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The Changing Pattern of Bangladesh Foreign Policy in Different Regimes

Written By: jahiddu
22/04/2013 20:57 17/04/2013 19:03


The Changing Pattern of Bangladesh Foreign Policy in     Different Regimes

                                               Author: Jahidul Islam 



This article contains the ideas and pattern of foreign policy of Bangladesh since its independence struggle in 1971. Therefore its changing pattern on the basis of different changing regime including Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Ziaur Rahman, Ershad, Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina have taken place.



Foreign policy is not formulated at day night. It depends upon several ingredients like history, geographic location, religion, ideology, ethnicity, culture and natural resources. The foreign policy of Bangladesh is being changing with the change of government in different regime since the period of liberation or independence war in 1971. It is clear to say from observation of the past 40th years history of Bangladesh foreign policy that the decision making process and the role of Bangladesh  in international relations were being played on the basis of two regimes which are the Mujib Regime (1971-1975) and the Generel Ziaur Rahman Regime (1975-1981). The general Ershad regime and Khaleda Zia’s period (1982-1996) was the same initiatives like Zia regime. The change occurred by the taking power of Awami Leauge in 1996 to 2000, but tries to follow the Sheikh Period of Sheik Mujibur Rahman. Latter from 2001-2006 was the same thing of Zia regime. Now from the late of 2008 to present is trying to follow the basic rule of Mujib Period with some dramatically change because of the fall of Soviet Union and by the 15th amendment of constitution. However the basic element of foreign policy of Bangladesh is not dependent on national interest but the interest of political parties and chief martial law administrators. It is very difficult to explain the all descriptive evolution of Foreign policy in different regimes but here is mentioned with precise description about different period since the independent of Bangladesh.



What is foreign policy?

Foreign policy can be considered as an instrument of formal expression of a nation in front of the world with particular message. It is very complex and comprehensive issue. Different writers defined foreign policy as follows:

Generally it is believed that foreign policy is a wheel through which the process of international politics operates. Conceptually foreign policy is that part of national policy of a state which is relates to the external environment.1

Morshed Khan said, “foreign policy is in effect is a blue print for our interaction with the rest of the world.”2

According to K.J. Holsti k, “the action towards international environment and the conditions, usually domestic, under which these actions are formulated concerned essentially with foreign policy”3

Prince Ottovon Bishmark Defined foreign policy as “the extension of domestic policy”4

Henry Kissinger gave a simplistic definition, “Foreign policy begins where domestic policy ends”5

Modeleski said, “The process whereby a State its action to those of other states so as to minimize adverse action and maximize the favorable action of the foreign states.”6



The evolution of Foreign Policy in Terms of liberation war (1971)

It is a long history behind the liberation struggle of Bangladesh in 1971. The oppression, repression, systematic torture, genocide, firing, rape, economic disparity, political arrest of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman etc by the West Pakistani rulers and the military Crackdown on 25th march in Dhaka and all over the country was the primary and leading moment of liberation war. The Mujib Nagar Government was established in 17th April1 but there were no formal embassies for the diplomatic relations from the side of government of Bangladesh. The world community was really aware by the initiatives of India and Soviet Union at primary steps. But there were some people in foreign countries that launched the diplomatic activities from their own will and from the felling of patriotism.  At that moment the world community was divided into block on the question of Bangladesh and Pakistan that are the communist or socialist block and the capitalist block. Whatever the main place of diplomatic initiatives was India but the diplomatic activities in European and American countries were operated from London. The Justice Abu Said Chowdhury Clearly mentioned in his book about the real description of diplomacy in London to convince and to draw the attention of world’s community to the war of Independence of East Pakistan. He launched their mission by forming a central unit for the cooperation and assistance in the liberation war of Bangladesh in Britain. Latter he was appointed as the Legal representatives from the side of Bangladesh or as the High Commissioner from Mujib Nagar government. He established an office of Bangladesh high commission with the help of Bangladesh action committee in United Kingdom. Latter there were established several sub association for the help of Bangladesh in where the Bangladeshi people were not included but also the native British were also came in front for the help of Bangladesh through economic and diplomatic assistances. For instances the British students formed a Bangladesh Action Committee for the humanitarian assistance and cooperation of Bangladeshi people whom are suffering from war related hostilities. Justice Abu Said Chowdhury attempted a lot as a legal representatives to draw the attention of world community through peaceful rally, press release, meeting, submission of proposal, participation in different TV , radio and news paper interviews including BBC about the bloodshed attack on  civilian Bengali population by the Pakistani armies in Bangladesh. He visited different embassies to describe the torture and the genocide of pak army on the civilian population of Bangladesh. He visited the United States and the all Scandinavian countries for the cooperation and to create pressure on Pakistani dictator to stop genocide and mass killing of civilian innocent students of Bangladesh and people and to free the national leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman from West Pakistan Prison.  For the diplomatic purpose he went to Norway, Canada, Sweden, Switzerland, and Netherlands and in several countries within short times for the assistance, awareness and collective initiatives of world community against the Pakistani repression and oppression and for the freedom of Bangladesh. He said at every place “we have reached a point of no return.”  We get from his description about different small association and organizations of Bengali and Non-Bengali peoples for the support of the independence of Bangladesh. The Bangladeshi self operated and legal representatives try to convince event the Muslim countries that this is a unjust war from the side of Pakistan and not the irritation of India but the result of long oppression and suppression of West Pakistan on Eastern part which turned into the liberation movement and freedom struggle of Bangladesh.2 The economic assistance and the refugee crisis was at a dangerous position by out breaking of diarrhea  and several kinds of disease in the refugee camps , it is estimated that more than 10000000 Bengali refugees took shelter in India.  The high commission of United Kingdom went to the door of different international organization like Oxfam and World Bank for the relief of the most vulnerable situation of Bengali refuges in India. This attention of world community was possible for diplomatic advancement of Bengali citizens in different countries of the world. They urged United Nations to take immediate action against West Pakistan for the gross violation of Human Rights, but the imperialistic capitalist block disagree and rejected every times the crying and hope of Bengali people.  At last our victory clearly alarmed them man want to love freedom not chain, and Bengali nation do not want to live as the internal colony of West Pakistan. This attracted the world community and gave diplomatic recognition of Bangladesh as an independent State in the world map. 7



Sheikh Mujib Regime (1971-1975)

The foreign policy in the post liberation war period was no more than pro Indian and pro soviet. The guiding principle of Bangladesh national policy in Mujib regime was the “principle of liberation war” I .e, nationalism, socialism, secularism and democracy as the basic principle of constitution. The pro- Indian and pro soviet foreign policy of Bangladesh generally was the headache of west and Muslim countries.  In terms of liberation war India and former super power Russia were the nearest friends and donor of Bangladesh. So china understood that the civil war into Pakistan was a result of irritation of India which backed by Russia. As India is the competitor for China and Pakistan as the former friends the China took the position of West Pakistan in terms of liberation war and the effect of liberation war was reflected on bilateral relation between Mujib government and China at political, economic level. Mujib government continued the deep relation with india while she was the big donor countries since the liberation war period. Indian political and administrative support set the new government in Bangladesh. So Mujib and Indira signed a treaty of peace, friendship and cooperation. India started the farrakka barrage and signed the ad-hock agreement for 41 days only. But the Indian dominance mode was clear at the beginning of Mujib era. For the better relation with soviet and communist block the relation with United States and other capitalist countries was not good at this period. United States was delaying its recognition of Bangladesh. Mujib,s anti- American policy and support toward Vietnam  and trade with Cuba hindrance the political relation with USA. Mujib’s one party rule centrally planned economy, misuse of foreign aid disappointed and frustrated the US policy makers. By 1973 US was emerged as the single largest donor but Bangladesh expected more than that of the US contribution. On the other hand Bangladesh did not get enough support from IMF, I.D.A or A.D.B.   Bangladesh was helpless from western block but the Soviet Union provided insufficient amount of aid as per as the need of Bangladesh. The gap between commitment and disbursement was high. The balance of trade was also in favor of India and Soviet Union. Following the bitterness with Muslim countries on the question of united Pakistan they did not come immediately to recognize Bangladesh as an independent country at the beginning of Mujib government. They thought that the birth of Pakistan was a device of Indo-Soviet axis power to dismember Pakistan. Mujib Secular State ideology and socialist development strategy was against the basic principles of Islam. Although most of the Muslim countries recognized Bangladesh in Mujib Regime, it is true that they had simply recognized the existence of Bangladesh but they did not have any partnership with Bangladesh. Bangladesh got admission in to the OIC in 1974. Mujib banned the communal and religious politics which heartened the Muslim world. The economic relation was no bilateral trade agreement without some donation. For the poor political relation with muslim world the OPEC and IDB did not provide significant amount of aid and assistance to Bangladesh in the regime. The role of Muslim world was very poor in the development activities of Bangladesh. Poor trade relations and the balance of trade were almost negative. 8

So the picture was that the relation with India and Soviet Russia was good but trade imbalance and insufficient assistance for the post conflict reconstruction of a war torn country. On the other hand the Relation with, Pakistan, China, United States and Muslim World were not at all good.


Zia Regime (1975-1981)

The basic principle of foreign and national policy in the regime of Ziaur Rahman was fully different and exceptional than the Mujib Period. Because the guiding principle was the national interest, self preservation, economic advancement, safeguarding national power, upholding national power, certain ideology of Islamic or on the faith and trust of almighty Allah by the change of secularism and the meaning of communism to the meaning of economic justice with the declaration of building new relationship with Muslim countries based on the Islamic solidarity. After taking power of Zia the relation was build from the Indo-soviet block to US-China and Muslim world triangle. The relation was deteriorating day by day between Indo-soviet bloc because of constitutional, political, economical and other changes in state policy. The political relations between Zia and India were followed by the non cooperation in administrative level, unilateral withdrawl of water by the decision of India etc. But Zia draw the attention of international commun ty on the question of farakkah  and latter the Desai government signed a five years agreement with Zia government. It was the opposition party of India who was a good relation with Zia government but severely criticized by the Congress of Ghandi. India did not give any economic and technological support in this period. But the relation was reached at a turning and excelleny stage with Pakistan because it recognized the new government of Ziaur Rahman and called all muslim countries for support and help on the issue of Ganges water in UN, NAM, and OIC. The trade relations and joint economic commission was established and the trade balance was in favor of Bangladesh. The relations between United States and Ziaur Rahman was excellent because of the Zia’s shifting from the socialism and walking towards capitalism, free market economic policy, multi party democratic systems and so on. United States appreciated a lot because of the zia’s position against the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan and the important role in terms of Iran Hostage crisis in 1979. US emerged as the largest donor and partner of Bangladesh in 133 different accords by the 1980s. apart from bilateral assistance US sponsored multi lateral institutions like IMF, IBRD, IDA and ADB announced for major credit for Bangladesh. Most of the reformation action of Zia goes back to the interest and ideology of Soviet Russia , so it took the way of observation and non cooperation in zia regime. But China came to front for the cooperation of balgladesh at political and economic level. The Economic and technical cooperation agreement and a trade and payment agreement (TPA) were signed in peking in 1977.  Chinese technical and other assistance helped for the post conflict reconstruction in Zia regime. The Muslim world including Saudi Arabia recognized the Zia regime and the incorporation of faith and trust on almighty Allah and the fraternity based on the Islamic solidarity in terms of relation with muslim world pleased the Muslim countries and came to help Bangladesh by at any cost. The Arabian oil riche countries become the major donor of Bangladesh during Zia regime. OPEC and IDB came forward to help the Bangladesh development projects. Middle East became a potential labour market for Bangladesh. Trade gap was negative but increased export and reduced in some extent.  Zia with drew the ban on Islamic politics and repatriated some Islamic parties leaders applauded by the Muslim Countries and strengthening the relation.9


Ershad Regime (1982-1990)

After the assassination of Zia, General Ershad took power by a military coup in March 1982. The Indian government was changed and again Mrs. Ghandi regained power india and through and interim election and the water treaty of Farrakka was ended at that year but india did not renewed this treaty in the era of Ershad.10 The pattern of relation of Zia regime was continuing and strengthening by the incorporation of state religion as Islam in the constitution through amendment to satisfy the Middle Eastern country and the local Islamic leader for the safety of power. He directed the national foreign policy to the circle of USA, China, Muslim world and Japan while Soviet Union was indifferent like Zia’s period. Bangladesh was the president of general assembly of United Nations in terms of Ershad period but could not bring any peaceful solution of Iraq-Iran war. The credit of sending of Bangladesh defense forces in the peace keeping mission of United Nations goes to the general Ershad. SARRC was a great success in terms of Ershad period so that the dreamiest was the late president Ziaur Rahman. 11



Khaleda Zia’s Regime (1991-1996)

When BNP formed again government in 1991 it could not build up any strong relation with India but try to increase bilateral relation between Bangladesh and India. The government launched the foreign policy to strengthen the bilateral relation to US, China, Japan and Muslim Countries. It was a print copy of foreign policy of Zia regime. Furthermore the relation both with Iraq and Iran was restored in this period. 12


Sheikh Hasina (1996-2000/2001)

Again Awami League came in power and formed a good relation with India like the Mujib Period. From the 1988 there was no Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to 1996. But Sheikh Hasina concluded the thirty years ganges water treaty in 1996 with cooperation. The Chittagong-Hill tracts peace agreement was signed in 1997 with the tribal people after a long hostility between the government and indigenous people of CHT.  In international level Bangladesh was elected at United Nations Security Council for two years in 1999.13


Four Party Alliance (2001-2006)

Again the BNP formed a coalition government with the Islamic parties. They followed the previous system and policy on the question of India.   The bilateral relation between India and Bangladesh was deteriorated and maintained good relation with Pakistan and former block of China, USA, Japan, Muslim Countries and Korea etc. The relation with other countries was maintained by high level visit but the Series bombing attack and terrorist activities by JMB deteriorated the glory of country in international arena. 14


The care Taker government (2007-2008)

Basically care taker government was formed with a lot of causalities, political violence and with the ray of hope of fair election. Most of the political leaders said that it was puppet government of Bangladesh army. The key decision came from army and maintained good relation with USA, China, India, and Muslim Countries. But as it was no legality so it could not operated any strong foreign policy like democratic regime but was busy with election procedure. “Friendship to all malice to none” was followed by care taker government but they were the local agent of USA.  


The current government (2008 to 2010)

In the general election of 2008 Awami League formed a coalition government. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina visited several countries of the world i. e visited India, China, South Korea and Japan during 2010.15. But the millstone of foreign policy is new era of relation with India and other south Asian countries. Sheikh Hasina visited India and Indian Prime Minister Monmohon Sing visited Dhaka and signed a lot of agreement on trade and commerce. But the “frame work agreement” and transit and Transshipment   agreement have been criticizing severely in Bangladesh. All treaties are not still open to the people but government initiatives to build up relation with India is only visible in front of us. The bilateral relation with western countries are deteriorating day by day for some burning issues .i.e Dr. Muhammad Unus and grameen bank is a headache of European Countries and United States.  The deterioration of diplomatic relations with different countries and the imbalance of relation with India go to the criticism of diplomatic failure of government. So government should think about the strategic position in international and diplomatic relation.





Above discussion about the evolution and description of important aspect of Bangladesh foreign policy clearly indicates about the drawbacks and lack of decision making plan and its implementation. There are no eternal enemies or friends in international relations but the national interest is the main element of foreign policy decision making process. Bangladesh should select a strong academic group for the policy formulation and research and should be opened in front of general opinion to find out the contractive criticism for the solution of drawbacks of policy formulation. The foreign policy must be formulated on the basis of respect, justice and goodwill of the particular country and it is national interest have to prioritized over all elements. So we have to notice about the national interest of Bengali nation.


















1.      Emajuddin Ahmed, “introduction” in Emajuddin Ahmed (ed), the foreign policy of Bangladesh, (Dhaka : The University Press Ltd.,1989), p.vii

2.      M. Morshed Khan, Foreign Policy dimension : Issues Options and Directions,” in Bangladesh in the New Millennium’ Abul Kalam (ed) , The university Press limited Dhaka, 2004) , p . 62

3.      K. J Holsti, International Politics: A Framework of Analysis , ( Englewood Cliffs, NJ : 1967) , p .21

4.      Halim, “ foreign Policy of Bangladesh: Framework of Analysis”, p. 80


5.      Henry A. Kissinger, “Domestic Structure and Foreign Policy” in George S. Masalinant and Gilbert Abcarim (eds). International Politics Introductory Readings (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1970), p. 155.

6.      George Modeleski, A theory of Foreign Policy (London: Palmal, 1962), P.3

7.      Abu Said Chowdury, The days of Liberation War in the Foreign Countries,( ed)1992) , University Press Limited , Dhaka.

8.      Haider, Zaglul, “The Changing Pattern of Bangladesh foreign Policy” a comparative regime of the Mujib and Zia Regimes, 2006, the University Press Limited, Dhaka (on the basis of overall discussion of the book)

9.      Ibid

10.  Ibid

11.  Editorial of Harunur Rashid, Barrister and former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva.

12.  ibid

13.  ibid

14.  ibid

15.  ibid







[1] A Student of the Department of Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Dhaka. 


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