Blue economy diplomacy: a bath-tub of maritime desires?

Imtiaz A Hussain | Friday, 26 May 2023

Rarely do International Relations (IR) undergraduates find a book that clearly spells out the “who’s who” and “what’s what” of a new topic in the discipline. University of Rajshahi’s Shariful Islam’s Blue Economy: Diplomacy for Bangladesh: Contexts, Challenges and Opportunities, does precisely that. Infatuated by the increasingly imperative new Blue Economy (BE) and Blue Economy Diplomacy (BED) realities, he unravels the rubrics of both, that too, in a layman’s language. The net result: we (readers and scholars) can now navigate through technically complicated emergent priorities as if we were having a Main Street conversation.

Outside the ‘Introduction’ and ‘Conclusion’ chapters, five others raise as many substantive issues. Chapter 2 highlights literary BE narratives (among scholars and in the media), and conceptualises the range of BED dynamics relevant for our country. Islam picks our own Bay of Bengal to illustrate. Acknowledging “there is [still] no one clear definition or understanding” (p. 26) of the term, he cautiously offers it to be no more than “an evolving concept” dealing with both “the protection of the ocean through sustainable use of marine resources,” and “human well-being through [a] social justice framework” (p. 30). Instead of resorting to typically economic exploitation explanations, the author gives us a fresh appraisal of (a) sustainability at a time of growing climate-change concerns; and (b) social justice, as if warning lackadaisical humans, as we are, who feed those concerns, as we do, “we will catch you for any maltreatment.”
These are the challenges that the discipline International Relations was born to correct a century ago. It grapples with this task on many more fronts today. Taking such an IR mission and vision into BED territory, Islam identifies the precise bricks any BED success needs: the treatment of unsustainable ecological problems, forestry, river treatment, climate-change, socio-economic changes, growing inequities, emerging scarcities, maritime behaviour, power-play, and pertinent institutions.
Chapter 4 explores the opportunities these entail for the country, utilising fisheries and maritime diplomacy as prisms. His discussions are like a syllabus on Bangladesh’s Economic Development course in any university. Since every IR dynamic is double-edged, Chapter 5 plays the expected role of balancing the attraction of those opportunities with thick discussions of challenges (in geopolitics, marine fishery, and maritime trade), before letting Chapter 6 evaluate the institutional routes to meet those challenges. Islam appraises both bilateral initiatives, such as between Bangladesh and Japan to build a deep-sea port in Matarbari, and multilateral, such as through the BIMSTEC (Bangladesh Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) platform. Visible threats posed by plastic pollution, piracy, and sea-water intrusions are all dealt with, as too such invisible threats like acidification.
Islam cannot but conclude how both BE and BED dynamics can “transform Bangladesh” (221) if we add more (a) private sector involvement (to reap public benefits more than private profits), (b) small-scale fishing communities, since they are the very vanguard of social-equity outcomes, (c) fisheries to overtake the unbroken RMG (readymade garments) monopoly of the country’s economy, and (d) BED-based attention to continued human existence.
Islam’s scholarship shows. In a 300-paged book, 70 pages alone supply the bibliography, depicting how meticulously every argument has been documented. Clearly no library in this geographical region and beyond was spared Islam’s attention. Erudition of this kind is particularly welcome at a time when ChatGPT is offering easier but possibly more misleading alternatives to the proper learning process and policy-makers increasingly downplay long-term issues to contemporary priorities.
Islam treats the country’s growth of maritime universities akin an ambulance speeding to the country’s service: humans need both this resuscitation from their own ailments and the knowledge to grapple with their self-generated problems. For these reasons, academic disciplines like International Relations, Global Studies, and Governance must pounce on the opportunity to “be present at the creation” (a title borrowed from former U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson explaining how his country shifted from its plain isolationism towards complex Cold War strategy-making between 1941 and 1952). For a deltaic people, as we Bangladeshis are, especially when we are not competing for global leadership, this BED opportunity opens a different global leadership window: to tackle a more deleterious threat swallowing mankind than communism did after World War II.
Before this battle is actually won, scholars of the subject, like Islam, must pave more “pathways” to get there. A clarion call was made to rally the country’s private entrepreneurs. That is well and good, but historically, substantively, professionally, and personally the required benevolence will hardly emerge from entrepreneurial initiatives without a material pay-off. It took the Tazreen fire and Rana Plaza collapse in 2012 and 2013, respectively, to catalyse work safeguards and human sensitivities in the country’s largest economic sector. Similarly, BED perils and uncertainties may need more than maritime universities to win the game. Of the 4,000+ RMG factories functioning since the 2012/2013 tragedies, barely 187 have acquired LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification (though 63 received platinum, 110 gold, and 10 silver recognition, making Bangladesh a global model in selected sustainability aspects, with only 4 firms being simply certified). Though 500+ RMG firms await responses to their LEED application, can our maritime entrepreneurs do something similar, for example, by simply nudging our people to not throw plastic into the rivers or polluting St. Martin’s Island corals out of existence?
We have possible game-winners, but overshadowed by money-makers. Islam and a wide-range of scholars must now develop a formula to suitably prepare the bath-tub before our entrepreneurs and the lay public take a sanitised maritime dip, against the allurements of material accumulation. The spadework has been done, but the taller follow-up tasks remain. Bangladesh will need many more people with Islam’s mindset to win this battle.
Dr Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor, Department of Global Studies & Governance, Independent University, Bangladesh. [email protected]