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With eye on China, US woos countries in Indo-Pacific yet Bangladesh remains an exception


Dec 31, 2010
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With eye on China, US woos countries in Indo-Pacific yet Bangladesh remains an exception​

  • While the White House fetes India’s Narendra Modi with a state dinner, Dhaka gets terse lectures on human rights and elections from US leadership
  • Amid the tension, Beijing expands its influence in South Asian country, providing funding ‘without making a fuss’ over democratic backsliding
Topic | Bangladesh

Khushboo Razdan

Khushboo Razdan
Published: 11:00pm, 23 Jun, 2023

As part of his Indo-Pacific strategy to counter China’s burgeoning clout, US President Joe Biden regularly invites leaders of varied political hues from the strategically vital region to the White House.

This week Biden hosted a state dinner for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, an avowed Hindu nationalist leader who was once denied an American visa for his chequered treatment of Muslim minorities.

In marked contrast, one of Modi’s allies in South Asia has elicited from Washington a decidedly disapproving stance: Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

When Hasina, the country’s longest-serving prime minister, visited the US capital in May for a World Bank engagement, nobody from the Biden administration opted to meet her.

Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina (right) greets her Indian counterpart, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in Dhaka on March 26, 2021. The South Asian leaders have formed a cordial personal bond. Photo: AFP
Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina (right) greets her Indian counterpart, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in Dhaka on March 26, 2021. The South Asian leaders have formed a cordial personal bond. Photo: AFP
Despite being a regional player in South Asia and one of its fastest-growing economies, Bangladesh has received a cold shoulder from Washington and terse lectures on human rights and democracy.

In December 2021, as Biden concluded the inaugural US-led Summit for Democracy – to which Bangladesh was not invited – the Treasury Department sanctioned seven leaders of an elite Bangladeshi paramilitary unit accused of carrying out forced disappearances and extrajudicial killings of political opponents on behalf of Hasina’s government.

The move followed a warning in February from Derek Chollet, US State Department counsellor, that the erosion of democracy in Bangladesh would limit Washington’s ability to cooperate with Dhaka. He urged Hasina to ensure free and fair elections.

By April, bilateral ties had plunged such that Hasina accused Washington of “trying to eliminate democracy” in Bangladesh.

Dubbed by some as Asia’s “iron lady” for her increasingly authoritarian style of governance, Hasina, 75, has rejected calls by some critics for her to retire.

“Because if I’m not there … I don’t know who will come to power,” she said during her US visit as her opponents and supporters clashed outside her hotel in Virginia.

Weeks later, Hasina withstood another Biden administration snub: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken unveiled a policy threatening to deny American visas to anyone trying to hinder free and fair democratic elections in Bangladesh.

In response, Dhaka said it would “like to view the announcement in a broader context of its government’s unequivocal commitment to holding free and fair elections at all levels”.

Analysts depict Washington’s position as a dismissal of Hasina’s assertions that conditions in Bangladesh are favourable for such elections.

While not overtly targeting the government, the policy signalled a “clear rejection” of Hasina’s claim that “an environment conducive to a free and fair election is prevailing in the country”, said Ali Riaz of the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank.

The broad scope of the policy reflected “growing exasperation in Washington about governance in Bangladesh”, Riaz added.

But Michael Kugelman of the Wilson Centre, another Washington think tank, said Biden’s “values-based” diplomacy was being selectively applied.

“The Biden administration has made Bangladesh an example of its values-based foreign policy, which emphasises promoting human rights and democracy overseas,” he wrote in Foreign Policy magazine.

Washington has said little publicly about “democratic backsliding” in New Delhi under Modi’s rule since 2014, yet towards Dhaka, the attention paid has been “robust and consistent”, Kugelman added.

Modi’s red-carpet treatment indicated the American president’s human rights agenda “had taken a back seat” to great-power competition, according to Matthew Duss of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington think tank.

“The administration’s approach seems to be that the United States will impose consequences for abuses only when all the strategic incentives line up correctly and won’t create domestic political headaches,” Duss wrote in a recent op-ed.

Hasina’s tough, unyielding ways were perhaps moulded by circumstance. Born in a newly founded Pakistan after India’s independence from Britain in 1947, Hasina was forced into exile after her father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, was assassinated along with other family members following a military coup in 1975.

As the leader of the Awami League political party, Mujibur Rahman steered the creation of independent Bangladesh, earlier known as East Pakistan, with India’s help in 1971.

Upon returning to Bangladesh in 1981, Hasina found herself in and out of detention centres and house arrest for years. She organised opposition to the country’s then-military government, eventually becoming prime minister in 1996 and serving until 2001. She won the highest office again in 2009 and has since remained in power.

Under Hasina, the country of 170 million people has transformed economically, averaging an annual growth rate of 7 per cent in the decade before the coronavirus pandemic, according to CEIC, a data provider.

The World Bank has described Bangladesh as a “remarkable story of poverty reduction and development”, with poverty declining from 41.9 per cent in 1991 to 13.5 per cent in 2016 based on the international poverty line of US$2.15 a day.

And after decades as one of the world’s least developed countries, Bangladesh is expected to become a developing country by 2026, as defined by the United Nations.

Last year, however, the Hasina government sought aid from the International Monetary Fund to boost Bangladesh’s economy following a slump in foreign reserves, economic disruptions amid the war in Ukraine and macroeconomic risks posed by climate change. In January, the IMF agreed to a US$4.7 billion loan.

Bangladesh also ranks as South Asia’s most corrupt country, according to the 2022 Corruption Perceptions Index by Transparency International, trailing only Afghanistan. Hasina has cracked down on opponents as well as independent media through mass arrests and police raids.

Tens of thousands of supporters of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, headed by former prime minister Khaleda Zia, shout slogans calling for Sheikh Hasina’s resignation during a rally in Dhaka in December. Photo: AP
Tens of thousands of supporters of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, headed by former prime minister Khaleda Zia, shout slogans calling for Sheikh Hasina’s resignation during a rally in Dhaka in December. Photo: AP
Meanwhile, her foreign policy under the spectre of the Sino-American rivalry in the Indo-Pacific region has prompted scrutiny.

Bangladesh, strategically located on the Bay of Bengal, has avoided taking sides in the great-power struggle. It sits in a key transit zone for commercial trade between the Indian and Pacific Oceans connecting South Asia with East Asia and the Middle East.

In April, Dhaka issued its first official policy on the Indo-Pacific, calling for the establishment of “rules-based multilateral systems” to promote “equitable and sustainable development”. It showed no explicit preference for either the US or China.

The attempt at equipoise has contributed to Dhaka’s deteriorating ties with the Biden administration. But relations were not always frosty.

The US was among the first countries to recognise Bangladesh as an independent nation in 1971, and Washington is one of Dhaka’s largest trading partners. The two have also coordinated counterterrorism efforts, including joint military exercises in the Bay of Bengal.

In 2020, then-US deputy secretary of state Stephen Biegun called Bangladesh a “key partner” in the Indo-Pacific and “a centrepiece of our work in the region”, adding that the US was committed to growing the “partnership”.

He invited Bangladesh to take part in the Indo-Pacific Business Forum, which aims to advance trade, investment and economic cooperation between the US and Indo-Pacific nations.

Some saw Biegun’s remarks as the US’ invitation to Bangladesh to join the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, a grouping that includes India, Japan and Australia and is perceived by Beijing as anti-China in its strategic objectives.

In 2021, when reports suggested that Bangladesh was considering joining the Quad, Beijing warned Dhaka of “severely” harming relations if it did so. Bangladesh did not pursue Quad membership, unlike its neighbour India.

Joseph Rozen, former Asia-Pacific director at Israel’s national security council, portrayed the latest US-Bangladesh tensions as an “opportunity” for China to expand its influence.

“China provides funding without making a fuss over Bangladesh’s democratic backsliding,” he said.

After refusing to recognise Bangladesh as an independent nation and instead siding with Pakistan in the matter, China established diplomatic ties with Dhaka in 1975. Relations steadily improved, and in 2002, the two signed a defence agreement covering military training and joint arms production.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (centre) with Bangladeshi President Abdul Hamid (centre right), during a 2016 visit to Dhaka. Photo: AFP
Chinese President Xi Jinping (centre) with Bangladeshi President Abdul Hamid (centre right), during a 2016 visit to Dhaka. Photo: AFP
By 2016, Dhaka joined the China-led trade and infrastructure scheme now known as the Belt and Road Initiative during President Xi Jinping’s visit to the capital.

Reports have since surfaced that Bangladesh is mulling joining the Global Development Initiative. Beijing claims the initiative, launched by Xi in 2021, seeks to promote international cooperation in poverty alleviation, food security and other areas beneficial to developing economies.

China is Bangladesh’s top trading partner, according to the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, as well as its largest foreign direct investor and military supplier, encompassing aircraft, tankers, fighter jets and submarines.

In the last six months, senior Beijing officials have visited Dhaka, including a surprise midnight stop by Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang right before US assistant secretary of state Donald Lu’s visit in January. Chinese vice-foreign minister Sun Weidong travelled to Dhaka in May.

Biden, who during his presidency has largely ignored Hasina, is expected to come face to face with the Bangladeshi leader in September at the G20 summit in New Delhi.

Bangladesh has been invited to attend as India’s guest. As with Biden, Modi shares a cordial personal bond with Hasina.

Indian journalist Nayanima Basu in a recent op-ed said it was Modi who convinced the Donald Trump administration to “recognise and accept” Bangladesh’s 2018 election results.

Modi at the time assured the US that Hasina’s government would be stable and work towards American strategic and economic interests in the region and that Dhaka would “keep China at bay and continue playing the fine balancing game”, Basu said.

However, lately it had not been easy for New Delhi to “placate US concerns” under Democratic Party control of the White House and Senate, Basu added, noting the party’s leadership has “always questioned Hasina’s human rights track record and her way of governance”.

During her US trip, the Bangladeshi leader held firm about not interfering where Washington and Beijing were concerned.

“The relations between America and China are their own matter,” Hasina said. “Why should I poke my nose there?”

Bangladesh growth is going to be tough going forward. Its own tax collection is meager. Its foreign sources like FDI are almost non existent. It's going to get tougher in their traditional export markets. Their debt from external sources will be tighter with Moody's and other rating agencies downgrading the country 's profile. China is always there but we all know what happened to all countries which went that way. Not to mention US and Europe will not like that. And given Bangladesh is an LDC. Tough spot Bangladesh is in. But I trust BBS to come out with flying numbers. 😂

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