• 18 Jun, 2024

It is Beijing that will celebrate the return of the Awami League the most. But Dhaka may struggle to balance India-China relations.

by Sourab Sen
Author on politics, foreign policy, and human rights

The year 2024 will see important elections to elect democratic governments across the world and the season begins with the Bangladesh elections on January 7. A total of 29 political parties, including the ruling Awami League (AL) and a faction of the opposition Jatiya Party, will contest the elections. With almost all opposition parties, led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Jamaat-e-Islami (Jamaat), absent, the AL's return to power for a fourth term is a fait accompli.

Parliamentary elections in Bangladesh have always attracted international attention. But this time, certain geopolitical issues have raised the level several notches. Until opposition parties are in the race, countries like the United States and India and blocs like the European Union have resorted to rhetoric, administrative measures, and behind-the-scenes diplomacy to put pressure on the American League government to ensure that the elections appeared free and fair.

This was opposed by China and Russia, who told others – the United States, for example – not to interfere in Bangladesh's internal affairs.

Such polarization of global powers reveals the geopolitics at play in South Asia. For these countries, it is important to know who governs Bangladesh. It is a question of who benefits from the status quo and who can benefit from potential if the AL is rejected.

to take a position

At the end of 2021, the United States had already made a decision. In a press release on December 10 of the same year, Secretary of State Antony Blinken imposed sanctions on two Bangladeshi security officials, Benazir Ahmed and Miftah Uddin Ahmed, for alleged extrajudicial killings, banning them and their immediate families from entering the United States.

The Finance Ministry also expelled Bangladesh's elite Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) Benazir Ahmed and five other officials under the global Magnitsky sanctions program in connection with serious human rights violations. In May 2023, the US government implemented a visa policy that denied visas to those involved in undermining the “democratic electoral process.” In September 2023, the United States announced that it was taking steps to implement the new visa policy.

On November 13, 2023, US Assistant Secretary of State for Central and South Asian Affairs Donald Lu wrote a letter to all three major parties – AL, BNP, and Jatiya Party – calling for “dialogue without preconditions”. The enthusiastic photos of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and US President Joe Biden, taken during the G20 summit in New Delhi in September, do not appear to have translated into a more favorable US policy towards the AL-affiliated Bangladesh government.

In the run-up to previous elections, it was common for AL and BNP to gain support from India and other major world powers, and this time was no exception. During its visit to New Delhi in August 2023, a five-member AL delegation, led by Agriculture Minister Mohammad Abdur Razzaque, met senior Indian ministers and leaders of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and held supported the re-election of the AL. essential to ensure stability in the South Asian region.

The AL's talking points were familiar: a combination of alarmism about the Islamist political side of the BNP-Jamaat group and reassurance that Dhaka would not ignore New Delhi's sensitivities towards Beijing; that China was more of a development partner and not a strategic partner; that Bangladesh has not forgotten the antagonistic role played by China and the United States in the country's liberation struggle in 1971, and that India was the friend who helped the country achieve independence.

Compared to the United States and its Western allies, China and India have shown more restraint in their response to the Bangladesh elections. While China has said it will support Bangladesh's government against external interference, India believes applying "too much" pressure would strengthen hardline forces in Bangladesh's opposition parties.

The Chinese strategic calculation

The Chinese have identified opportunities to maintain the AL government. Since 2010, China's influence has grown at various levels in the decision-making architecture of both Bangladesh and the AL. Beijing has a strong strategic drive to turn Bangladesh into a highly dependent state like Myanmar and Cambodia.

This will allow China easier access to Indian Ocean shipping lanes, bypassing the Strait of Malacca via the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) linking Yunnan province with the port city of Kyaukpyu in Myanmar's Rakhine State. Geographically, the Ganga-Padma-Brahmaputra delta hosts the shortest land route to access sea routes from mainland China.

This was the calculation of the British when they established Calcutta (now known as Kolkata), then part of undivided Bengal, as a transshipment point to support the East India Company's opium and tea trade with China. As things stand, the ruling AL will ensure a predictable, stable, and favorable political climate to protect and promote large Chinese infrastructure investments in Bangladesh.
The transformation

The AL's metamorphosis from a mass party of bourgeois, secular, and pro-Indian leaders committed to the spirit of the 1971 liberation struggle to a party led by China-backed oligarchs - some with questionable credibility - is a source of concern for both in New Delhi. and Washington.

Take for example Hasina's top adviser, Salman Rahman, who critics say runs the government effectively. Rahman's family owns Beximco, one of Asia's largest textile companies, which has major trade deals with China; or Zunaid Ahmed Palak, lawyer, and minister of state for information and communications technology, who has been accused of being soft on Chinese companies in his role.

The AL is not the only ruling party led by oligarchic interests. In neighboring India, for example, oligarchs close to Prime Minister Narendra Modi also promote their interests disguised as national interests and shape domestic and foreign policies.

Geopolitical issues such as cross-border infrastructure, disaster, pandemic response, and wars provide platforms that put the invisible men in gray suits on the same page as they scan areas for commercial exploitation that transcends borders.

With AL on the verge of maintaining control of Bangladesh, the US attempt to halt this metamorphosis by using human rights as a diplomatic weapon appears to have failed. To put it bluntly, the election outcome marks the turning point where Bangladesh becomes more firmly entrenched in China's Belt and Road Initiative versus the US-backed Indo-Pacific efforts to counter Beijing.

With the increase in street violence and demonstrations, this is easier said than done. Like many other countries in South Asia and the Indian Ocean Rim Association, Bangladesh may not be able to manage change as China shifts from a “development partner” to a “strategic partner”.

What happens after the January 7 elections will be as important as the vote itself, for Bangladesh, for the region, and the world's major powers.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Voice of Urdu.