Pressure is mounting on India to bail Bangladesh out from a US-imposed political crisis that is shrinking Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s space to manoeuvre and encouraging political opponents, particularly Islamist fundamentalist outfits, to put her in a corner in the run-up to the country’s parliamentary election scheduled for January 2024.
The Sheikh Hasina government is perhaps India’s closest and only reliable partner in a neighbourhood fraught with anti-Indian feelings and shifting loyalties. Although India has traditionally been the acknowledged “big power” in South Asia, in recent years that position has been seriously challenged by China, whose interest and footprint in the region are increasing with each passing day.
Meanwhile, the Joe Biden administration in the US has announced a series of punitive measures to check Bangladesh’s “democratic backsliding” and ensure the parliamentary election is free and fair. In addition to the threat of imposing visa sanctions against anyone who engages in election rigging, the US State Department has imposed sanctions on a number of serving and retired officials of the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), a paramilitary force that has been accused of helping Sheikh Hasina’s party, the Awami League, win past elections. Sheikh Hasina, Prime Minister since 2009, has been accused of manipulating elections and intimidating political opponents to pave the way for her unchallenged authority and successive victories that have made her the longest serving leader in the country.
She has maintained that elections in Bangladesh have always been free and fair. But the US and European nations have put pressure on her to rein in supporters, officials, and government agencies and allow all political parties to participate in elections without fear. This became evident during a recent byelection in Dhaka, when an attack on an opposition party candidate by Awami League supporters led the EU to issue a strongly worded statement criticising the government.
Biden has omitted Bangladesh from the summit of democracies organised by him in past years, although he invited Pakistan and India along with other countries. His administration also ignored Hasina when she visited Washington for a World Bank meeting in May.
Sheikh Hasina, who believes Biden is out to destroy Bangladesh’s democracy, once told her parliament that “America can throw out any government in the world, particularly if it is a Muslim nation”.
US-Imposed crisis squeezes Prime Minister Hasina political leverage
The US’ latest stand has rejuvenated her opponents. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the main opposition party, is upbeat and has been holding rallies and meetings attacking the government. Other organisations, like the Jamaat-e-Islami, an Islamist organisation that maintains close links with Pakistan and collaborated with the Pakistani army during the country’s liberation struggle, are also feeling encouraged by the US position. During Sheikh Hasina’s tenure, many Jamaat leaders were hanged for alleged “war crimes”. The country’s Supreme Court cancelled the organisation’s registration and prevented it from contesting elections. But recently, Jamaat leaders organised a massive rally in Dhaka, its first show of strength in 10 years.
“If elections are free and fair, the Awami League will be decimated,” said Amir Khasru Mahmud Chowdhury, a standing committee member of the BNP. Indeed, the possibility of the BNP ruling Bangladesh with the support of the Jamaat-e-Islami and other fundamentalist outfits has set off alarm bells in Dhaka and New Delhi.
India’s crucial ally
For nearly a decade, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Sheikh Hasina have built a strong relationship of trust and confidence that has served both countries and the region well. Sheikh Hasina’s political acumen in ignoring the anti-Muslim jibes of BJP leaders, often directed at Bangladesh, has successfully insulated bilateral relations and ensured that they remain strong.
Awami League parliamentarian Saber Hossain Chowdhury said: “The India-Bangladesh partnership has expanded from trade and investment to connectivity and security in which people-to-people contact has played an important role as catalyst.” He added that the two governments had created a win-win situation and rely on each other for growth, development, and regional stability.
The success of Indo-Bangladesh ties has allowed Delhi to build a case for how a constructive relationship with India could also benefit other neighbours.
India played a pivotal role in the Liberation war that led to the creation of Bangladesh in 1971, but over the the decades much of that sheen in the bilateral ties had worn off. A series of regimes in Bangladesh actively encouraged anti-India forces to use Bangladeshi territory to carry out their fight against India. After coming to power, Sheikh Hasina stabilised the relationship and drove out the anti-Indian elements from the country. But New Delhi and Dhaka fear that the Biden administration’s latest moves against Bangladesh may jeopardise the relationship.
- US announces steps to check “democratic backsliding” in Bangladesh.
- A BNP victory in the January election could mean a return to unrest and instability.
- For nearly a decade, PM Modi and Sheikh Hasina have built a strong relationship that has served both countries and the region well.
The US lays a lot of emphasis on democracy and human rights in its foreign relations. However, its track record in promoting them has remained dubious. It has often called out countries for democratic backsliding but overlooked the same fault in others when its strategic interests were involved. So, the moot point is why it has chosen to accuse Bangladesh of democratic backsliding.
Michael Kugelman, director of the Washington-based Asia Institute, said that Bangladesh was not strategically so significant that the US could not risk rocking the boat. Bangladesh is a key partner but not a key strategic bet in the US scheme, and this gives the administration the leeway to press ahead on rights and democracy issues.
Economic transformation under Sheikh Hasina
It is widely acknowledged that Sheikh Hasina has transformed the country’s economy. Bangladesh, with a population of 17 crore, has recorded an annual growth rate of 7 per cent in the past decade and its social indicators are also better than most of its South Asian neighbours.
The World Bank has said that Bangladesh has made enormous strides in the past 50 years—from one of the poorest nations at birth, it is now one of the fastest growing economies. In 2022, it sought and got a $4.7 billion loan from the IMF to tide it over a crisis created by disruptions in food, fuel, and fertilizer supplies following the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine. By 2026, Bangladesh is expected to become a developing country.
In terms of geopolitics, Sheikh Hasina has refused to take sides in the ongoing power struggle among the leading powers for control of the Indian Ocean—Bangladesh is located at the apex of the Bay of Bengal, part of the Indian Ocean—an important transit zone through which an estimated 80 per cent of the global maritime trade passes. Bangladesh’s Indo-Pacific policy calls for the establishment of “rules-based multilateral systems” to promote “equitable and sustainable development” while maintaining equidistance from the US and China.
However, in recent years Bangladesh has emerged as a battleground for India and China, with each seeking to establish its influence in the country. The prevailing tensions at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) have also hardened their positions further. The US stepping in to assert itself has complicated this situation further, with the US-China rivalry casting its long shadow on Bangladesh.
Shahab Enam Khan, a political scientist in Dhaka, said: “Bangladesh has substantial trade interests in the US, which is among the big markets for its garments.” He added: “The US’ visa restrictions can significantly strain Bangladesh’s financial connectivity and labour mobility.”
China moves closer
The strain in the Bangladesh-US relationship has allowed China to move closer to Sheikh Hasina. In June, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said in a statement: “We firmly support Bangladesh in safeguarding its sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity.” China also said it supports Bangladesh in upholding independent domestic and foreign policies and pursuing a development path that suits its national realities.
But the emerging situation is seen as a double whammy by India. Its growing closeness with the US has raised expectations that it will intervene with the Biden administration on Sheikh Hasina’s behalf. And China’s decision to stand with Dhaka has now made it imperative that Delhi uses its influence with Washington to bail out Sheikh Hasina. If the US fails to oblige, it will be India’s loss.
India fears it will face a hostile regime in Bangladesh if Sheikh Hasina goes. However, China has maintained close relations with the BNP, whose leadership is also close to Pakistan. Hence, there is little chance of China’s interests in Bangladesh being jeopardised if the BNP comes to power.
Avinash Paliwal, a senior lecturer and South Asian strategic affairs specialist at London’s SOAS University, told Frontline that India’s main challenge is that Sheikh Hasina is facing serious anti-incumbency and the BNP is gaining political momentum. “If it sweeps the election, this challenge will be more pressing for New Delhi,” he added.
Several experts said that the real reason behind the US opposition to Sheikh Hasina was her closeness to China and not the so-called democratic backsliding. “The recent Chinese statement against US sanctions is a culmination of a longer geopolitical struggle between the big two,” said Paliwal.
Shahab Enam Khan emphasises that China is at the centre of the ongoing debate. China’s economic footprint in Bangladesh has been increasing since 2013, all the more after President Xi Jinping visited the country in 2016. Since joining China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Bangladesh has got over $38 billion of investment from China. China is also its largest trade partner; the Sino-Bangladesh bilateral trade is currently worth $25 billion. In comparison, Bangladesh’s trade with the US is around $10 billion and with India it is around $18 billion.
However, the mainstay of China’s bilateral relations with Bangladesh is based on the defence partnership. It began in the 1980s and has grown substantially in subsequent years. Today, China accounts for 72 per cent of Bangladesh’s defence supplies. Dhaka is also the second biggest export destination for Chinese arms after Pakistan.
China’s growing presence in Bangladesh’s defence sector is a major cause for worry for both the US and India. At India’s insistence, Sheikh Hasina refused to allow China to build the Sonadia deep-sea port, scrapping the project despite pursuing it for years. She has now invited Japan to fund a deep-sea port in Matarbari, near Cox’s Bazar, near Chittagong.
In March, Sheikh Hasina inaugurated Bangladesh’s first submarine base, Pekua, near the Kutubdia channel in the Bay of Bengal, built at a cost of $1.21 billion. It will serve as home to two refurbished Chinese submarines that Bangladesh purchased in 2016. Although Chinese experts will train Bangladeshi personnel to operate the base and the submarines, Dhaka has been careful to clarify that it was not for the use of the Chinese navy. Since 2010, Dhaka has bought arms worth $2.37 billion from China, but only $123 million worth of weapons from the US.
American interests in Bangladesh
The US is keen to develop stronger defence ties with Bangladesh given the country’s geographical location. It has supplied Dhaka frigates and military transport aircraft. It wants the government to sign two foundational agreements—the General Security of Military Agreement and the Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement—that will enhance mutual defence cooperation. However, Bangladesh has not been in any hurry. The US has said that the agreements will help forge stronger defence ties and expand opportunities for defence-related trade, information sharing, and military-to-military cooperation.
The US, according to Paliwal, believes that Sheikh Hasina’s authoritarianism made Bangladesh more susceptible to China making steady inroads in the country, and the US administration thinks that the BNP will be able to contain Chinese influence. “The idea is not to roll back Beijing’s presence in toto, but to limit it,” he added. In July, Uzra Zeya, US Under Secretary for Democracy and Human Rights, met Sheikh Hasina with a delegation of senior State Department officials. During her conversation with Sheikh Hasina, she praised Dhaka for hosting a million Rohingya refugees over the past years, but she also stressed the need for holding free and fair elections.
The Asia Institute’s Kugelman said: “The US is genuinely interested in a strong partnership with Dhaka. But it wants to give a strong incentive to Bangladesh to take all measures to ensure a free and fair election, so that it doesn’t need to reconsider its ties with Dhaka.”
By most accounts if Sheikh Hasina loses in the election, Bangladesh may struggle to find political and economic stability for several years and may once again become a hotbed of terrorist and fundamentalist forces. The Awami League’s departure would be a cause of concern not only for India but for the entire region if it ushers in another spell of unrest and violence in South Asia.
Pranay Sharma is a commentator on political and foreign affairs related developments. He has worked in senior editorial positions in leading media organisations.