Should Bangladesh Obtain Membership at the Colombo Security Conclave?

The Colombo Security Conclave (CSC) is a maritime security grouping initiated by India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives in 2011. The sixth meeting of national security advisers of the CSC was held on 7th July, 2022 at Kochi, India. Apart from member states, Bangladesh and Seychelles also joined the meeting as observers.

The world has dramatically changed in the past few years. When CSC was formed, regional and global political landscape was relatively peaceful and harmonious. China, USA, India, Russia and European Union had minimal conflict of interests. It was a time when multipolarity enjoyed a positive vibe in international relations despite their underlying competition. Today, the world has gradually become polarized and divided on issues of power, resources, and hegemony. The Quad-China confrontation and Ukraine War has been the ultimate test of strategic visions that the West has against China and Russia.

Against this backdrop, India has been promoting the idea of ‘net security provider’ in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region. The idea of ‘net security provider’ is problematic for the neighboring countries as it is contradicting to their foreign policy interests and fundamentals of their statehoods such as sovereignty. Hence, this idea has not drawn much attention in terms of action-oriented policies.

Again, the geopolitics of Indian Ocean region is now brewing through new strategic and security initiatives such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) of China, Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD), Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS), Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) and Australia, UK and US (AUKUS) let by the USA and its allies. Besides, India also announced SAGAR vision (Security and Growth for all in the Region, India and its Neighborhood). More ominously, the Madrid NATO Summit invited four Asian countries – South Korea, Japan, New Zealand and Australia as observers. All these initiatives have transformed the region into a melting pot for the countries that are not part of these groups.

CSC has come to the fore through its sixth meeting of the national security advisors. The previous meeting (fifth) conference held in Male also witnessed the admission of Mauritius to the grouping, which now includes India, Sri Lanka, Mauritius and the Maldives as members and Bangladesh and Seychelles as observers. In addition, the Conclave has now focused on its institutionalization, dubbed as the “region’s 911,” by identifying five pillars for future cooperation. Maritime Safety and Security, Countering Terrorism and Radicalization, Combating Trafficking and Transnational Organized Crime, Cyber Security, Protection of Critical Infrastructure and Technology, and Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief.

In the changed context of global and regional security, should Bangladesh join the CSC?

Challenges for Bangladesh in CSC

It is a difficult choice for Bangladesh considering CSC’s context. First, the geopolitics has dramatically shifted towards polarization and rivalries. Second, the mandate of CSC has considerably expanded and appears to be connected with QUAD and IPS. Third, there is incompatibility of objectives among the members. For instance, India’s goal of countering and containing China through this grouping contrasts with those of Bangladesh. Fourth, there are possibilities of being subject to subservient status as India try to dominate the grouping. Fifth, it may question the independent, autonomous and balanced approach of Bangladesh foreign policy.

Gains from membership

Apart from contextual hurdles, membership can also offer many gains for Bangladesh also. The gains that Bangladesh can expect from its participation are strengthening bilateral relations with member states, supporting the goals of QUAD and IPS without joining them and ensure an alliance at the bay without joining any hard polarization.

However, CSC has a lot of potentials to offer but the minilateral doesn’t have any concrete foundation yet. Other groups in the region such as IPS, QUAD, IPEF and the latest I2U2 could undermine its presence considering India’s participation and strategic interest. The grouping and Indian hegemony can also give wrong impression to China also- an important extra-regional power for South Asia.

Options for Bangladesh

Bangladesh needs to take into consideration pros and cons of joining the group as a member. Bangladesh must reassess the evolving strategic dynamics of South Asia, the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean region. Particularly, conflicting approaches and strategies of China and India and the US are critical considering Bangladesh’s Three-way balancing. The timing of joining is crucial as new geopolitical events are unfolding almost in every day. Analysts of all backgrounds agree that China’s growing presence in the region’s economic, political, and security affairs has created fear of losing the traditional dominance of India and the US. Hence, Empowering India has also emerged as an objective of US-IPS. This may explain India’s increasing engagement with its IOR neighbors. Besides, growing Russian presence in the Indian Ocean will also present a new set of challenges. As Russia faces isolation in Europe due to the Ukraine War, it may turn to Asia and Africa for support, making states like Bangladesh and Sri Lanka diplomatically critical. For Bangladesh, the challenge lies in balancing ties with Sino-Russian partnership and Quad countries as their hostilities deepen.

In conclusion, Bangladesh should continue its present approach with autonomous and balanced response to external foreign policy and strategic overtures. Bangladesh should wait for a while and remain an Observer of the Conclave to keep its involvement in a low-key status while keeping the door open. The Sri-Lankan crisis may also impact the Conclave’s effectiveness as the Conclave is the brainchild of now-ousted President Gotabaya Rajapaka. Therefore, the time is not ripe yet for Bangladesh to transform its current participation in the Conclave.

Doreen Chowdhury
Doreen Chowdhury
Doreen Chowdhury is a Doctoral Researcher at University of Groningen. Her areas of interest are Comparative Politics, Globalization, South Asian Studies, and Migration Studies.