As the United States government and a bipartisan group of lawmakers mount pressure on Bangladesh’s incumbent Sheikh Hasina’s regime to restore democracy and hold a fair election, China has come forward to defend the current regime’s authoritarian practices. These developments have prompted observers of South Asian politics to ask what these new developments portend for the future of the country. Many are wondering whether the country is being dragged into the new ‘great game’ in South Asia and the theater is being set for a face-off between the United States and China.
Although Bangladesh government officially welcomed the recently announced US visa policy which would deny visas to those who obstruct the election process in Bangladesh, the leaders of the ruling Bangladesh Awami League have doubled down in their anti-American rhetoric and demonstrated defiance to the calls for taking steps to ensure a free, fair and inclusive election scheduled in January 2024.
On June 14, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson, in an interview with the state controlled Global Times, described the US moves as an interference in Bangladesh’s internal affairs. Although Wang Wenbin didn’t mention the US by name, he is reported to have said, “a certain country has long been interfering in the internal affairs of Bangladesh and many other developing countries under the pretext of democracy and human rights.” The Chinese spokesperson expressed unqualified support to the Hasina regime saying that China “firmly support Bangladesh in safeguarding its sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity, upholding independent domestic and foreign policies, and pursuing a development path that suits its national realities.” Although this is the first direct condemnation by China’s Foreign Ministry of US policies regarding Bangladesh, the Chinese Ambassador to Dhaka in 2021 warned Bangladesh of ‘serious consequences’ if Bangladesh joins the QUAD. Bangladesh joined China’s Belt and Road Initiative in 2016.
The United States imposed sanctions on the Bangladeshi police’s elite Rapid Action Battalion in December 2021, and has since repeatedly underscored the need to improve the human rights records of the country and create a conducive environment for a free election. In recent days, a bipartisan group of US law makers have called upon the Biden Administration to impose further punitive measures on the Bangladesh government for its poor Rights record. On June 8, six Democratic Congress Members sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken recommending additional measures to ensure a free and far election. This letter came after six Republican Congress Members wrote a letter to President Joe Biden on May 25th requesting “urgent action to stop the human rights abuses by the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazad of Bangladesh, and to give the people of Bangladesh the best possible chance for free and fair parliamentary elections to be scheduled this fall.”
Meanwhile, six members of the European Parliament sent a letter to the European Union (EU) on 12 June requesting the European commission to make “contribution to ensuring free, fair, and impartial general elections possibly under a poll-time neutral caretaker government in Bangladesh.” They expressed concerns over violation of human rights in Bangladesh and called to restore democracy and the rule of law in Bangladesh in view of its upcoming general elections. The MEPs from six countries requested the European Commission Vice President to take “appropriate measures to give Bangladesh their best chance for free elections, including stricter individual sanctions, banning Bangladesh law enforcement and military personnel from participating in UN peacekeeping missions.” On May 27, The European Union ambassador to Bangladesh, Charles Whiteley said that free and fair elections would be a positive signal for Bangladesh for its readiness to get GSP (Generalized Scheme of Preferences) plus facility for exports of Bangladeshi products to the European Union markets.
In a related development, Human Rights Watch urged the United Nations Under-Secretary-General Jean-Pierre Lacroix to publicly voice concerns over abuses by government security forces during his upcoming visit to Bangladesh. The HRW also asked UN to enhance screening of Bangladesh peacekeepers.
As the Bangladesh government is facing pressure from multiple fronts, Russia had previously expressed its support to the current government. In December 2022, the Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson slammed the US ambassador Peter Haas for his visit to an alleged victim of enforced disappearance. Ambassador Haas was hassled by progovernment activists and had to cut short his visit. A war of words ensued over Twitter, followed by the Russian Foreign Ministry’s comments. A nuclear power plant is being built in Bangladesh by Russia’s state-owned nuclear energy organization Rosatom. Russia sent production materials for the plant in a ship under U.S. sanctions in November last year. The U.S. protested to Bangladesh noting the sanctions it had imposed on the Russian vessel.
Among the regional powers, India, which is the closest ally of the Hasina regime, is yet to make any comments about the US sanctions or the new visa policy. Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi is due to visit Washington as a state guest next week. It is not known whether the Bangladesh issue will be discussed at the Biden-Modi summit. In 2013, ahead of the election in Bangladesh, US and India had disagreed on Bangladesh issue. For their part, Indian commentators have expressed concern about the U.S. visa policy questioning whether this is a sign of decreasing Indian influence in the region.
Recent developments suggest that Bangladeshi politics, especially the upcoming election, is increasingly becoming a bone of contention between the global powers. In this context, Bangladesh may well become a theatre for a face-off between the United States and China. With seven months to go before the election, observers believe the situation is likely to get more tense. The opposition parties are demanding that the election be held under an interim caretaker government, while the ruling party is hell-bent on holding the election under PM Hasina. The previous two elections were held under the incumbent and international observers later described these elections as severely rigged.