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Foreign Relations

Foreign Relations The image of an independent and sovereign state depends on its foreign relations. However, these relations, which are considered important to a country, are subject to change for the sake of the country's interests. Bangladesh has pursued its foreign relations since its emergence as an independent state in 1971. The provisional government formed during the war of liberation drew up an outline of the foreign relations of Bangladesh before the country came into being as an independent state.

Priorities in foreign relations The national interest of Bangladesh is interpreted in terms of the aims of the foreign policy of the country. As regards choice of countries for seeking foreign relations with, Bangladesh has mainly picked out South Asia, the predominantly Muslim countries including the Middle East, the United States, the industrialised European countries, Japan and the People's Republic of China. Foreign relations with chiefly these countries were pursued and strengthened by all the governments who came to power till now. However, the foreign relations of each government did not attach equal importance to these countries or regions; the government in power determined its preference on the basis of its ideology and the interpretation of its 'national interest'. The Awami League government put India and the Soviet Union at the top of its list of preferences. The issue of the 'special friendship' between India and Bangladesh assumed importance because of India's assistance during the War of Liberation against Pakistan, and the ideological unanimity between the leaderships of the two countries. On the other hand, Bangladesh was interested in strengthening its relations with the Soviet Union in view of the country's support in the War of Liberation, and the contemporary global situation.

BNP government, according to its own judgement, considered the United States, China and the Muslim world to be important with regard to foreign relations. Its' policy makers endeavoured to develop dynamic relations with the industrialized countries considering the possibility of getting increasing economic assistance, and with the predominantly Muslim countries in order to bring about better balance in foreign relations. Despite China's opposition to War of Liberation, the Zia government was interested in winning friendship of the country on account of its cold relations with India. Although Pakistan recognized Bangladesh during the term of the previous government, diplomatic relations between the two countries were opened during the rule of the Zia government.

Later on, the governments of Jatiya Party and BNP basically retained the preferences of the Zia government with regard to foreign relations. After Awami League came into power for the second time in 1996 it gave priority to strengthening relations with India. The meeting of the Foreign Ministers of four countries (Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Bhutan) held in April 1997 in Kathmandu resolved to form South Asian Growth Quadrangle (SAGQ). The concept was supported by Bangladesh. In the Ninth SAARC Summit held in Male on 12 May 1997, a resolution in support of this concept was also adopted in favour of regional cooperation between two or more SAARC countries.

Apart from bilateral relations, Bangladesh got the membership in various international organisations like the United Nations, Non-Aligned Movement, Commonwealth, SAARC and Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC), and continued to associate itself with their activities. The country obtained the membership of the Non-Aligned Movement in 1973 immediately after independence. But it failed to get the membership of the United Nations in 1972 because of China's veto on the issue. However, with the normalization of relations with Pakistan, and with China's concurrence Bangladesh was granted admission to membership in the United Nations in 1974. As Bangladesh got the membership of the Commonwealth after independence, Pakistan withdrew itself from this organisation. On the other hand, after Pakistan announced its recognition of Bangladesh in February 1974 Bangladesh participated in the second summit of the OIC held in Lahore and obtained the membership of the organisation. In 1975 Bangladesh played its role as a founder-member of the Islamic Development Bank (IDB), an associate institution of the OIC. As the concept of SAARC was put forward by Bangladesh, it became a founder-member of the organisation. As a founder member of D-8 and BIMST-EC Bangladesh brought these two regional organisations into being in 1997. Bangladesh was elected member in different organs of the United Nations. The country had been a temporary member of the Security Council for a term of two years (1979-1980).

Evolution of foreign relations Bangladesh gives the highest priority to South Asia region with regard to establishing foreign relations. South Asia comes first if issues like geographical location, common historical background, economic condition, and, above all, territorial integrity and the security issues are taken into consideration. In 1980 Bangladesh presented the idea of forming SAARC in association with six other countries of this region, namely India, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bhutan and Maldives. Cooperation in ten sectors out of the twelve mentioned in the plan prepared by Bangladesh, excepting joint investment and introduction of a common market, started at the outset of SAARC.

Apart from the SAARC set-up, relations between Bangladesh and the other countries of the region were also established within bilateral frameworks. As Bangladesh is bounded by India on its three sides, India remains a permanent factor that effects the foreign relations of the country. Despite India's immense contribution towards the War of Liberation Bangladesh soon found itself in dispute with the country about a number of issues. After independence, the bilateral relations between the two countries at the state level cooled because of clash of interests regarding border trade agreement, sharing of water of the Ganges, balance of trade, and defining the limits of territorial waters. Especially the india-bangladesh friendship treaty signed by India and Bangladesh turned into a controversial issue. Later on, owing to change of government in Bangladesh different viewpoints of the governments of the two countries on resolving disputes together with their ideological differences resulted into clash of interests which eventually made the bilateral relations strained. The problem of sharing of the Ganges water was the most critical among the disputed issues, and Bangladesh was badly in need of immediate settlement of the problem.

Since Independence a number of agreements with the close and friendly state of India on sharing of the Ganges water were signed in succession, and a historic 30-year treaty, the Ganges Water Sharing Treaty, was signed in 1996 which is still in force.

Apart from the Farakka problem, there was a long-standing unsettled problem between India and Bangladesh regarding the transfer of the 'Tin Bigha' corridor to Bangladesh in order to connect Dahagram and Angurpota, two enclaves situated within Indian territory, to mainland of Bangladesh. With a view to resolving this problem India handed Tin Bigha over to Bangladesh in 1992 on condition that Bangladesh citizens would use this corridor for every other two hours. Later on the time-span was changed to one hour. There are two other issues to be settled with India which still carry importance with regard to bilateral relations. Bangladesh has been in dispute with India about the ownership of the South Talpatti Island located in the estuary of the Hariabhanga River. On the other hand, the limits of the territorial waters of the two countries are yet to be defined. At times Bangladesh also confronts problems with 'push back' from the Indian side.

As for other countries in South Asia, Bangladesh's relations with Pakistan had not been normal since the beginning. The disputes over the repatriation of the Pakistani citizens stranded in Bangladesh (the Urdu-speaking people who opted for the citizenship of Pakistan after independence) and the claim of Bangladesh to the assets from the period of undivided Pakistan, which exists since the very beginning, are yet to be settled. The changes in the bilateral relations with Pakistan that took place after August 1975 were influenced by the bitterness with India which developed at this point.

As Nepal is very close to Bangladesh border, some common interests brought the two countries closer. Apart from trading, Bangladesh is in need of Nepal's cooperation with respect to increasing the flow of the Ganges water for itself and controlling floods. On the other hand, there is a prospective alternative for Nepal of using the ports in Bangladesh which can reduce its dependence on the Port of Calcutta. Occasional strains in the relations of these two countries with India drove them to come closer. As for Bangladesh's relations with other states of this region, beyond the bilateral trade relations there are opportunities for cooperation with Bhutan, Sri Lanka and Maldives within the scope of SAARC.

The makers of foreign relations of Bangladesh sought close relations with the United States from the very beginning. Despite the country's negative role in the War of Liberation various initiatives in establishing normal relations with it were taken right from the period of the first government of Bangladesh. The socialist policies of the first government or its intimacy with the Soviet Union at first made the government of the United States unhappy about Bangladesh. In spite of that Bangladesh grew interested in getting project aid, commodity aid and food aid from the United States as soon as diplomatic relations with the country were established. The food aid was the main among all, and it was supplied through PL-480. As Bangladesh decided to export jute-bags to Cuba in 1974, the United States suspended its food aid, and as a result Bangladesh was compelled to cancel its trade agreement with Cuba. Especially, as the export of readymade garments from Bangladesh began, the United States soon became the biggest buyer of this commodity. At present the export of readymade garments plays a key role in keeping the balance of trade with the United States in favour of Bangladesh. In the recent years in view of the bright prospect of obtaining oil and natural gas the United States has been taking more interest in Bangladesh.

Apart from economic consideration, political reasons also made the two countries come closer. During the cold-war era Bangladesh was of importance to the United States as the country was expected to help reduce Soviet influence in the South Asia. Besides, the United States was in need of gaining Bangladesh's support for its foreign policy. On the other hand, the governments who have so far been in power in Bangladesh have sought political and security relations with the United States in view of its influence in the international arena. The combined military exercise of the United States and Bangladesh in the past few years, and the frequent visits from the officers of the US armed forces to Bangladesh bear witness to this. Towards the middle of 1998 the United States proposed entering into an agreement called SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement) in order to gain the right to free movement within Bangladesh for the American soldiers, but finally it was not signed because of the opposition by a section within the government and strong resistance by the masses. However, although SOFA was not signed, Bangladesh signed the agreement called HANA (Humanitarian Assistance Needs Assessment).

Bangladesh has economic relations of varying degrees with the countries of Western Europe. Among them Britain, Germany and Scandinavian countries are involved with projects dealing with technical training, infrastructure development, flood control and rural development.

Owing to the role of the Soviet Union in the War of Liberation Bangladesh formed special relations with the country. Sheikh Mujib picked out the Soviet Union as the destination for his first visit abroad. Things included in the joint communique issued during Mujib's visit to Moscow (support to the 7-point manifesto of the revolutionary government of Vietnam, European Security and Cooperation Conference, etc) gave such an impression that Bangladesh was pursuing a pro-Moscow principle in its foreign policy. Although the Soviet assistance to Bangladesh did not match up to the country's expectations, Bangladesh was thoroughly dependent on the Soviet Union during the regime of Sheikh Mujib. After the overthrow of Sheikh Mujib the dependence diminished drastically, and the political relations weakened at the same time. Recently steps were taken to improve relations with Russia and to purchase military equipment from it.

Immediately after independence, a bold initiative was taken in order to form relations with the predominantly Muslim countries including the Arab states. This was specially important against the backdrop of Pakistan's continuous propaganda against Bangladesh. These countries gradually accepted the reality of Bangladesh and announced their recognition. The oil producing countries of the Arab world came into possession of huge amounts of surplus money by selling oil at high prices during the oil blockade in 1973. As they decided to assist the developing countries in Asia and Africa with this money, Bangladesh availed itself of the opportunity. Bangladesh also managed to secure employment for its skilled and unskilled workers in the newly-created labour markets of these countries. This way the Muslim world, or the Arab states for that matter, assumed importance in the foreign policy of Bangladesh not only because of religious consideration but also due to economic reasons. During different political crisis Bangladesh took active role in favour of these countries. Apart from playing an important role in the OIC, Bangladesh has rendered strong support for various bilateral issues like Palestine issue, the interference in Afghanistan by the Soviet Army, Iraq-Iran War, the end of Iraqi occupation of Kuwait, etc.

The relations between Japan and Bangladesh are mainly based on economy. The emergence of Japan as the single donor country in 1979-80 was an important event. Japan stands second in terms of the assistance Bangladesh receives from different donor countries and agencies. Together with receiving economic assistance Bangladesh also aimed at introducing its own products in the Japanese market and attracting Japanese investment. Besides, Bangladesh procures a huge portion of its imports from Japan. The relations between these two countries are gradually improving against the backdrop of the increasing Japanese interest in South Asia. As regards Japanese investment in Bangladesh, although no remarkable undertaking other than KAFCO (karnafuli fertiliser company) is noticed, Bangladesh has been trying to attract Japan as well as other industrialized countries to its market.

Bangladesh's relations with China, a country with whom it had no formal relations till August 1975, started to grow warmer after this point. China, like the United States, opposed to the War of Liberation of Bangladesh mainly on account of its dislike of India and the Soviet Union. However, although the United States recognized Bangladesh, China did not do so; moreover, in unison with Pakistan, it continued to refer to Bangladesh as a land under Indian occupation. All possible means were tried by Bangladesh to normalise its relations with China. China did not respond to any of those efforts; moreover, it vetoed Bangladesh's admission to UN membership in 1972. Although it did not recognize Bangladesh during the rule of the Mujib government, after a tripartite agreement was signed between Pakistan, India and Bangladesh on 28 April 1974, China no longer objected to Bangladesh's inclusion as a UN member.

China announced its recognition of Bangladesh on 31 August 1975. From this point on, the relations between the two countries continued to improve rapidly. China also supported Bangladesh in raising the Farakka issue in the United Nations. Apart from political matters, Bangladesh entered into cooperation with China in the fields of military and economic affairs. China came forward to provide the armed forces and the navy with weapons and training. The relations between these two countries continued to evolve in harmony with the interstate relations in South Asia.

As is the case with any other country, foreign relations of Bangladesh flourished in the country's own interest. The reason that the foreign relations of Bangladesh has not attached equal importance to all the countries can be explained by the reality that its rulers have established foreign relations entirely on the basis of the estimates of benefits that the country expected to receive. [Akmal Hussain]