Pakistan and the Barbie in the Indian Ocean Region

We can conclude from recent discussions in the Pakistani media that Pakistan is facing a delicate situation as it tries to build a regional coalition that includes Bhutan, India and China. However, Pakistan has a major problem in relation to Bangladesh. Here we have a potential mismatch between Pakistan’s foreign policy objectives and what it’s national interest requires of it.

Apart from being a partner in the Indian Ocean region, Bangladesh is also a sister nation of the larger Indian Ocean region. India is Pakistan’s biggest regional partner. Pakistan’s official foreign policy goal is to avoid conflict with India. However, it is becoming increasingly difficult for Pakistan to achieve its objectives without making itself vulnerable to conflict with India.

It is difficult for India to be sure that Bangladesh will not try to challenge India at its southern doorstep. On the other hand, Pakistan is increasingly seen as a safe haven for the Bengalis. Pakistan does not want to confront this reality. However, it is running the risk of looking weak if it continues to ignore Bangladesh and it remains at a standoff with India.

For instance, in 2020 the Pakistani government sought to have an Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Dhaka. This gave Bhutan the opportunity to strike back by hosting its own Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Chittagong. The Chinese government had announced the relocation of the Beijing-Tibet railway to Pakistan. So it gave China a powerful argument to stand up to India.

However, it gave Bangladesh another opportunity to push back against China. At the same time, it made China’s eastern alliance stronger. In a way, Bangladesh was able to gain its own hard won advantage and reduce Chinese influence in the Indian Ocean by welcoming more western institutions into its region.

The Barbie (Bangladesh) is therefore now trying to assert itself on the high seas by hosting another Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Phuket, Thailand. Bangladesh is also expected to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) which could give it a much greater say in the SCO and beyond, even prompting China to take an even stronger role in the region.

To be sure, there are risks for Pakistan if it continues to choose to play this diplomatic game with China while ignoring the Barbie (Bangladesh). But Pakistan must be cognizant of its limitations, if it wants to keep a firm grip on the Indian Ocean region.

In short, while the Barbie (Bangladesh) is a major contender for the primary role of emerging regional player, it has a strong case. Therefore, Pakistan must pay attention to this challenge if it is to stay a significant player in the region. It must also look out for more strong alternative partners as well as alternatives to enhance its international reputation.