Antorjatik Adda – a reply to Mukti
Well it is always a pleasure to converse with people who go to the heart of the matter rather than dither on the snappy title. As he says, who wants to be Afghanistan. Indeed.
His first criticism of my post is that my premise is wrong: Bangladesh simply does not have the opportunity to be Switzerland. This he says is because for reasons of geography – Burma is much better placed with its borders with India, China and emerging economies in South East Asia.
I find it surprising that a blogger so clearly wedded to economic theories should make such a geographically deterministic argument, leaving aside Jared Diamond for the time being. I did take a look at the map he posted and I can find a clear line leading through India’s Northeast through to Western China completely avoiding Burmese territory. So not quite sure what the fuss is about there.
But moving on to less “geography is destiny” arguments, I do not think Burma with its very recent emergence from military rule will have the necessary political or economic institutions to play the part of an honest broker. The reason it is currently being courted by big powers – including European ones – is its natural resources. Over and over again, we have seen developing countries afflicted by the resource curse. There was more than one reason why I chose Switzerland and Afghanistan with their lack of natural resources as applicable archetypes, not just the snappy title.
Overall Burma will have a credibility problem in being seen as neutral in Asian affairs. It has historically close links with the Chinese government, something I do not see a potential Suu Kyi government disturbing. Call me cynical, but I do not see a Burmese port being allowed to be used by India.
(A similar argument rules out Nepal, which as a commenter says on Mukti, is touted as another Switzerland (really?). Frankly, on this basis, Vietnam does best – historically close links with China, has fought a war with them in the past half century. Alas, its links with India are tenuous at best.)
Bangladesh has a well known popular hostility for all things Indian even as it shares a common tongue with parts of India and cannot get enough of Bollywood’s hip-swaying pyrotechnics. Its links with China are more recent, driven by business and military interactions, not cultural thanks to the Himalayas. I think this balances things out.
The real serious parts of Jyoti’s criticism however is this (emphasis mine):
This is not to say we shouldn’t build up Chittagong. We should if we need to. But before building a huge port, let’s move the Bangladesh Bank to Chittagong, make it a true business capital, relocate our exports industries around there, and make the existing port a more efficient one by cracking down on mafia-like labour leaders. Without addressing any of these domestic policy issues, “building a port for China and India’s use” sounds rather peculiar to me.
If I had actually advocated that last bit, then that would have been fallacious indeed. That makes it sound like I was advocating one of Paul Romer’s charter city projects. But I did not. I think that any development of the port would first and foremost be for domestic use. After that, if foreign access is planned, it should include both India and China as stakeholders. My post argued for a foreign policy doctrine of engaging both India and China equally in major schemes, not for narrow proposals regarding specific projects.
But I do find it surprising that such an openly classical economic liberal such as Jyoti would fail to see such international connections as detrimental, rather than complementary, to lifting “millions out of poverty”. He does say that we need an export-driven industrialisation. Then should we not make it easier to export to two of the fastest growing economies on the planet?
Then we come to this:
And I think the point holds more generally. Bangladesh does not need to be a theatre for Sino-Indian rivalry. So the Afghanistan or Switzerland dichotomy, I don’t think, applies. At best, by trying to make ourselves indispensable, we will have wasted a lot of energy — look at the political capital lost by the current government by trying to cosy up to India. At worst, by courting one of these giants, we will invite the other into meddling — look at the trouble the Zia family has attracted on itself, and the country, by trying to play the game in North East India. Far better to live and let die.
My entire post is built on the not-too-unrealistic speculation that Bangladesh will become an increasing focus of Sino-Indian rivalry, much like everywhere else in this neighbourhood. This will not happen overnight but gradually over the years. In this, we are not on a surfboard, we are at the mercy of the waves.
But his only example of courting one of the giants is of the Zia family’s ill-advised adventures in the North East. Indeed, I agree with him – and surely that is the Afghanistan option I argued against, unless he is thinking of Switzerland’s mercenary days far, far back. That sort of policy “initiative” has about as much to do with the sort of policy stance I propose, as a le Carre novel has with a James Bond film. Live and let die indeed, with Chittagong godfathers tinkering with spies.
So what does Mukti propose?
Meanwhile, we need better functioning global agriculture or natural resources markets to avoid the 2008-style price spikes…. As we industrialise, we will become a polluter, and yet we will also likely be the largest victims of past pollutions by the global North. We can play a role in bridging the North and South on climate change… We are a secular Muslim democracy with a thriving civil society — we can teach a thing or two to our Arab brethren.
… But we actually have been doing this on and off for a few decades now. In fact, there is already bipartisanship on the basic idea — Ziaur Rahman started it back in the 1970s, and Sheikh Hasina pursues a variation of it today. Let’s junk the “regional connectedness” agenda, and focus on the world instead.
I cannot argue against the agricultural agenda. I will argue against Bangladesh’s relevance to climate change and the Arab Spring issues.
On the former, Bangladesh is best seen as a victim, not a solution to a problem. The solution will still need to come from high technology countries. Bangladesh is simply the poster child, for perfectly shot-and-edited 5 minute clips they will show at Swiss summits of smiling brown children to garner some sympathy before the champagne flows and the power set hobnob. Harsh but true.
On the Arab Spring, I think since time immortal we have tried to cozy up to our Muslim brethren, but we have been rebuffed or allowed leverage over us. The “Arab brethren” will more happily learn from their fairer Ottoman cousins and former overlords about “secular democracy” than from us. In this, I think Zia was wrong – (and attributing this to him when it was Mujib who went to OIC ’74 is a bit surprising.) We have lost years and years looking to these initiatives when we could have spared all this and listened to Suhrawardy on the OIC – “0+0+0 is still 0″. Focus on the region, I say.
So yes, lets be Bangladesh by all means. But lets start reimagining what that actually means.
(ps. Diganta, a commenter on Mukti, notes that Singapore has a much better claim to be the Switzerland of Asia. Fair enough, it is actually all those things that fit the Swiss profile. IMHO, it is at best a city-state. Its options are to become the Square Mile in London or to die like Florence after the Medicis. There’s room in Asia for more than one Switzerland. And need too.)