Amid escalating superpower competition between China and the United States, which has gone from a trade dispute to a rivalry over the future of world order, technology and values, key policymakers in Washington have recently suggested US President Joe Biden to visit Bangladesh by October this year as Bangladesh, under the leadership of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is further deepening relationship with China, India, Russia and Middle Eastern nations, signaling Dhaka’s willingness of coming out of Washington’s decades-old hegemonic behavior and meddling into domestic affairs.
It is important to recall here that President Joe Biden has made it clear that the United States will continue to compete vigorously with China, aligning efforts with allies and partners around the world, and creating coalitions with like-minded countries on tech, intelligence, and strategy to counter Beijing. Most of the prospering countries in the world, including Bangladesh are unwilling to be caught in the middle of this US-China competition. Instead they want to improve their livelihood and continue to develop their economies. China offers an easy solution via its policy of providing economic assistance to countries in a massive way without interfering into domestic affairs of the recipient nations. On the other hand, America, despite the fact that it capability of providing financial assistance to developing nations is on fast decline is trying to put shackle of dominance by bringing in issues such as democracy or human rights, while it is by now a proven truth that United States itself does not have real democracy and cases of gross violation of human rights and gauging freedom or press and freedom of expression are on alarming rise there.
Economic capability of the United States is declining massively because of numerous reasons, while the country itself is currently facing acute economic crisis, inflation and civil unrest.
While China has formed alliance with Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa under the umbrella of BRICS, the United States established several coalitions with its partners, such as the AUKUS and the Quad. Bangladesh is neither a part of BRICS or AUKUS and Quad, although Washington has on numerous occasions insisted Bangladesh to join Quad. For the US, creating these coalitions did not go smoothly, and it would be even more challenging to do similar with countries in the Global South, including Bangladesh. In this case, key policymakers in Washington are suggesting the Biden administration stating the United States “needs to adjust its strategy to expand its coalitions further. Bangladesh, a natural partner in the Indo-Pacific region, could be an excellent starting point”.
They further said, “Bangladesh has made remarkable economic progress in recent years, embracing various liberal economic policies under the guidance and support of Western financial institutions such as the Asian Development Bank and the IMF. Bangladesh did take loans from China, but these only account for 8 percent of its foreign debt—unlike its neighbors Sri Lanka and Pakistan, which took on far more. Moreover, Japan, a strategic US partner, is the leading contributor of aid to Bangladesh.
“Politically, Bangladesh has a special relationship with India. Despite efforts made by Sheikh Hasina’s government to normalize relations with Pakistan, Indian-Bangladeshi relations remain solid, which the United States can leverage to keep China at bay. As a Muslim-majority country, Bangladesh can project its principle of “friendship to all, malice to none” not only within the Indo-Pacific but also to the Middle East, creating a bridge between Asia and the Middle East.
“Although Bangladesh aims to remain geopolitically neutral, it is very much involved in global politics—though not always by choice. Following the Rohingya crisis in neighboring Myanmar, Bangladesh opened its borders and gave shelter to around one million refugees, who are still living in camps dependent on international aid, almost six years after fleeing their homes. In addition, Bangladesh has participated in peacekeeping operations all over the world, being the leading contributor to peacekeeping officers with more than 7,000 personnel”.
Washington policymakers are still pessimistic about Bangladesh’s engagement with Washington’s agendas. They said, “In the past, Washington’s close relations with Pakistan had a cooling effect on Bangladesh. However, with America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, its warming relations with India, and its increasing focus on countering China, the conditions are set for a better alignment between American interests and those of Bangladesh”.
Policymakers in Washington also cited Bangladesh’s hosting two delegations from China, one led by Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang and another high-level delegation led by a senior official from Beijing. Immediately after these events, in January 2023, Donald Lu, the US Assistant Secretary of State visited Bangladesh and in February an official delegation led by Derek Chollet held discussion with Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on the Rohingya and the Indo-Pacific, among other issues. But the distinctive difference between the visit by Chinese and US delegations were – in the case of the US delegation, Donald Lu, for example, had exhibited signs of supremacy and hegemony towards Bangladesh by unnecessarily bringing the December 2021 sanctions on Bangladesh, and also stating that the sanctions cannot be lifted soon. On the Rohingya issue too, Washington did not actually show real sincerity in helping Bangladesh in resolving it immediately. Instead, China, for example, has now started showing signs of its sincerity in exerting pressure on Myanmar in taking back their 1.20 million Rohingya citizens from Bangladesh.
Under such a scenario, Washington policymakers want Joe Biden to visit Bangladesh in October or earlier as Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, during the last UN General Assembly has already invited Biden to visit Bangladesh. There is strong anticipation in Washington about Biden’s Bangladesh visit by the end of this year. US President Joe Biden, during his two-days official visit will discuss a number of issues with his Bangladeshi counterpart, including the Rohingya issue, lifting of sanctions and continuing assistance in numerous fields. Joe Biden will also signal Washington’s pledge of refraining from meddling into Bangladesh’s domestic issues.
Bangladesh is expected to hold its next general election in January 2024, where until now, there are signs of Biden administration’s inclination towards Islamist forces led by Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Jamaat-e-Islami despite the fact that both the parties have been traditionally anti-India and even anti-West. Some of the policymakers in Washington consider BNP and Jamaat as “neo-Taliban”, and they feel, helping BNP and Jamaat in returning to power will ultimately turn Bangladesh into another Afghanistan. Shall Joe Biden genuinely understand this reality and extend its absolute support towards Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her government?