US Softening Stance on Bangladesh Could Heighten China-India Rivalry for Regional Dominance

Faisal Mahmud & Shaquib Ahmed | 08 June 2024
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With countering Chinese influence being the sole focus, the US has sidelined its concerns about democracy and human rights under the Sheikh Hasina regime.

In May, United States Assistant Secretary of State Donald Lu visited Bangladesh, indicating a softening of America’s stance towards the country. This comes despite mounting domestic and international concerns, including several rounds of criticism by the United States about Bangladesh’s authoritarian tilt.

Lu’s visit on May 14-16, which focused on climate change and economic ties, avoided any discussion on the January 7 national election in which Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League secured a fourth consecutive term.

Just over a day after the elections, the United States on January 9 said the polls were not “free or fair”. The opposition Bangladesh National Party had boycotted the elections alleging voter suppression, widespread arrests and a climate of fear in the country.

A series of high-level visits from Washington, including by Lu in January 2023, had culminated in the announcement in May of visa restrictions on Bangladeshis implicated in undermining the democratic election process.

This significantly strained the bilateral relationship between the two countries, with the Bangladesh government fearing the imposition of even harsher economic sanctions.

But that never happened.

Soon after Lu’s visit, the US imposed sanctions on Bangladesh’s former army chief Aziz Ahmed for “corruption” and “undermining the country’s democratic institutions” – but nothing more.

The apparent shift in Washington DC’s outlook towards Bangladesh, reportedly at the behest of India, is an indication of the complex geopolitical dance by the US in the Bay of Bengal, where the top priority is countering China’s growing influence.

These strategic moves by the US, analysts say, also highlight the realpolitik at play where democratic ideals are tempered by geo-political considerations.

These developments could also result in Bangladesh getting caught in-between India and China’s rivalry for dominance in the subcontinent. China has been making overtures to Nepal and Bhutan as well.

India’s role

Lu’s interview with Bengali daily Prothom Alo on May 16 confirmed speculation that the US had eased pressure on the Awami League government at India’s behest, according to political analyst Zahed Ur Rahman.

In response to a question about whether Washington DC sees Bangladesh through New Delhi’s lens, Lu said:

“America views its interests in Bangladesh through the lens of America’s interest...I would say that sometimes America influences Indian policy and sometimes India influences American policy. That’s what we call diplomacy.”

This statement, according to Rahman, unequivocally demonstrates the influence of New Delhi on US foreign policy decisions on Bangladesh.

“It’s clear that New Delhi successfully persuaded Washington that maintaining the current authoritarian regime in Bangladesh served their interests,” said Rahman.

The question of whether the US views Bangladesh through India’s lens is irrelevant, says Rahman, as India will always be a more significant player in American foreign policy.

Former diplomat Saquib Ali joked that India had likely received a thank-you note from the Awami League government for its efforts.

This sentiment was echoed by Obaidul Quader, general secretary of the Awami League, who said that no powerful country could have interfered in the January 7 election due to India’s support for Bangladesh.

According to Ali, India believes that American pressure on Bangladesh over democracy and human rights could push the Hasina government closer to China, potentially undermining the Indo-Pacific strategy.

India’s concern over Chinese influence in Bangladesh stems from the country’s strategic location. Bangladesh holds far greater strategic importance for India than for China or the US, say experts. Whether it is infrastructure projects, communication or security issues, events in Bangladesh directly impact India, but not the US or China.

The US remains concerned about the autocratic nature of governance in Dhaka, but India views the current regime as a key pillar of its Neighborhood First Policy, capable of maintaining regional stability.

Md Touhid Hossain, a former foreign secretary of Bangladesh, is confident that Washington DC will avoid any actions in Bangladesh that could cause friction with New Delhi. He emphasised that “the US sees India as the sole counterforce to resist China in South Asia”.

Daniel Markey, a senior advisor at the United States Institute of Peace, agreed. He said that Washington DC has viewed India as a major global player and potential strategic partner for two decades.

Markey, author of China’s Western Horizon: Beijing and the New Geopolitics of Eurasia, said that Bangladesh has important trade relations with Washington but it is far less geopolitically significant than India.

This is the disparity in importance that Washington assigns to these two South Asian nations in its strategic calculations.

Therefore, the US cannot overlook India’s importance, interests, and concerns in its strategic partnership to counter China’s regional ambitions.

Brig Gen (retd) M Sakhawat Hossain, a former Bangladeshi election commissioner, predicted that America’s geopolitical strategy will heighten the stakes in China and India’s competition for Bangladesh.

“With Washington backing India, Dhaka will find it increasingly challenging to choose between Beijing and New Delhi,” he said, suggesting that Bangladesh will be caught in the crossfire if the rivalry between the US-India and China intensifies.

This article was originally published on The Scroll.
Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy