Bangladesh is a young country that has been in existence for only half a century. Steadily but firmly the country has defined its character within the gamut of regional and global agendas. Sheikh Hasina has governed Bangladesh for more than 40% of the country’s existence and has been a central political force for over 80%. Her statecraft and political acumen have naturally shaped Bangladeshi foreign policy. By redefining the regional outlook, Hasina has created a new doctrine out of south-southeast Asia.

During the Hasina Administration, Bangladesh has caught the eye of the world as an emerging economy and because of its unforeseen stability. Hasina’s foreign policy follows the values of Bangladesh’s founding leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Her value set combines justice, peace and self-determination. In the Administration’s fourth consecutive tenure, and fifth overall, Bangladesh’s politics and foreign policy have made a fresh regional footprint.[1] Dhaka’s hunger for foreign investment for its expanding infrastructure means it is the top recipient of net official development assistance in South Asia.

The Hasina Administration’s foreign policy and bilateral relationships have put Bangladeshi on the road to being a ‘middle power’ by 2041 and a political powerhouse by 2100. As such, Sheikh Hasina’s re-election as Bangladeshi premier in 2024 was a watershed moment for Asia. A policy combining domestically raising living standards and globally echoing neglected people’s voices will mark out the continuing legacy of Hasina’s grand strategy.

Diplomatic strategy guided by Mujibist philosophy

Political psychologists’ assert that personal traits – such as the beliefs, visions, decisions and interpersonal style – of a leader helps us understand a state’s foreign policy behaviour. In light of this, Sheikh Hasina’s leadership style has shaped an independent foreign policy for Bangladesh. Rooted in the ‘friendship to all’ philosophy of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Hasina’s diplomatic strategy has reshaped the country’s image as an empathetic yet tactical actor in the region.

From hosting a million Rohingya refugees to supporting war-scarred Palestinians, Hasina has translated Mujib’s worldly principles in a policy (both internal and external) framework. In the internal security sphere, Hasina pulled off peace in the southern remote hills of Chittagong back in 1997, when a multidecadal civil war-style conflict seemed never-ending. Meanwhile, Hasina’s iron fist has nearly eradicated terrorism. These policy actions have done a great deal to stabilise the broader region. They also point to the persona of a remarkable strategist and negotiator.

The Hasina Administration has demonstrated strategic diplomacy in the face of adversity.

The Hasina Administration has demonstrated strategic diplomacy in the face of adversity. Work on peacebuilding and sustainable development has not gone unnoticed. Notable accolades such as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s Félix Houphouët-Boigny Peace Prize (for her commitment to peacebuilding) and the United Nations Environment Prize (for her climate leadership), showcase Hasina’s dedication to a liberal global order. Despite facing political unfair play, including assassination attempts and periodic detentions, Hasina has remained an unwavering advocate of democracy, secularism and social welfare.

Bird’s eye view of metro-train, one of the major megaprojects of Sheikh Hasina’s administration, speeding through the congested ‘Bangla Motor’ neighbourhood, Dhaka city, Bangladesh, 7 July 2023 | Photo by Mahmud Hossain Opu.

Economic diplomacy and regionalism

Bangladesh’s track record of becoming an Asian emerging economy in less than a decade is noteworthy. In 2015, 44 years after its independence, the country officially crossed the World Bank’s middle-income threshold. According to a 2023 World Bank report, between 1991 and 2016, Bangladesh slashed poverty by 30%, a remarkable stride almost never matched by any comparable country. But it’s also true that Bangladesh still faces structural challenges.

To understand Bangladesh’s transformation, let’s consider a time period that closely mirrors Hasina’s tenure: 2018 to 2022. This period’s data is largely verifiable from established sources. From 2018 to 2022, Bangladesh witnessed:

  • A steady population growth, reaching 169 million;
  • A substantial rise in gross domestic product (GDP), from USD 319 billion to USD 460;
  • A sharp increase in GDP per capita from USD 1,977 to USD 2,729;
  • Upwardly trending nominal GDP, with fluctuations, peaking at 12.5%;
  • A relatively low unemployment rate, fluctuating between 4.3% and 5.3%;
  • A gradually improved fiscal balance, with the deficit as a percentage of GDP decreasing from 4.1% to -4.1%;
  • A reup of public debt as a percentage of GDP, reaching 37.9%;
  • Burgeoning exports, up from USD 39 billion to USD 51 billion;
  • Surging imports, up from USD 55 billion to USD 80 billion;
  • Stable foreign direct investment, hovering around USD 6 billion–USD 3.6 billion annually.
  • A steady increase in foreign currency reserves, peaking at USD 46 billion.

Sheikh Hasina has redefined Bangladesh’s diplomacy from political to economy-first. Her administration’s diplomats need to bring in investments and trade benefits for the country. Her foreign policy was part of the strategy to propel an average GDP growth of 6.4% during her long tenure.

It underscores sustained resilience in the face of global challenges. This consistent growth trajectory has made Bangladesh an emerging economic powerhouse in the region. Hasina’s external strategy has been pivotal in shaping Bangladesh’s bilateral relations with neighbouring countries. It has manifested in regional cooperation and economic partnerships.

Bangladesh and India, sharing common civilisational values, have witnessed burgeoning bilateral trade and neck-to-neck income levels. The two nations have made strides in consolidating political, economic and cultural ties, exemplified by a very comprehensive joint statement during Hasina’s India visit in 2019. Nonetheless, a longlist of pending issues, such as the Teesta River water-sharing deal, means the neighbours have to put more work into the relationship.

Similarly, Bangladesh’s neighbourhood relations with Sri Lanka and Bhutan have deepened under Hasina’s leadership, fostering South–South strategic cooperation focused on economic welfare. The country’s relations with Nepal have focused persistently on maximising mutual interests despite economic challenges.

Bangladesh’s engagement in regional arrangements like the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) highlight its regional integration-focused foreign policy. The country’s openness to connectivity projects adds to this. Hasina’s emphasis on consolidating 360° regional cooperation underscores Bangladesh’s growing stature, as a gateway between south and southeast Asia.

Thailand has the potential to become a strong regional ally of Bangladesh.

Hasina’s fresh pivot in fostering connectivity with Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and East Asian countries reflects a ‘with east’ policy. The realignment of Bangladesh as a strategic location is a diplomatic approach driven by mutual respect within the region. In this engagement, Bangladesh–Thailand relations are a shining star, promising deep economic and diplomatic ties. The relationship is largely economic and diplomatic, with a gap in cultural communication. Deepened cultural ties will fasten the bilateral bonding. Thailand has the potential to become a strong regional ally of Bangladesh.

Climate champion

The Hasina Administration has integrated the climate agenda as a tenet of its foreign policy. Bangladesh is on the frontline on climate change, facing cyclones, floods and rising seas as a result of its vulnerable terrain and coastline. Twice, Hasina has chaired the Climate Vulnerable Forum, an intergovernmental climate advocacy group. Bangladesh has championed sharp emissions reductions, evidence-based industrial treatment and sustainable farming. Moreover, it has advocated for climate-vulnerable countries to transverse their vulnerability into economic opportunity in their domestic policies.

The establishment of the ‘loss and damage’ fund at the United Nations Conference of the Party (the COP28) in 2023 will bring a new climate finance window for Bangladesh. Accessing this will be vital for Bangladesh because of its 13 million climate refugees, expected by 2050. The Hasina Administration has also prioritised climate negotiations with development partners including the EU and the International Finance Corporation. Bilaterally too, Bangladesh is constantly seeking out climate finance. Its collaboration with the UK has already secured fresh finance.

Pluralism and regional security

Bangladesh has a long tradition of indigenous moderation and religious tolerance. However, although it is commonly referred to as a ‘moderate Muslim country,’ its identity is complex. The constitution, which is secular, guarantees religious freedom and the rights of all citizens.[2] This is a diverse culture where the four major communities, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and Christians, coexist. Unfortunately, incidents of violence against religious minorities persist, highlighting a barrier to full societal cohesion. The Hasina Administration has actively enforced policies to support religious freedom and social unity.

Bangladesh’s Ministry of Religious Affairs is the public body dedicated to protecting the rights of all communities. It attempts to modernise Islamic teaching centres, known as madrasas, a deliberate strategy to combat extremist beliefs in religious quarters. This has been done in parallel with campaigns to boost both culture and religious values.

Combating terrorism and extremism is a top concern for the nation. With its ‘zero tolerance’ policy, Hasina Administration mobilises law enforcement and intelligence services, while green-lighting civil society to combat radical narratives. Bangladesh also cooperates with regional and international partners to dismantle terrorist networks.

Hasina has made pluralism part of the regional security agenda. She has launched a national strategy for protecting religious heritage, funded interfaith research centres and organised international conferences. She continuously denounces Islamophobic assaults, promotes interfaith solidarity and supports Rohingya refugees, showcasing her dedication to rights regardless of creed. The government, civil society and the international community must coexist irrespective of religious beliefs.

Joint maritime drills

Strategically located at the top of the Indian Ocean and at the heart of Bay of Bengal, Bangladesh has emerged as a key player in regional security. The nation’s security commitment is in its multipronged approach, encompassing maritime security. Hasina’s policy is to expand its maritime capabilities.

Bangladesh’s navy has expanded its fleet and actively participated in regional exercises like DOSTI and Malabar with the US, India, Japan and Australia. Exercises are meant to combat piracy, illegal fishing and regional maritime threats. Collaborations include exercises like CARAT with the US and India in 2024, Exercise Tiger Shark-40 with the US in 2023 and the Bangladesh–France Naval Exercise in 2023. These exercises enhance strategic capabilities and strengthen bilateral relationships with partners.

Technical regional collaboration

Bangladesh collaborates with regional partners on counterterrorism efforts, sharing intelligence, participating in joint exercises and disrupting extremist networks. This commitment is exemplified by the 2020 Comprehensive Cooperation on Security agreement signed with India, solidifying their regional security partnership.

Beyond bilateral cooperation, Hasina Administration’s regional framework of choice seems to be BIMSTEC, given the bloc’s east-facing reach right to the Pacific. As a founding member, Bangladesh plays a pivotal role in addressing shared challenges. In 2023, hosting the annual BIMSTEC Summit solidified the nation’s commitment to regional economic integration. Additionally, Bangladesh actively participates in two subregional initiatives by the Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal (BBIN) Initiative: the Motor Vehicles Agreement and the Corridor Project.

BIMSTEC Heads of Government close-door meeting. Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in at the centre between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Myanmar’s State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi in Goa, India, 16 October 2016 | Photo by Ministry of External Affairs, India.

Recognising its vulnerability to natural disasters, Bangladesh actively shares its expertise in disaster management with other countries. Bangladeshi agencies provide training to regional partners, enhancing their preparedness for natural hazards. Bangladesh is active in regional platforms like the SAARC Disaster Management Centre and the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation, coordinating regional disaster mitigation strategies.

Expectations of the Hasina Administration

A regionally focused foreign policy means Bangladesh has to hone its doctrinal tools. Hasina needs to focus on the Bay of Bengal and internal socioeconomic welfare.

A regionally focused foreign policy means Bangladesh has to hone its doctrinal tools.

Securing stability in the Bay of Bengal: Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) serves as a regional security platform. Bangladesh, an original member of BIMSTEC, can play a crucial role in promoting regional security by:

  • Working with others on marine security, disaster readiness drills and intelligence exchange. Maritime crime in the Bay of Bengal incurs a yearly cost of USD 13 billion, according to the World Bank in 2023.
  • Mediating regional conflicts through diplomatic means and trust-building among member states. Surprisingly, the region has the largest number of active armed conflicts worldwide.[3]
  • Improving regional commercial connections and infrastructural development to promote stability in the Bay of Bengal.[4]
  • Upholding peace in the Bay of Bengal by maintaining bilateral relationships with big powers. This involves engaging in joint military drills and cooperating on counterterrorism initiatives.

Fighting poverty: Under Hasina’s three consecutive tenures, Bangladesh has seen consistent competitive growth, and this trend is projected to persist. This expansion, together with ongoing investments in human capital, is essential for reducing poverty. To ensure regional stability, Bangladesh should continue promoting inclusive growth by:

  • Empowering disadvantaged populations, especially women, with access to education and finance.[5]
  • Investing in social safety nets to tackle income disparity.

Decoupling the Rohingya crisis: The Rohingya issue, taking the form of instabilities inside Myanmar’s borders, threatens a spillover in the region, especially in Bangladesh. This sticks out like a sore thumb in Hasina’s grand strategy. The international community, south-southeast Asian nations and Bangladesh need a to implement lasting resolution to the Rohingya refugee crisis by:

  • Exerting pressure on Myanmar for the sustainable dignified repatriation of Rohingya refugees to their own land.[6]
  • Sustaining humanitarian aid by encompassing host communities, through reconfiguring the existing joint response plans.
  • Addressing the underlying reasons of the war in Myanmar, including ethnic prejudice and rights abuses, to prevent displacements.[7] Here, Bangladesh can advocate its pluralism model.
  • Holding accountable those who commit grave crimes against the Rohingya and supporting ongoing international efforts (like in the International Criminal Court) for this process.

Revisiting the world through the region

Under Sheikh Hasina, Bangladesh has turned resilience into progress. Guided by the Mujibist philosophy, Hasina’s strategic diplomacy has committed the country to dynamic economic transformations by the years 2041 and 2100. Hasina prioritises regional integration by actively participating in forums like BIMSTEC to address common challenges.

Hasina’s commitment to addressing climate change has positioned Bangladesh as a climate broker.

Hasina’s commitment to addressing climate change has positioned Bangladesh as a climate broker. Furthermore, economic diplomacy is a key focus of Hasina’s foreign policy, with Bangladesh attracting foreign investment and expanding export sectors like textiles, pharma and IT. However, challenges lie ahead for Bangladesh’s regional foreign policy in navigating geopolitics, addressing internal/external security threats and sustaining justice. Unfortunately, the Rohingya crisis has defined much of Hasina’s long tenure. As Bangladesh charts its course forward, its leadership has to advance its interests on the world stage.

Hasina’s diplomatic acumen has not only strengthened Bangladesh’s bilateral relations but also elevated its role in regional cooperation. She has positioned the nation as a key player in fostering peace, stability and prosperity in its extended neighbourhood. This is a foreign policy that strengthens domestic standing while overseeing a region comprising south and southeast Asia. This is at the heart of the Hasina Doctrine.

 

[1] Hasina’s political party, the Awami League, attained consecutive electoral wins in 2008, 2014 and 2018. It also won in 1996.

[2] The Bangladeshi constitution ensures equal rights for all citizens irrespective of their religion, fostering a varied society. Although it also establishes Islam as the state religion. The constitution explicitly states that it is plural through the four founding principles: nationalism, socialism, democracy and secularism.

[3] A 2023 study by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute shows that South Asia, especially the Bay of Bengal region, has the largest number of active armed conflicts worldwide.

[4] According to the Asian Development Bank, enhanced regional integration in South Asia can raise trade by 33% and GDP by 2.8%, underscoring the economic advantages of collaboration.

[5] The female labour force participation rate in Bangladesh is 35%, which is lower than the global average of 47% as reported by the World Bank. It is essential to bridge this gap for comprehensive progress.

[6] According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, there are more than 965,467 Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, with the lion’s share coming in 2017. This is a burden on the country’s resources.

[7] The 2023 Human Rights Watch World Report highlights continuous abuse of the Rohingya community in Myanmar, underscoring the need to deter additional displacement.

 

Cover ©️ Sheikh Hasina, prime minister of Bangladesh, at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, 18 January 2017 | Photo by Jakob Polacsek.

Photo ©️ Mahmud Hossain Opu

Surat Horachaikul is Associate Professor of International Relations at Chulalongkorn University, Thailand. He is a political scientist. His research focuses on democracy, ethnic conflict, terrorism and social welfare. He is Director of the Indian Studies Center at Chulalongkorn University and Co-Founder of the School for Wellbeing Studies and Research. He pursued his graduate studies at the London School of Economics.