In a surprised press statement the US Secretary of State, Blinkin announced a new visa policy apparently to support Bangladesh’s goal of holding free, fair, and peaceful national elections. Under this policy, the United States will be able to restrict the issuance of visas for any Bangladeshi individual, believed to be responsible for, or complicit in, undermining the democratic election process in Bangladesh. This would also include current and former Bangladeshi officials, members of pro-government and opposition political parties, and members of law enforcement, the judiciary, and security services.
According to this policy actions that undermine the democratic election process include vote rigging, voter intimidation, the use of violence to prevent people from exercising their right to freedoms of association and peaceful assembly, and the use of measures designed to prevent political parties, voters, civil society, or the media from disseminating their views. Blinkin said that he was announcing this policy to lend US support to all those seeking to advance democracy in Bangladesh. These mysterious and selective preferences of the US at the time of heightened Chia-US competition need to be analyzed and accessed in detail to understand the real purpose of this sudden pressure on Bangladesh which is considered a friend of both the US and its strategic partner India.
The US is going to great lengths to ensure free and fair elections while remaining oblivious to similar considerations in other countries. Freedom of speech and a free press are considered sacrosanct by the US in one country but avoidable irritants in another.
Application of the Rule of Law is emphasized as an essential prerequisite for a functioning democracy in Bangladesh but brushed aside as an internal matter elsewhere.
It is certainly baffling why Americans have suddenly become concerned with ensuring free and fair elections in Bangladesh. One is bound to think that the US believes it is time to exert excessive pressure on Bangladesh in view of the increasing Chinese footprint in that country which the US may now find expanding beyond tolerable limits in Bangladesh, a country so strategically located in South Asia, a region gaining further significance in the US efforts to contain China. It is equally strange and fascinating to note the timing and modality by the Bangladesh government to make the entire content of the conversation with the US on this issue open to the Public. Bangladesh watchers believe this could be an attempt by Hasina to boost her vote bank by creating hype and cashing on the anti-American tirade.
China’s growing influence in the global south is increasingly felt as a challenge to the US and European interests and security and has attracted growing skepticism in the West.
For them systemic rivalry is becoming the dominant framework through which decision-makers look at relations with China. It is also a fact that this view is not fully shared even within the EU, and it is certainly not universal at the global level. Attitudes towards China’s rise are as numerous and varied as the UN’s member countries, many of whom take a more critical view of the United States and the West than of China. Beijing is certainly taking advantage of this skepticism to deepen ties with the Global South, aware that its ambition to return to global power status by 2049 will hinge on how these countries respond to the US-China rivalry.
Most developing and many developed countries’ ties with China have strengthened over the last decade. In the US-China rivalry, there is a general tendency to lean towards the United States as a security partner and China as an economic partner. Although most countries oppose taking sides; their governments hope to continue seeking out opportunities that arise from the US-China rivalry.
China’s economic engagement with Bangladesh has expanded with trade, FDI, infrastructure financing, and project development.
Security ties with China show signs of rapid expansion both in military-to-military cooperation and in arms imports. This would certainly lessen Bangladesh’s reliance on the United States and India as security provider. The relationship between Bangladesh and China took a few years to warm up, with the two countries establishing diplomatic relations only in 1976. However, by the time Bangladesh signed on to the BRI during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Dhaka in 2016, economic, security, and geopolitical necessities had ensured all-round engagement between them.
This balancing act extends well beyond security. China has been an ideal partner for Bangladesh to expand its manufacturing base to cater to diverse export markets, including the Chinese one, and to overcome infrastructure gaps through project finance and construction. Economic engagement is primarily in trade, infrastructure, and business-to-business partnerships. The energy sector has been the greatest recipient of such investment, with Bangladeshi companies establishing joint ventures with Chinese counterparts.
China has emerged as a key partner in constructing and funding several infrastructure projects in Bangladesh, such as the Padma Multipurpose Bridge project, several expressways, and power plants.
As of January 2021, the government was implementing nine crucial development projects, such as the multilane road tunnel under the Karnaphuli River, with Chinese loans and credits, the Dhaka Stock Exchange enlisted the Shanghai and Shenzhen stock exchanges as strategic partners to spur the digital modernization of the trading system. The Chinese exchanges are expected to help set up platforms with information about listed companies, offer tools to analyze performance, help increase network security and provide digital surveillance software.
The rising economic engagement has been accompanied by heightened political coordination. The CCP has been reaching out and holding meetings with the ruling Awami League and its principal opponent, the Bangladesh National Party (BNP), since at least 2015. These elite and institutional relationships have made rapid progress. In addition, China has launched multiple initiatives to develop what it calls “soft influence.” Friendship centers, cultural programs, and engagements with think tanks, newspapers, and local governments around the country are China’s channels of choice. China has also been using scholarships and educational exchanges to reach out to Bangladeshis, especially younger ones. It has emerged as the preferred overseas destination for Bangladeshi students. However, it is China’s image as an economic powerhouse that is most attractive to the public—creating the impression of it as a “wealth creator” in Bangladesh and not merely an actor passing through the country temporarily.
Bilateral relations were not always smooth and warm. China’s position towards Bangladesh has evolved over the 50 years since 1971 from hostility into a reluctant embrace and is now a “strategic partnership.” Current Bangladesh-China relations rest on a mix of pragmatism, strategic ambiguity, and political accommodation. Bangladesh and China have built a deep interdependence that is tilting increasingly in China’s favor. Convergences in their strategic calculations, for instance, their mutual view of India as a common threat – and economic incentives are the principal drivers of improving relations. With the launch of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Dhaka formally joined the BRI during President Xi’s visit to Bangladesh in 2016, when relations were upgraded to a strategic partnership.
In Bangladeshi geopolitics, India has long been at the center due to its geographic proximity. Meanwhile, as a global power, the United States has exercised the greatest economic and political leverage over Bangladesh.
Other regional powers, such as China and Japan, had a more peripheral role until China’s rise as an economic and military power cemented its ability and confirmed its willingness to exert its influence beyond its borders into South Asia, providing Bangladesh an opportunity for a new partner to the north.
Bangladesh recognized the new opportunity that China represents; realpolitik began to dictate its foreign policy calculations, powered primarily by economic incentives. China’s appeal lay in contrast with India’s hegemonic posture, coercive tactics, and resource scarcity, especially when garlanded with China’s practice of non-interference in Bangladesh’s domestic affairs. Consequently, Dhaka faces the risk of becoming embroiled in a China-India tug-of-war for regional influence. It has so far avoided this trap by maintaining balanced relations with both, emphasizing political and cultural amities with India and economic ties with China. This balancing act is growing more challenging as competition between China and the US intensifies and India’s desire to further strengthen its regional influence grows.
the Author is a retired diplomat with over 37 years of distinguished service in the Foreign Service of Pakistan. During her career, she held key positions, including Ambassador to China, the European Union, Ireland. She also served as Deputy Head of Mission to China and Denmark. With expertise in various areas, she held significant roles at the Foreign Office, including Additional Foreign Secretary for America’s and Director General Policy Planning.
In addition to her diplomatic career, she is actively engaged as Vice Chair of the Council on Global Policy and a member of the Board of Directors of First Women Bank. She serves as an advisor to the China Study Center at ISSI and Kestral International. Furthermore, she is a prolific writer, contributing regularly to esteemed magazines and newspapers. As an accomplished author, she has published several books, including “Magnificent Pakistan” and “Pakistan-China-All Weather Friendship.” Her dedication and expertise continue to impact the field of international relations. She tweets @AmbNaghmanaHash.