maintained through talks between member countries, while AUKUS refers to a trilateral security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States.
As these strategic initiatives have deep roots beyond the Pacific, it is critical for the strategic community to understand all the consequences, as they believe it is developing into a system which can very easily go beyond strategic competition to strategic confrontation.
The beginning of the roundtable was marked by Major General ANM Muniruzzaman (Retd), President, BIPSS, and Zafar Sobhan, Editor, Dhaka Tribune. Providing a brief geopolitical background of the two initiatives, Major General ANM Muniruzzaman shed light on the fundamental shifts that are taking place rapidly in the strategic landscape, particularly in the Indo Pacific region.
The speakers expressed that the Quad and AUKUS initiatives have new approaches on the horizon and it would take some time before they take up a consequential shape. They agreed that it was essentially intended to contain China, which had been making significant advances in the region as well as in other parts of the world.
The speakers also lamented the fact that Asia, with particular reference to South Asia, was absent from these initiatives.
“Bangladesh, though a small geographical entity, is the eighth largest nation in the world,” said General ANM Muniruzzaman, “so we have a different role to play as an Indian Ocean littoral state and as a key player in the Bay of Bengal. Therefore, it is crucial that we act as an active player in the game.”
Zafar Sobhan added: “There needs to be more robust and detailed discussions on the changing world which we live in, especially what Bangladesh’s stance and policies should be in this changing geopolitical and geostrategic environment.”
The respectable panel included Brig Gen Shahedul Anam Khan, ndc, psc (Retd), former Associate Editor of The Daily Star and DG of the Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies; Parvez Karim Abbasi, Assistant Professor of East West University; and Md Touhid Hossain, Former Foreign Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Bangladesh.
Brig Gen Shahedul Anam Khan discussed the military aspect of maritime strategy of AUKUS, its ramifications, as well as the implications in the region of focus. He further explained that some of the three countries included in the Asian Century belong in the Indo-Pacific region. It is home to the world’s most populous countries, with the largest democracies and largest Muslim majorities, which include more than half the world’s population.
“According to the Western perception, by a pretender to power and that status quo, the Americans, and especially its allies, would not like to cede control or dominance of this region to another country, China. Thus, Quad and AUKUS happened as a consequence,” he continued.
On the matter of Quad’s squad expansion, Md Touhid Hossain explained that there is definitely an effort by the US behind this. “I don’t think that the nations of ASEAN share the same interests,” he added. “There’s a big difference between the interests of the littoral states of the South China Sea and other nations.”
“One question could arise — would Bangladesh perhaps join Quad?” he continued. “Till now, the response from Bangladesh has definitely not been positive. However, there could be a situation in which a choice has to be made. But at present and in the near future, it does not seem likely.”
He also insisted that Bangladesh should be focused on protecting its national interests, even if it displeases any other country.
Assistant Professor Abbasi emphasized on what would be the future trends in terms of the coming conflict, and strategic ambiguity between China and the US. “What will happen in recent times is that we will increasingly see greater competition between the US and China. There may not be active confrontation, but there will always be a threat of war. That’s where we see technology wars, network wars, incipient space wars, and even what we’re currently noticing in the form of the vaccine war.”
Key points of discussion
Bangladesh must keep its own interests in mind while making further choices on how to approach the matter at hand. In the current scenario, taking a neutral stance may be in our best interest.
Concerns were raised that these new initiatives will cause an increase in arms proliferation in the region.
There may not be confrontations as perceived, but there may be proxy wars, and hybrid warfare.
Bangladesh must remain committed to the principles of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP). It has ports which have significant geo-strategic importance, such as Matarbari. However, it must be emphasized that Dhaka would not join any military pact, agreement or strategy that would directly posture the country against another state.
The Maritime reincarnation of non-aligned movement in the Bay of Bengal can facilitate the smaller nations, like Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, to have littoral states around the Bay of Bengal which work together.
If there is a confrontation or conflict within our trade routes, like the Malacca Strait, our supply chain will be disrupted which will lead to massive inflation and shocks. Thus we have to think of alternate routes and explore contingency plans.
Major General ANM Muniruzzaman (Retd), President, BIPSS
What is happening in the Indo-Pacific is classical and has always happened when there is a rise of a new power. But my hope is that the so-called New Cold War probably will not go hot, because there is much at stake here and nations are much more mature, but we should all be prepared for other forms of warfare. My apprehension is that we have to watch our grey zones, and we should watch more than just our borders now. New forms of hybrid warfare are coming, so the battleground will move to other domains and be different from classical military battle. As a small nation but a significant strategic player, Bangladesh needs to take note of all these new developments so that we can play our rightful share.
Zafar Sobhan, Editor, Dhaka Tribune
The new great game is upon us in the strategic importance of the Indo-Pacific region. And what are the implications thereof for Bangladesh? Because Bangladesh is a significant country considering its population, growing economy strategically and extremely well positioned, Bangladesh stands to gain and lose from whatever greater games are being played, in the region and globally. So this is of extreme importance to us. And it is, of course, of extreme importance to many other countries.
Brig Gen Shahedul Anam Khan (Retd), Former Associate Editor, The Daily Star
The AUKUS is a consequence of a perceived threat. A power, which is assuming great predominance, is China. So AUKUS is focused on China, and there is no doubt about it. China is becoming a world power. Acknowledge and live with it. The more you try to prevent China from emerging and playing its own role, the more you will create a situation that will be deleterious to a balanced and peaceful growth of the Indo-Pacific region.
There is also the innate interest of the US to keep and maintain its military industrial complex. Behind all of the American involvement in world affairs in conflicts and other issues, one of the driving forces was to keep the military industrial complex running.
Parvez Karim Abbasi, Assistant Professor, East West University
Each of these countries — whether it’s Japan, South Korea or ASEAN countries — are increasingly dependent on China for trade investment, so the Chinese geo-economic clout has expanded. This is the fundamental thing that one has to take into account.
Bangladesh must be very careful. We already have a mini arms race with Myanmar. Bangladesh’s strategic neutrality will be greatly impacted by whichever country or group of countries can help us to resolve the Rohingya issues in a peaceful and speedy manner.
Md Touhid Hossain, Former Foreign Secretary, Government of Bangladesh
There is the pressure of remaining neutral, and also the pressure of joining one side. So, if you have two friends, and there is pressure on you from both parties to join them and the consequence of you joining one side becomes even more dangerous, then you remain neutral, despite the pressure.
In the context of India, particularly in India and China, Bangladesh will have to remain neutral, even if it displeases someone; there is no other way, because we have vital interests in both countries.
Shamsher M Chowdhury, Former Foreign Secretary, Government of Bangladesh
Let’s hope that we are not ringing the alarm bells just because our concern has come into existence. There will be postures (from QUAD and AUKUS), but I do not foresee any wars breaking out. This is a progressive thing that Bangladesh has demonstrated great maturity in being able to find the right kind of balance.
Rezaul Kabir, Former Secretary, Government of Bangladesh
In the future there will be a lot of different types of races that we should be concerned with. One such is the race to beat climate change. With this sort of unrest in the region, the climate change vulnerable countries like Bangladesh should declare a neutral stance, so that the actions of the big powers do not have an adverse impact of climate change and global warming on the country.
Dr Sacha Blumen, Head of Political Affairs and Public Diplomacy, Australian High Commission
Australia is an Indo-Pacific country; we, of course, rightly respect Bangladesh’s independent foreign policy, and we would never ask Bangladesh to take any sides.
The vision for the Indo-Pacific is one that is open, resilient and inclusive. It’s underpinned by rules, norms and respect for the sovereignty of all states, large and small. Australia’s national interests are tied to the stability and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific.
HE Prof Sudharshan DS Seneviratne, High Commissioner of Sri Lanka
There is a need to seriously look at the importance of Bangladesh and the position it can take in the Indo-Pacific. As two corners of the Bay of Bengal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka need to consider the aspects of the connectivity of Indo-Pacific and Bay of Bengal, the dominance of the Bay of Bengal, blue economy, hegemony and strategic position the countries already have to observe the centrality of Bay of Bengal and chalk out the policies that we can adopt together.
Are we willing to go with this party or that, or to carve out a neutral path in our region? This is a very serious issue, and we do not want others to come in and tell us what to do.
Rear Admiral ASMA Awal (Retd), Former High Commissioner, Former Assistant Chief of Naval Staff, Bangladesh Navy
Another sharp entry of AUKUS has added more confusion, and it will add more strategic dilemmas, particularly in the European and Western countries.
Shahidul Islam Chowdhury, Special Correspondent, New Age
Till now, Bangladesh has indicated that it is keen to engage in the economic part of the Indo-Pacific. Based on Japan’s strategic relationship with Bangladesh, and the country’s dependence on the development aspect, my impression is that in the long run, there may be some strategic part to play in Matarbari Port. However, till date, there are only two aspects that prevail – the coal-based power plant and the deep sea port. However, no one knows what will come afterwards.
Humayun Kabir Bhuiyan, Special Correspondent, Dhaka Tribune
I always tend to think that whatever you say about Quad or AUKUS in capacity, we may sugarcoat it, but the fact remains that these are all for dominance, nothing else.