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Bangladesh At Crossroad: Geopolitical Headwinds Coming In

Bangladesh At Crossroad: Geopolitical Headwinds Coming In

Bangladesh’s election is just over and Awami League President Sheikh Hasina once again consolidate her grief on power again through the one-sided elections. But the geopolitical headwinds brewing up as global powers are in great rivalry and Bangladesh finds itself a key player in the Indo-Pacific battle ground.

Strategically located as a link between South Asia and the rest of the Indo-Pacific, Bangladesh has emerged as a highly sought-after partner in the region’s ever-changing geopolitical landscape. It is a prime candidate to partner with China in the hypothesized "String of Pearls" strategy and the formation of the "Maritime Silk Road" and “Belt and Road Initiative” also, Dhaka’s Indo-Pacific policy emphasizes neutrality and achieving close economic ties with both China and the US. 

Bangladesh is also vital geopolitical allies to India and Russia, true friends of Bangladesh since the liberation war.

The struggle for influence between these rivals gives Bangladesh a unique opportunity to emerge as a key player in shaping the future of Asia. 

However, Bangladesh needs to play an intricate, diplomatic balancing act. It needs to maintain favorable and balanced bilateral relations to safeguards its national interest and beyond.

Bangladesh Experienced but Managed Super Powers’ Show

Bangladesh has in recent years drawn solicitous attention in the realm of geopolitics. In 2020, then-Deputy Secretary of US State Stephen Biegun said the United States was committed to growing its partnership with Bangladesh as “a key partner in the Indo-Pacific region.” In 2022, the Japan’s then-ambassador in Dhaka, Ito Naoki, called Bangladesh a “vital country in geopolitical terms,” and in 2023 French President Emmanuel Macron visited Bangladesh to “consolidate” France’s Indo-Pacific Strategy.

In a press statement on December 10, 2021, the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken imposed sanctions on officials of elite Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) in connection with alleged serious human rights abuse.

In May 2023, the US government enacted a visa policy which denied visas to those engaged in undermining the “democratic election process”. On November 13, 2023, US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Donald Lu wrote to all three major parties – the AL, BNP and the Jatiya Party – calling for “dialogue without preconditions”. 

The USA Ambassador to Bangladesh Peter Haas was then playing a dubious role—frequently met with leaders of political parties, calling for ensuring level playing field for the elections and criticized the government. 

On Nov 23, 2023, Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova has accused Peter Haas of grossly interfering in Bangladesh's internal affairs. The claim which USA denied later.

Again, on Nov 23, 2023, Russia accused the USA that the country is likely to destabilize the situation in Bangladesh along the lines of ‘Arab Spring’. 

Russia and China, both expressed their position that they will not interfere in Bangladesh’s internal matter and will oppose any external meddling—read the USA—to safeguard Bangladesh’s sovereignty and peoples’ choice. 

India also took the same stance, affirming its commitment to respect citizens’ choice to select their leader and not to interfere in internal matters. 

Amidst these rivalry and concern, Bangladesh arranged its “all but managed elections” on Sunday.

Just after the election results came out, three countries - China, India, and Russia - congratulated Prime Minister Hasina and the Awami League on election result. 

Chinese President Xi Jinping sent a congratulatory message to Sheikh Hasina.

Xi Jinping pointed out that China and Bangladesh firmly support each other on issues that bear on each other's core interests, and jointly pursue the development and revitalization of each country, bringing tangible benefits to the peoples of the two countries.

Russian President Vladimir Putin in his congratulatory letter, said, "Russia-Bangladeshi relations have been traditionally developing in the spirit of friendship. Hopefully, your activities as the Head of the Government will further contribute to strengthening the constructive bilateral cooperation for the benefit of the people of our countries,".

In a post on X (Twitter), Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, “Spoke to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and congratulated her on her victory for a historic fourth consecutive term in the parliamentary elections...we are committed to further strengthen our enduring and people-centric partnership with Bangladesh."

"We are committed to further strengthen our enduring and people-centric partnership with Bangladesh," Modi added.

On the other hand, the Washington and London criticized the election as ‘illegitimate’. US State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller, in a statement, said that Washington believed the voting process was “not free and fair, and we regret that not all parties participated”. The UK criticized what it described as “acts of intimidation and violence” during the election.

In response the former foreign minister AK Abdul Momen said on Tuesday (January 9), “We’re not bothered.”

Canada and Australia alongside the European Union also expressed their disappointment over the January 7 polls.

However, they vowed to continue partnering with Bangladesh on various aspects as in the past. 

However, these contrasting scenarios between the West’s condemnation and the welcoming embrace of China and Russia is a window into geopolitical rivalry centering Bangladesh.

Analysts fear that West’s increasing pressure and interference could end up pushing Dhaka even closer to Beijing and Moscow and could deteriorate ties with the west specially with the USA.

What Next? 

Imposing punitive measures like sanctions on Bangladesh is too risky for the west given Bangladesh’s geopolitical locations and booming economy.

Yet, Bangladesh, too, faces tough choices as western countries are our important development partners.

Bangladesh’s apparel industry, which employs more than four million workers, clocked exports worth $47bn in 2023 – 84 percent of the country’s total exports. The US is the single largest export destination for Bangladeshi garments.

However, recently, eight US Congress members wrote to the American Apparel and Footwear Association to pressure Dhaka on fair wages and labour rights. Bangladesh’s embassy in Washington has cautioned Bangladesh government that our RMG sector could become a target of Western measures.

In this regard, BKMEA Vice-President Fazlee Shameem Ehsan said, “There may be incidents which are not visible, in this regard we have nothing to do,” he said.

“Such sanctions will actually affect the owners, workers and the government. So, these sanctions should be dealt with diplomatically by the government,” Mohammad Hatem, executive president of the BKMEA said.

But potential sanctions against could backfire against the USA.

If the USA imposes sanctions on Bangladesh, American consumers may face higher clothing prices. Businesses relocating supply sources due to US-China tension would incur additional costs. 

On the other hand, any resulting economic turmoil would only push Bangladesh even further towards China and Russia. Any imposed crisis will require deep-pocket support and there will be increasing affinity with these two countries.

China is financing large infrastructure projects in Bangladesh, with Belt and Road Initiative financed infrastructure projects surpassing $10 billion.

India, a vital ally of USA in Asia, openly supports Bangladesh and its new government which could impact USA’s policymakers to impose harsher measure against Bangladesh. Its not feasible for the USA to avoid India to impose any foreign policy in Bangladesh which gives Bangladesh an opportunity to balance diplomatic ties with the West and China, Russia at a time.

Dhaka also trying to balance its diplomatic relations with all in line with its foreign policy principals—"Friendship to all, malice to none.”

Awami League spokesperson Mahbubul Alam Hanif recently said that Sunday’s election would not affect the government’s relations with the West.

“We have development partners and they often give suggestions, including to strengthen democracy, but I don’t think Sunday’s election affects US-Bangladesh ties,” Hanif said.

Defying the odds, Sheikh Hasina’s government has tried to balance these outside influences, accepting partnership from different foreign powers while endeavoring to avoid dependence.

Challenges Ahead As Bangladesh Steps Forward 

Our relationship with the global community is multi-dimensional. As a rising star, Bangladesh’s social and economic development so far is linked with its foreign development partner. Our export earnings are also linked to our external partners and trade ties. 

Furthermore, Bangladesh aims to undergo LDC graduation in 2026. This necessitates establishing a distinct presence in the global arena, as numerous unilateral concessions enjoyed for decades will be phased out. The upcoming task involves renegotiating various agreements related to trade, loans, and development assistance, alongside internal reforms to meet external expectations—a formidable challenge.

The European Union has indicated that the democratic credentials of Bangladesh will be an important factor for sustaining and furthering the existing trade. 

Geopolitical challenges also await amid rising tensions in the Indo-Pacific, particularly with India and China. Both the US and China are influential players in Bangladesh, vying for its alliance. Speculations suggest a growing proximity to China due to the need for support in infrastructure and economic development.

As we move forward, navigating a potentially zero-sum scenario, the challenge lies in how we manage it in the coming months and years. All our partners are crucial; remittances from the Middle East and the US are vital for our economy. Our interdependence is evident in trade, importing from China and India, adding value locally, and exporting to Europe and the US. Any adverse impact on these pillars affects the entire structure.

Bangladesh must uphold a balanced trade relationship with major global powers like China, India, the US, EU, and Japan. To do this Bangladesh announced its Indo-Pacific Outlook in April 2023, which prioritized a free, open, peaceful, secure, and inclusive Indo-Pacific for the prosperity of all.

Bangladesh’s Indo-Pacific Outlook

Bangladesh has announced its ‘Indo-Pacific Outlook’ (IPO), focusing on the expansion and continued engagement in constructive regional and international cooperation processes, which are instrumental for both Bangladesh’s and the region’s sustainable growth.

The IPO was prepared with 15-point objectives based on four guiding principles. The four guiding policies determine the Bangladesh IPO. These are:

And the 15 objectives of Bangladesh’s IPO are as follows:

The Indo-Pacific is now a pivotal focus of global geopolitics. Amidst escalating power rivalries, Bangladesh must grasp the dynamics of global competition and adeptly navigate foreign relations. Its capacity to safeguard national interests will decide whether it succumbs to bloc politics or preserves political independence in this evolving geopolitical landscape.

Sayed Hasan Al Manzur
Author

Sayed Hasan Al Manzur

Editor-In-Chief

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