Geopolitical Significance of Emergence of Bangladesh

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Nurul Momen

The birth of Bangladesh, the former eastern wing of Pakistan, as a sovereign state has been a unique phenomenon of our time. Unlike so many countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America, which achieved independence after the Second World War, it has not come into existence by shaking off the colonial bondage of some Western Power.1 In the contemporary history it remains a rare example of successful revolt against an established state (Pakistan) and a member of the United Nations. The secession of the majority of the population of a country from the minority is also unprecedented in history. To be sure, while the revolt was basically due to the “internal colonialism”2 that developed within Pakistan and the geographical incongruity of the country (the two wings being separated by more than a thousand miles of foreign territory), its immediate cause was the attempt of the military rulers of Islamabad to suppress the eastern wing’s agitation for autonomy following the first-ever general elections of Pakistan. The military action may seem all the more indefensible, because in the elections East Pakistan-based Awami League, which has been spearheading the movement, had won an over-all majority in the whole country. Nevertheless, Bangladeshis could hardly achieve their independence without a relatively favourable external setting. Indeed, the regional and global alignments helped them immensely to overcome the obstacles to political separation “which have tended to turn the second half of the twentieth century into a veritable graveyard of secessionist movements”.3

Impact on Political Theory and International Law

The unconventional nature of the country’s emergence has raised new questions in political theory and international law. The validity of the two nation theory has been challenged and traditional concepts of self determination, intervention and recognition have come under scrutiny. The inability of the World Body in dealing with genocides under complex circumstances has also been exposed.

It may be agued that the two-nation theory was not wrong but it was not judiciously applied; for undivided Pakistan was a geographical anomaly. Indeed, in a region where the religious factor largely determines the political process, the event of 1971 proved that the bond of religion itself is not sufficient to bridge the geographical distance.

As regards self-determination, it now seems necessary to examine whether the people of a part of a state can be allowed to exercise the right in special cases. It may be mentioned that the UN Charter affirms its faith in the right to self-determination of peoples (para 2 of Article 1) as well as the principle of preserving the territorial integrity of Member-nations (para 4 of Article 2).

Again can external intervention be justified under international law in circumstances like the Bangladesh crisis? It is true that the idea of an independent Bangladesh was not of Indian origin, but when once it was conceived by Bangladeshis, India precipitated its birth. New Delhi’s ultimate action was, which seemed to have been rationalized due to large scale violation of human rights (genocide) and the refugee problem, undoubtedly served to fulfill a major security need of its own.4 The pattern of its^relations with Pakistan5 on the one hand and with China and the Soviet Union on the other also had important bearing on its role in the liberation of Bangladesh.

In view of the circumstances surrounding its ,birth, Bangladesh also posed a puzzling question of legitimacy and identity for the contemporary state system. Although it fulfilled all the conditions of statehood, many countries hesitated to accord recognition to it and some even refrained from doing so even after the new state become a member of the United Nations. Of course, different kinds of international propaganda and politics became mixed up with the question of recognition.

In view of the questions Bangladesh has raised, its emergence has added something new to modern political history. Because of these and because of hectic diplomatic activities at many places around the world and the dramatic and tragic events prior to its birth, Bangladesh has easily attracted widespread attention. But the emergence of the independent entity has had more significant consequence than is generally realized.

To be sure, Bangladesh is a small, least developed, disaster-prone country with a large population and few resources. Nevertheless, it can survive without being swallowed up by some great power as it happened in the past centuries. Because of the contemporary and geostrategic situation it can also accrue some advantages in the region as well as in the world arena.

Prospects of a New State under Contemporary Situation

The contemporary situation is marked by two momentous developments that have helped the rise of smaller powers in the world arena. The one is the emancipation of a large number (nearly 100) of nations from various types of colonial bondage. Indeed, never before has history witnessed such a rapid succession of new states and such a rapid dissolution of empires. This has been possible because of historical forces, developments in international law and organization and the growth of world public opinion. To be sure, the total numerical strength of the new nations is staggering and many of them are countries of great antiquity but centuries of exploitations by foreign rules have made them militarily and economically weak. Even so, the resurgence of the new nations has added a significant new dimension to international politics.

The second important development of our time has been the revolution in the field of communication which has made our planet smaller and smaller and the nations increasingly interdependent. Consequently, the mankind now lives closely together in global village in which any big event anywhere may cause immediate repercussions everywhere or at least elsewhere. Such a situation was simply undreamt of in the previous century. Oliver goldsmith, an English writer of late 18th century, for instance, onqe remarked that, if every time one fired a gun in England and a man died in China, nobody would mind the least. The shooting would go no merrily. But today the gun-shot may recoil like a boomerang and create turmoil in the whole world.

Added to these developments has been the growth of international law and organization both of which uphold the principle of equality of nations. Obviously, the present situation offers some opportunities even for a smaller nation.

Geopolitical Implications in Global Perspective
Although Bangladesh is situated at the “inessential backwater of the Indian Ocean”,6 its location itself provides it with an opportunity to play an important role in the Afro-Asian World. It is a bridge between South and South-East Asia and as such it may be in a position to exert influence upon both the regions. Again, Bangladesh is perhaps the only important predominantly Muslim country in the world which has no Muslim neighbor. Since in international realitions enemies are generally neighbouring states, it is most unlikely that Bangladesh will have inimical relationship with any Muslim country. Consequently, Bangladesh’s diplomatic position in the Muslim World is likely to remain very high. Again, it can play some important role in the world arena even on economic issues. It is by far the largest of the LLDCs, and hence it is the natural leader of this group which now comprises 47 countries. If the group remains united, it is certainly a force to reckon with in the forums like the Economic and Social Council and the General Assembly where the principle of equality is fully adhered to.
Because of history of its emergence, Bangladesh has made wide contacts with the outside world. Thus despite its economic backwardness, Dhaka maintains a larger number of missions abroad than other countries have missions in Dhaka. In other words, Bangladesh has shown more interest in the outside world than outside world has interest in Bangladesh. It is also one of the few countries which has become members of as many as three major international organizations outside that United Nations such as the Non-aligned Movement, the Commonwealth and the OIC. This situation places Bangladesh in an advantageous position to play an important role in world affairs.
Implications in Regional Perspective
The birth of Bangladesh has brought about significant changes in the political map of South Asia. For nearly a quarter of a century since the independence of India and Pakistan, the conflict between the two states dominated the political scenario in south Asia. The emergence of Bangladesh as a sovereign entity has kindled a ray of hope in this gloomy perspective.
In the changed geopolitical setting, India, has emerged as clearly the most powerful state in the subcontinent. Endowed with a large population and rich political culture, the new state could also be reckoned as one of the three major powers in South Asia. However, Bangladesh’s position is undermined by the fact that it is almost India-locked and that it has some unsolved problems with India with regard to common land and maritime boundaries and common rivers. Further, since Bangladesh is sandwiched between West Bengal and the eastern most states of India, it is inevitable that India will continuously put pressure upon Bangladesh for a corridor or a transit.
Apart From the India factor, there is also another major weakness in Bangladesh geopolitical situation in the region. Bangladesh has no common border with China but all the three countries with which Bangladesh has disputes viz., India, Pakistan and Mayanmar have common borders with that great power which is also a permanent member of the Security Council. It is true that Bangladesh has cultivated friendship with China largely for economic reason and to counterbalance the impact of India, but that relationship may not help Bangladesh in any of its international dispute. No country can afford to antagonize a neighbor with common borders unless its vital interests are threatened. On the questions like that of Farakka the Chinese support for Bangladesh’s cause is least expected also because of the fact that China happens to be a upper riparian state.
The significance of the emergence of Bangladesh for the region may be better understood if we consider the distinct political personality of the new state, For, on some important issues it maintains positions which are somewhat different from those of other major states of South Asia. It is’the only major country of the subcontinent which is wedded to nuclear disarmament without any reservation and which has already signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Again, on the question of making Indian Ocean as a Zone of Peace, unlike India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, Bangladesh would favor the presence of extra-regional great powers in view of conventional build- up in the region. Further, as regards the rights of landlocked states, its attitude is more lenient than of India or Pakistan (or Myanmar).
For the smaller countries of the region, which had been feeling a sense of isolation, the birth of Bangladesh has been specially significant. Nepal and Bhutan _ the two landlocked states – could now expect that a neighboring country would help them in securing new outlets for trade and transit and a legitimate share of the resources of the sea – the “common heritage of mankind” under the UN Law of the Sea Convention Again, like Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and Maldives are least developed according to UN criteria and as such the last three could very much expect that Bangladesh, being a core country, would provide leadership in promoting their common cause.
Thus Bangladesh has added a new dimension to South Asian politics. For the first time in history the situation in South Asia seems to be favorable for the growth of regionalism. In fact, Bangladesh itself pioneered the idea of having a regional organization for the region.
In more recent years, Dhaka’s efforts to operate and survive in the South Asian sub-system have attracted a greater world attention to the region in general and Bangladesh in particular. Bangladesh has been able to involve its neighbors with its problems caused by natural calamities to a certain extent.
At the same time, to offset the constraints on its foreign policy arising from its geopolitical position and economic realities, Bangladesh has been trying to project a new international identity through the United Nations and quite a few other international forums. Such a role of Bangladesh is likely to have indirect impact on the developments in South Asia.
Admittedly, almost since its inception Bangladesh has been marked by political instability. But except once (i.e., in August 1975) there has not been any significant shift in its foreign policy, which has remained fairly consistent over the years. Consequently, Bangladesh is likely to continue to make its impact on South Asia in the years ahead.

 

 

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