Earlier this month I had the opportunity to get together with a group of close friends from my university days. One of the weekend’s activities was a friendly poker game, and I confess that I left the table poorer than I was when I sat down to play. Among other reasons for my disappointing performance was my proclivity for overplaying my hand. On more than one occasion I misjudged the strength of my hand and ended up making bad bets, which my savvier opponents were more than happy to capitalize upon. Fortunately, it was a friendly game, and my losses were more to my pride than my wallet. Clearly, however, I need to reassess my strategy before I next sit down at the card table.
I’ve been thinking about my poker playing skills as I’ve watched the news out of Dhaka in recent days, with various government officials, politicians and pundits reacting to the recent U.S. decision to institute a new visa policy to promote free and fair elections in Bangladesh. Reactions have also come in from others in the region and further afield and have been increasingly virulent on social media platforms. As I have read opinions on both sides of the political divide, I’ve been wondering both which side holds the stronger hand and which side has been playing better the cards they have been dealt.
On the side of those who have criticized U.S. policy, the strongest cards being played have focused on Bangladesh’s supposed strategic importance to the U.S. and its allies. U.S. critics point to Bangladesh’s leading role in supplying peacekeeping troops, its geopolitical position in the Indian Ocean Region, and the powerful potential suitors waiting in the wings who would embrace Dhaka if relations with Washington were to weaken further. In this last argument, China looms large, and the Chinese Embassy has recently entered the fray by explicitly stating its support for Bangladesh in “safeguarding its sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity…”. Government supporters also have focused on the misdeeds of the past BNP governments and raised the specter of resurgent Islamist parties as additional trump cards.
While some may see the above as a very strong hand to play and may be tempted to double down, I am not so sure that this would be a good bet for Bangladesh. No doubt, the United States and others would prefer to build a stronger partnership with Bangladesh that would include closer cooperation in the Indian Ocean Region and beyond. The competition between the United States and its Allies and the Chinese regime is not going away and one of the strengths that the former enjoys is the broader coalition it has assembled. The Chinese are largely isolated, and their few allies carry substantial baggage. On balance, it would be helpful for the U.S. and others to count on Bangladesh’s support in this competition.
That said, when one looks at the future of the Indian Ocean Region and possible kinetic and non-kinetic threats from China, it is hard to see Bangladesh playing a major role. Despite what leftist conspiracy theorists might believe, the United States is not counting on a base on St. Martin Island as a linchpin of our naval strategy in the Indian Ocean. It is also unlikely that Bangladesh would ever move too close to the Chinese for fear of provoking a negative reaction from their Indian patrons. As others around the world have also learned the hard way, moving closer to China is not without cost. In my estimation, threats from Bangladesh to switch sides and enter the Chinese orbit are akin to the bad bluffs I have seen at the poker table.
More broadly, my friends in Bangladesh should pause and think about the benefits they derive from their country’s relationship with the United States. Looking at the trade and investment numbers, considering bilateral and multilateral development assistance, and factoring in the “soft power” elements of people to people and cross-cultural exchanges, it is hard to argue that the United States is the primary beneficiary. After all, there are other countries who would gladly sell ready-made garments and other goods to the United States and there are plenty of worthy beneficiaries for development assistance. While Bangladeshi Peace Keeping Forces have served bravely and honorably around the world, there are other countries who could fill the void over time if Dhaka withdrew its troops. Support from Bangladesh in votes at the United Nations is welcome, but historically difficult to count upon. Bangladesh has generously provided refuge for the Rohingyas fleeing persecution in Burma and the United States and others have been equally generous in providing financial support for these refugees. Ultimately, however, Bangladesh is under international obligations to do so and is not doing the United States a favor by accepting these refugees.
The above is not intended to come across as a threat or to advocate for a break in relations between the United States and Bangladesh. To the contrary, like many who have lived and worked in Bangladesh, I would like nothing more than to see the bilateral relationship strengthen further. Rather, what I am trying to point out is that policy makers in Dhaka should carefully look at their hand as they decide how to respond to the latest U.S. policy initiative. While Bangladesh and its people matter, so do the greater stakes at risk. The Biden Administration has made it clear that the values agenda, related to human rights and democracy, are important to the United States. The sooner that Prime Minister Hasina and her government understand the strength of their hand and act accordingly the better it will be for all involved. The alternative of going all in and having someone call your bluff can lead to a much less pleasant result.