Bangladesh has been at the forefront of regional and global politics due to its geostrategic location in the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean. The emergence of the “Indo-Pacific” region, due to the world’s geostrategic shift from the Euro-Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific, has further positioned Bangladesh as a critical player in the great power competition in the region. As a result, an “Indo-Pacific Outlook” (IPO) has long been on the agenda of the Bangladesh government to publicize and clarify its views on the strategically significant region. Different regional organizations like the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the European Union (EU), along with different countries such as India, Australia, and South Korea have already taken their own versions of strategies regarding the Indo-Pacific region. Some of them subscribe to the views of Bangladesh’s IPO and some of them are not. Overall, the newly announced IPO reflects Bangladesh’s long-standing foreign policy principles of neutrality, inclusivity, and non-alignment.  By embracing the IPO, Bangladesh has restated its position regarding the Indo-Pacific as an emerging middle power which is crucial for achieving its long-term development goals and maintaining regional peace and security.

Until a few years back, the term “Indo-Pacific” did not hold significant prominence within the realm of international relations. However, with the unveiling of the US’s “Indo-Pacific Strategy” in 2017, coupled with the Chinese growing influence, the concept of the Indo-Pacific has garnered widespread attention. Now,the region represents 63% of the world’s gross domestic product (GDP) and 46% of the world’s merchandise trade. Given these factors, the political developments in the Indo-Pacific region will likely have a substantial impact on the trajectory of the world in the 21st century, according to US Secretary of State, Antony J. Blinken.

Bangladesh is strategically located at the crossroads of South Asia and Southeast Asia, making it a crucial player in the region’s geopolitics. Its strategic location in the Indo-Pacific region, situated near the vital Sea Lines of Communications (SLOCs) in the Bay of Bengal, has provided it with unparalleled strategic significance to the great powers. To date, Bangladesh has managed well its diplomatic relations with powerful countries, while maximizing its benefits fromongoing geopolitical rivalries revolving around the region. However, as competition intensifies, Bangladesh may face increasingly challenging choices in the future. In this background, the recently announced IPO can help Bangladesh to navigate through the fierce geopolitical rivalry while improving its position in world politics.

In recent times, Bangladesh has turned out to be a common destination for high-level official visits from the US, China, and other countries which signifies Bangladesh’s growing significance. For instance, in a span of four days after the arrival of Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang, US Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asia Donald Lu arrived in Dhaka for a two-day visit on January 14. This was the second high-profile visit by a US government official within a week, following the four-day visit of US National Security Council’s Senior Director for South Asia Rear Admiral Eileen Laubacher on January 7 which was unprecedented in 51 years of diplomatic relations. These high-level visits were followed by Anne-Marie Trevelyan, the UK’s Minister for the Indo-Pacific, who arrived in Bangladesh on March 10. These developments have prompted many experts to claim that Bangladesh is slowly embracing the US’s “Indo-Pacific Strategy” (IPS) which will alienate China and compromise its position of neutrality. However, with the articulation of Bangladesh’s IPO, it has now been cleared that Bangladesh does not want to alienate any of its partners by avoiding making any commitment to defense cooperation in its Outlook. Furthermore, Bangladesh’s foreign policy autonomy was also visible as Bangladesh did not join the QUAD, despite the requests of the US and its allies, upholding its non-alignment and neutral position. In this regard, the Bangladesh government has carefully avoided polarization narratives by enacting its IPO in this era of growing polarization and cold war-like bloc politics. In addition, IPO will help Bangladesh to universalize its foreign policy principle of “friendship to all, malice toward none” as countries will look into the document and shape their policies accordingly.

It is not unexpected that major state actors in the region are interested in taking Bangladesh on board in their Indo-Pacific strategies. The US approached Bangladesh back in 2014 to be a part of its Indo-Pacific Economic Framework. Bangladesh also figures prominently in Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) and most recently Japanese PM Fumio Kishida expected growing strategic collaboration with Bangladesh during his visit to New Delhi. Significantly, the incident where the Chinese Ambassador Li Jimming warned against Bangladesh’s potential membership in the Quad created tension in bilateral relations between Bangladesh and China. This incident clearly reflected China’s concern over potentially losing Bangladesh to the US. Similarly, the US’s ban on the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and their exclusion of Bangladesh from the Democracy Summit appear to indicate a degree of pressure being exerted on Bangladesh to reduce its connections with China.Now, with the announcement of the IPO, there will be no scope for further confusion and everybody can aware of Bangladesh’s priorities which will bring consistency and avoid misunderstanding.

In the past, the absence of a clear Indo-Pacific outlook forced policymakers to rely on ad-hoc measures, resulting in an incoherent posture for Bangladesh. The lack of a detailed plan was also a concern, as it could be interpreted as Bangladesh being indifferent to the region. Bangladesh has also been struggling to balance competing security and economic visions, which have failed to address its core interests. The IPO addresses both security and economic concerns, with a focus on economic cooperation, and outlines new areas of cooperation in non-traditional and human security sectors that will benefit Bangladesh socially and politically.

Muhammad Estiak Hussain is a Research Analyst at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs.