February 27, 2024

Bangladesh caught between US-China rivalry

Bangladesh is caught in a cleft between Washington’s escalating rivalry with Beijing in South Asia.
Keywords: South Asia, Bangladesh, China, America, Conflict, BRI, Rivalry, Geopolitics
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Bangladesh is caught in a cleft between Washington’s escalating rivalry with Beijing in South Asia. The United States is monitoring nations that joined China’s ambitious Belt & Road Initiative (BRI), namely, Sri Lanka that has ousted the Rajapakse family; Pakistan where popular Prime Minister Imran Khan has been removed to make way for the return of Nawaz Sharif who joined the BRI but may be more amenable to US demands; Nepal which is currently experiencing turmoil; and Myanmar which is embroiled in ethnic strife. As Bangladesh’s national elections approach, Washington has raised the ante over democratic freedoms in the country. 

India raised the issue of US interference in Bangladesh diplomatically after Washington imposed a new visa regime viewed as exerting pressure on the ruling Awami League party. As Washington seeks a greater military presence in the Bay of Bengal, India fears this would increase US meddling in her northeast, especially Manipur. 

Washington wants to block China’s land-to-sea access routes to the Indian Ocean, namely, the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (Yunnan-Rakhine) and China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (Xinjiang-Balochistan). It supports Baloch and Rakhine insurgents, supplying weapons via warships moving close to the Rakhine (Myanmar) and Makran (Pakistan) coasts. It is pressing Sheikh Hasina to sign two military-related pacts, viz, General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) and Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreements (ACSA), and possibly support a no-fly zone in the Bay of Bengal, over Rakhine State. 

In a number of high-level visits during 2023, Washington hinted that a decisive victory for the Arakan Army rebels in Rakhine could aid the repatriation of one million Rohingya refugees whom Dhaka is keen to send back. For this, the Myanmar air force, which has acquired Sukhoi fighters, must be restrained from controlling the skies above Rakhine State so that the Arakan Army rebels can control the region. 

However, China fears that an independent Rakhine backed by the US could jeopardise the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor and give Washington control of the China-funded Kyaukphyu deep sea port. This could trigger secessionist movements in the western Myanmar states of Chin and Kachin. Beijing has assured Sheikh Hasina of support in UN forums and called for non-interference in the internal affairs of Bangladesh. India, too, does not favour US-backed statelets on its borders with Myanmar.

Russia has helped Dhaka to deflect US sanctions by de-dollarizing the nuclear power plant deal with its nuclear energy firm, Rosatom. On October 6, 2023, Dhaka received the first shipment of Russian uranium for the plant, which will go online in July 2024. Hence, Dhaka is playing a balancing game, both abstaining from and supporting UN resolutions urging Russian withdrawal from Ukraine.

Sheikh Hasina blocked around 69 sanctioned Russian ships from docking in Bangladesh, but in September 2023, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov visited Dhaka. On November 22, 2023, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova accused Peter Haas, the US ambassador in Dhaka, of aiding the opposition to hold anti-government rallies in Bangladesh, and called it “gross interference” in the nation’s internal affairs. The Bangladesh National Party (BNP) denied the meeting. 

The BNP is headed by the ailing Khaleda Zia, widow of former army chief and BNP founder Ziaur Rahman, who was assassinated in 1981. Rahman began the Islamization of Bangladesh and the BNP is allied with conservative groups, while religious minorities prefer the Awami League.

Islamic groups nourished under the BNP regime continued to operate in the country. On July 1, 2016, Holy Bakery in Gulshan district, popular among foreign and local elites, was attacked by five men armed with bombs, pistols, assault rifles, and machetes. The assailants denounced foreigners for wearing skimpy clothes, drinking alcohol, and encouraging local youth to do the same. In the end, all five terrorists were killed along with 22 civilians (locals, Italians, and Japanese tourists) and five policemen.

Since then, there have been more than 30 attacks targetting Hindus, academics, and secular writers and bloggers, causing the Awami League government to crack down on Islamist groups. Opposition parties allege that critics of the regime are being rounded up in large numbers. 

The BNP is currently headed by acting chairman Tarique Rahman, son of Khaleda Zia, who went into self-imposed exile in London after the Awami League came to power in 2009. Rahman was known as “Bangladesh’s very own Mr 10 per cent”, and for intimidating and assaulting journalists trying to cover his “excesses”. In August 2023, Rahman and wife Zubaida were given a three-year jail sentence in a graft case filed by the Anti-Corruption Commission in 2007. In May 2023, Dhaka Tribune ran a three-part series on corruption and financial irregularities during the BNP tenure (2001-06) based on documentary evidence; Rahman was mentioned as the “dark prince”. 

On Sept 24, 2023, Somoy News reported that a BNP team met an Indian delegation in Singapore on August 26, 2023, to discuss the situation in Bangladesh. They were reportedly told that the BNP should remove Tarique Rahman as party chief and sever ties with the Jamaat-e-Islami as a prelude to talks. India expressed disapproval of Rahman’s links with Dawood Ibrahim (wanted for his role in the Mumbai 1993 bomb blasts) and Pakistan’s spy agency, ISI. 

Sheikh Hasina has cracked down on militant groups using Bangladesh’s territory for insurgencies against India and extradited militant leaders of groups like ULFA back to India. In 2015, the Land Boundary Agreement was implemented, and water-sharing agreements are being hammered out.

On November 1, 2023, Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Sheikh Hasina jointly inaugurated three crucial infrastructure projects bolstering power and railways connectivity in the region, viz., the Akhaura-Agartala Cross-Border Rail Link; Khulna-Mongla Port Rail Line; Unit-II of the Maitree Super Thermal Power Plant. India and Bangladesh are also working on a trilateral power trade deal with India, Nepal and Bangladesh. 

The Awami League government cites the introduction of transparent ballot boxes and registration papers linked to ID cards and biometric data as evidence of its commitment to free elections. But the economy is in trouble, with near double-digit inflation and depleted foreign exchange reserves that affect the ability of firms to trade; there is a currency crisis and labour problems. The garment workers’ strike is regarded as a foreign-funded move for regime change. Dhaka relies on nearly $25 billion in remittances from its 14 million-strong diaspora. The Ukraine war has increased prices of fuel and essential commodities which are hurting ordinary folk. 

The opposition parties’ main grievance is that the Awami League in 2011 removed the provision of holding national elections under a non-partisan entity (Caretaker Government). This provision had been inserted into the 1996 Constitution because of the then-opposition Awami League’s relentless agitation. The Awami League won a fair election in 2008 but has since been concentrating power in its hands.

Prof Ali Riaz of Illinois State University and senior fellow of Atlantic Council, observes that the Awami League is confident that the disunited opposition will not be able to mount an effective challenge to it. 

As the last date for filing nominations closes on November 30, parties boycotting the elections include the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), a Left party alliance called Bam Ganatantrik Jot and the Ganatantra Mancha alliance. The Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) cannot contest as its registration was cancelled by a high court order in August, and its appeal was dismissed in the Supreme Court. Bangladesh’s third largest party, the Jatiya Party (JP), which has two groups, is contesting.

However, new parties are emerging that include BNP deserters. These include Trinamool (grassroots) BNP, Bangladesh Nationalist Movement and Bangladesh Supreme Party, which were registered in 2023. Two BNP national executive members launched the Swatantra Ganatantra Mancha on November 15. These are being criticised as “King’s parties” (state patronised). The Bangladesh Kalyan Party, which was part of the BNP-led 12-party alliance formed in 2022, has floated a new alliance, the Jukta Front, to contest the elections.

Media reports claim that many BNP and JeI leaders could contest the elections on the tickets of one of the new parties or as independents. The final picture will be clear only after the polls on January 7, 2024.

References:

1] Sheikh Hasina and the Future of Democracy in Bangladesh, Time, November 2, 2023.

https://time.com/6330463/bangladesh-sheikh-hasina-wazed-profile/?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=editorial&utm_term=world_asia&linkId=245610771

2] ‘We will protect Hindus at all costs’, says Bangladesh home minister ahead of January elections, Deep Halder, 25 July 2023.

3] India’s Reported Pushback Against US Meddling In Bangladesh Is Driven By Security Concerns, Andrew Korybko, August 26, 2023.

India’s Reported Pushback Against US Meddling In Bangladesh Is Driven By Security Concerns

4] Ahead of Election, Bangladesh’s Political Turmoil Spills into the Streets, USIP, Geoffrey Macdonald, Ph.D., November 22, 2023. https://www.usip.org/publications/2023/11/ahead-election-bangladeshs-political-turmoil-spills-streets

5] Russia accuses US envoy Peter Haas of aiding anti-govt rallies in Bangladesh, Dhaka Tribune, November 23, 2023. https://www.dhakatribune.com/331920

6] Bangladesh is poised for an election to seal autocratic rule, Ali Riaz, 22 November 2023.

https://www.benarnews.org/english/commentaries/bangladesh-election-autocratic-rule-11222023112036.html

7] Bangladesh Prepping for ‘Unfair’ Election, Say Analysts, Opposition, Voice of America, Shaikh Azizur Rahman, November 24, 2023.

https://www.voanews.com/a/bangladesh-prepping-for-unfair-election-say-analysts-opposition-/7369212.html

8] Protests, Crackdowns, Boycott Calls Complicate Bangladesh’s Election Scenario, The Diplomat, Nov 24, 2023.

https://thediplomat.com/2023/11/protests-crackdowns-boycott-calls-complicate-bangladeshs-election-scenario/

9] BNP expects Russia’s positive role in restoring Bangladesh’s democracy, Nov 25, 2023.

https://bnpbd.org/all-news/6561b8d940c39ea8a5101ba5

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Sandhya Jain

Sandhya Jain is a political analyst, independent researcher, and author of multiple books. She is also editor of the platform Vijayvaani

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