Bangladesh is emerging as an important site of big power competition.
The country has witnessed a flurry of visits from U.S. and Chinese officials in recent weeks. On January 14, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Donald Lu was in Dhaka, where he held a series of meetings with political parties, senior officials, and civil society leaders. The previous week, Rear Admiral Eileen Laubacher, the senior director for South Asia at the White House’s National Security Council, was in Bangladesh on a four-day visit. She met Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister Abul Kalam Abdul Momen on January 9.
A day after Laubacher’s meeting with Momen, newly appointed Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang stopped over at Dhaka to meet his Bangladeshi counterpart at the airport. This was his first-ever visit abroad as foreign minister.
The visit broke with Chinese diplomatic tradition. It is customary for Chinese foreign ministers to make an African country the destination of their first foreign visit each year, but this year, the new foreign minister touched down in Dhaka first. Although Qin was heading to Africa and the meeting with Momen was not an official visit, the Chinese foreign minister’s short halt in the Bangladeshi capital – he met Momen at the airport for less than an hour and in the middle of the night – was significant and did not go unnoticed in diplomatic circles in Dhaka and abroad.
Soon after Qin’s visit, a high-level delegation of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) led by the deputy head of the International Department of the CCP Central Committee, Chen Zhou, arrived in Bangladesh. The delegation held lectures interpreting the spirit of the 20th CCP National Congress.
Since it emerged as an independent country in 1971, Bangladesh’s foreign policy has been based on “friendship to all and malice to none.” This strategy has worked well for the country. However, increasingly, the big powers are pressuring Dhaka to take sides in their rivalries.
In October 2020, then-U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen E. Biegun invited Bangladesh to join the Quad. Describing Bangladesh as a key partner in the Indo-Pacific region, Beigun stressed the U.S. commitment to “growing our partnership… to advance a free and open Indo-Pacific.”
“Bangladesh will be a centerpiece of our work in the region,” he added.
The U.S. attempt to draw Bangladesh into its Indo-Pacific strategy prompted a Chinese response. In May 2021, Chinese Ambassador to Bangladesh Li Jiming warned that “Bangladesh’s relations with China will substantially be damaged” if Bangladesh joins “the small club of four,” i.e. the Quad. Although China has often called on Bangladesh to stay neutral between the big powers, it is wooing Dhaka to join its Global Development Initiative (GDI) and the Global Security Initiative (GSI).
Meanwhile, the United States and Russia have been engaging in a war of words over Bangladesh. In late December, Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova slammed the U.S. at a regular press briefing in Moscow. The U.S. ambassador in Dhaka, Peter D. Haas, is “persistently trying to influence the domestic processes in the country,” she said.
Earlier, the Russian embassy in Dhaka had released a statement criticizing “the hegemonic ambitions” of countries that identify themselves as “developed democracies.” “Under the pretext of protecting ‘democratic values’, work is underway to interfere in the internal affairs of those who are out of favor with the states that consider themselves ‘rulers of the world,’” it added.
Russia’s criticism of the U.S. came amid Haas’ mounting outreach on issues relating to Bangladesh’s domestic politics.
During a visit to the Election Commission of Bangladesh in June, when he met Chief Election Commissioner Kazi Habibul Awal, Haas called for “transparent” elections in the country. Bangladesh is scheduled to vote in national elections in December this year. General elections in 2013 and 2018 drew global criticism for massive irregularities, and there is concern now that the ruling Awami League will not hold free and fair elections.
More recently, Haas visited the family of opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party leader Sajedul Islam Sumon, who has been missing for a decade. Over the past decade, the AL government has jailed hundreds of BNP leaders and activists. Amid an economic crisis, a rejuvenated BNP has been spearheading nationwide mass protests against the government’s mishandling of the economy. These protests culminated in a massive rally in Dhaka on December 10, where several BNP leaders were arrested. Haas’ visit to Sumon’s residence came a few days after the Dhaka rally.
Responding to the Russian criticism of its meddling in Bangladesh’s domestic politics, the U.S. embassy in Dhaka tweeted that the United States is always against interfering in the internal affairs of other countries.
Reacting to the Russia-U.S. statements and counter-statements, Momen stepped in to say that Bangladesh does “not want Russia, the USA or any other country to interfere in our internal matters.”
Bangladesh’s location in the Bay of Bengal provides it with geopolitical significance. The noted scholar of geopolitics Robert Kaplan predicted that “the Indian Ocean will be the center of global conflicts” due to its importance as a shipping route to the world economy. The interests and influences of the big powers overlap and intersect in the Indian Ocean. According to Kaplan, the 21st century’s “global power dynamics will be revealed” in the Indian Ocean.
As an Indian Ocean littoral, Bangladesh offers the big powers an important launching pad to expand their network in South Asia and the Indian Ocean.
Chinese geopolitical interests in the Indian Ocean are well known. With much of its trade with the Gulf and Africa conducted via the Indian Ocean, Beijing has sought to enhance its presence in the region through the Belt and Road Initiative. It has made considerable progress in this regard.
As for the U.S., if in the past Pakistan and India were the focus of its diplomatic efforts, increasingly Washington is turning its attention to other South Asian nations, including Bangladesh, Nepal, and Myanmar. The Burma Act, which authorizes the “Department of State and U.S. Agency for International Development activities in Burma and the surrounding region to support democracy activists, humanitarian assistance, and reconciliation efforts” signals the nature of its engagement in these countries.
In Bangladesh, the United States has become increasingly vocal on democracy issues. In December 2021, it imposed sanctions on the Rapid Action Battalion, Bangladesh’s elite paramilitary force, and on seven of its current and former officers for human rights violations.
Bangladesh could have played a more assertive role in big-power rivalries. But its internal political frictions, economic crisis, legitimacy crisis, lack of democratic values, and human rights violations have undermined its capacity to take decisions freely and rationally.
Its economy is highly dependent on the United States; the latter is the single largest market for Bangladeshi goods. Bangladesh is also one of the largest recipients of U.S. assistance in Asia.
On the other hand, Bangladesh has a strong economic relationship with China. Beijing’s trade, investment, and loans to Bangladesh are worth around $60 billion – the largest ever pledged to Bangladesh by a single country.
Its economic dependence on these countries limits Bangladesh’s capacity to make decisions independently.
While the U.S. is using the democracy stick to get Bangladesh to toe its line, China and Russia have been offering unconditional support, including monetary assistance to the AL government, and in the process strengthening it.
While the big powers battle for influence, and with the government focused on political survival, the needs of the common people are being ignored.