More than a year ago, the U.S. celebrated 50 years of friendship with Bangladesh, feting the South Asian nation’s emergence from the dark days of the Liberation War and its stunning economic transformation in the five decades that followed.
Since 1972, the U.S. has provided more than $8 billion in development assistance to Bangladesh. Washington has partnered with Dhaka to save lives following deadly cyclones and combat terrorism and human trafficking. Most recently, the U.S. provided more than 61 million COVID-19 vaccines. Bangladesh was the largest recipient of U.S.-donated vaccines worldwide.
“That is what friends do,” U.S. Ambassador Peter Haas wrote in an article in April 2022.
Beneath this symbolism and the spectacle of diplomatic camaraderie lurks a fraught relationship between the two countries. And the pivot of the relationship is the national election due in January, 2024. On May 24, Washington announced a coercive visa policy for Bangladesh, asserting that the U.S. will restrict visas for any Bangladeshi, believed to be responsible for undermining the democratic election process in the country.
Analysts said the Biden administration is trying to incentivise Bangladesh, not just the government, but the broader political class to have a free and fair election, so that the U.S. does not have to be put in the position of scaling back its relations with Bangladesh, if it concludes that the election is not free and fair.
“I think that’s where this new visa policy comes into play,” Michael Kugelman, the director of the South Asia Institute at the Washington-based Wilson Center, said in an interview, adding that the trajectory of the relationship will be clearer after the election.
The new visa policy galvanised senior government officials, and also the senior members of the ruling party to engage with Western interlocutors to try to convince them that this time is going to be different and the Awami League is “fully committed to a free and fair election”. That rhetoric is met with a great deal of scepticism both at home and abroad.
The subject rapidly gained traction after an accusation by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in Parliament in April that the U.S. wanted a regime change in Bangladesh, just like in other parts of the world. A month later, Ms. Hasina vented a similar allegation in an interview with BBC, indicating the U.S. may not want her in power.
“There’s been so much attention on her recent comments that have been witheringly critical of the U.S., including her comments in Parliament. My understanding is that she has a long-standing set of grievances against the U.S. for policies going back a number of years,” Mr. Kugelman said. “That could impact her way of expressing herself about the relationship, even if that doesn’t reflect the way in which Dhaka, more broadly, would like to pursue its relationship with the US.”
The bilateral relations suffered a big jolt after the U.S. imposed sanctions on the Rapid Action Battalion, an anti-crime and anti-terrorism taskforce, and seven of its current and former officers, citing “serious human rights violations” by the force. Then came the new visa policy by Washington as another shock.
On the home front, the biggest opposition group, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), doesn’t seem to budge on its threat to boycott the polls. The ruling party essentially hollowed out the opposition, and there was not much energy left to push back against the crackdown. But clearly, the BNP made a comeback at the end of last year with sizeable anti-government protests.
In the months to come, diplomats will keep a close eye on Bangladesh, a country with deep levels of political polarisation, as the election looms. Opposition political parties have begun to parley with foreign diplomats, much to the chagrin of the ruling party. But political parties’ meetings with Western diplomats, not just with the American ambassador, in the run-up to the election are not at all out of the ordinary.
However, the boycott of the polls by the BNP will complicate the election process in Bangladesh and put pressure on the party itself to regain its credibility as a political force. And the Election Commission will struggle to find a way out of the mess. “There’s no role for the U.S. there, there should not be. Quite frankly, the U.S. has already become controversial, or the U.S. government has already been controversial in the eyes of many in Bangladesh for their perceived meddling in domestic politics,” Mr. Kugelman said.
“The key political stakeholders in Bangladesh have to work on themselves. The best way forward for the government is to ensure a free and fair election and for the opposition to participate in that election, no matter what its misgivings may be,” he said.
There’s the geopolitical context to the U.S.-Bangladesh relations. As the U.S. is keen to counter China in South Asia, it recognises that China is very active in South Asia, and the U.S. has unofficially taken on a new policy of seeking to deepen engagement with many, if not most, South Asian states in order to try to reduce their reliance on China for commercial assistance.
That’s certainly the case in Bangladesh as well. The U.S. will want to ensure that it has a deep enough relationship with Bangladesh and Dhaka would not feel a need to “put itself more closely in China’s embrace”.
Geopolitical power play
Clearly, Bangladesh is in the crosshairs of a geopolitical power play when central bank Governor Abdur Rouf Talukder wades into the debate. He downplayed the importance of the country’s sovereign rating downgrade by American credit rating company Moody’s Investors Service, saying it was not made on economic grounds.
“Geopolitics was behind the downgrade -- it was not based on economics,” Mr Talukder said at a media briefing on June 18.
Rashed Khan Menon, the president of the Workers Party of Bangladesh, and former minister under Ms. Hasina’s cabinet, recently claimed in Parliament that the U.S. had set eyes on St. Martin’s Island in the Bay of Bengal, turning the subject into a social media maelstrom. At a media briefing on June 21, Prime Minister Hasina responded to the issue and said she had no intention of clinging to power by “mortgaging” the country or its resources.
Asked to comment on the subject at a media briefing in Washington on June 26, Matthew Miller, spokesperson for the U.S. Department of State, said the claim over St. Martin’s Island was “not accurate”.
“We respect Bangladesh’s sovereignty, and we have never engaged in any conversations about taking over St. Martin’s Island. We value our partnership with Bangladesh. We strive to bolster our relationship by working together to promote democracy, including by supporting free and fair elections,” he said.
Despite positive and, sometimes effusive, public messages from the Biden administration, on “strategic partnership” between the two nations, it has been a case of one step forward, two steps back.
“For all this progress on commercial cooperation and diplomatic engagement, the tough line the U.S. has taken on the values issue has really prevented relations from moving forward more,” Mr. Kugelman said.