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Major Power Dynamics in Bangladesh Navigating Interests and Conflicts between the United States and China

Major Power Dynamics in Bangladesh Navigating Interests and Conflicts between the United States and China

04-01-2024
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Bangladesh, located in the heart of South Asia, plays a significant role as a key participant in the geopolitical arena (Shailo, 2013). The nation in question possesses significant strategic relevance that transcends its borders, owing to its abundant historical heritage and distinctive geographical location. Myanmar and India are landmass neighbors of the nation. Further, the country possesses the capacity to foster enhanced integration between Northeast India and the mainland of India, making it an essential geopolitical ally of India. Bangladesh has also gained attention from both China and the United States on account of its unrestricted access to the Bay of Bengal.

The major powers, including Russia and the USA, actively participated during the liberation war of Bangladesh (Budhraj 1973; Morsalin, 2022). Additionally, China and India, while not officially designated as major powers at that time, played crucial roles in the conflict. Owing to the geographic proximity of India, Pakistan, and China to Bangladesh, the Sino-Indian rivalry and the historical Indo-Pak conflicts have traditionally shaped Bangladesh’s geopolitical significance in South Asia. However, the conclusion of the Cold War marked a transformative period, witnessing a shift in Bangladesh’s geopolitical dynamics. China, propelled by expanding regional ambitions and a strategic focus on the Bay of Bengal, has played a significant role in redefining Bangladesh’s geopolitical position. 

In recent times, Bangladesh has emerged as a battleground for major powers, including the United States, Russia, China, and India. Consequently, Dhaka faces substantial challenges in navigating this complex geopolitical landscape. The heightened rivalry between India and China, exacerbated by the Ladakh border clash, has added to the intricacies. Simultaneously, the United States is intensifying its involvement with South Asian countries, aiming to prevent them from becoming overly reliant on Beijing. In this article, I elucidate the conflicts and interests of two major powers in Bangladesh: The United States and China. 

The United States’ Presence in Bangladesh

According to the US Department of State, “The United States seeks a strong, multi-faceted relationship built on mutual respect for the rule of law, democracy, and human rights; inclusive economic growth and development; people-to-people ties; enhanced capacity to tackle the climate and pandemic crises; and a greater contribution to regional security.” (US Department of State, 2022)

The United States and Bangladesh share a robust economic relationship, marked by significant U.S. investments exceeding eight billion dollars over the past five decades. Bangladesh’s notable generosity in hosting nearly one million Rohingya refugees is acknowledged, and amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. has played a vital role by donating vaccines and providing over $121 million in lifesaving assistance to Bangladesh (US Department of State, 2022). Economically, the US is the leading importer of Bangladeshi products, with imports totaling $8.3 billion in 2021. U.S. companies also lead in foreign investments, contributing $4.3 billion, constituting 20 percent of the total FDI stock in Bangladesh in 2021. However, in recent years, harmonious relations have been strained by the U.S.’s dissatisfaction with Bangladesh’s domestic socio-political situation.

The United States sanctioned seven current and former high-ranking officials of the Rapid Action Battalion, the anti-crime and terrorism division of the Bangladeshi police force, in December 2021 on suspicion of human rights violations (Riaz, 2021). Peter Haas, the United States Ambassador to Bangladesh in 2022, conferred with the families of alleged abduction victims, including Sajedul Islam Sumon, a leader of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the country’s opposition party. Haas expressed a scathing assessment of the human rights situation in the country, stating that it is difficult to conduct “free and fair elections” in the atmosphere of political violence that pervades Dhaka (Palma, 2022). In January 2023, a Russian ship, Ursa Major, route to supply goods for Bangladesh’s nuclear power plant in Rooppur, was barred from docking at the Mongla Port due to being under US sanctions.

In February 2023, US State Department Counsellor Derek Chollet expressed concerns about the decline of democracy in Bangladesh, warning of potential limitations on cooperation. Bangladesh was also excluded from President Biden’s Democracy Summit for the second consecutive time. In a letter preceding Bangladesh’s 46th Independence Day, President Biden emphasized the importance of democracy, human rights, and free and fair elections as the country approaches its next election.

In my opinion, the United States’ stances and exertions concerning Bangladesh are driven not only by concerns for human rights and democracy but also by the intention to uphold its influence in the Asia-Pacific region. It is crucial to bear in mind the assertion, often attributed to the renowned American National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, that “The US doesn’t have any permanent friends or enemies, only interests.”

As China’s influence has been increasing in Bangladesh and the Asia Pacific region, the U.S. requires a robust ally in this strategic location. In this context, they perceive China as their primary adversary and are endeavoring to counteract China’s growing influence. Consequently, they seek to exert pressure on various governments in different countries through diverse means. The United States, however, does not want to alienate Bangladesh; it wants Bangladesh to work with it.

China-Bangladesh Relations

During the liberation war, China initially held a pro-Pakistani stance, recognizing Bangladesh as an independent state in 1975 (Mahanty, 1983). However, their relationship has significantly improved since then. Presently, China considers Bangladesh strategically important due to its proximity to the Bay of Bengal, providing convenient access to the Indian Ocean. China is actively assisting Bangladesh in establishing a major naval base near the Bay of Bengal and stands as the second-largest arms supplier to Bangladesh. In 2011, China began preparations for a maintenance facility for the supplied Surface-to-Air Missile system in Bangladesh. Notably, between 2016 and 2020, Bangladesh acquired approximately 17% of its total military assets from China.

Since 2017, China has become Bangladesh’s primary trading partner, with expected investments exceeding USD $40 billion. Notably, approximately USD $9.75 billion has been allocated for transportation projects in Bangladesh, including ongoing initiatives like the Padma Bridge Rail Link, Bangabandhu Tunnel, and Dasher Kandi Sewerage Treatment Plant. These projects have played a crucial role in strengthening economic cooperation, promoting infrastructure development, and consolidating overall bilateral relations between China and Bangladesh. China has also strategically expanded its influence in the Indo-Pacific region through collaboration with Bangladesh. It has emerged as the leading source of foreign direct investment (FDI) in Bangladesh, contributing USD $940 million in the fiscal year 2021-2022 and securing the top position among foreign investors in 2022. 

In the face of U.S. sanctions on Bangladesh, encompassing concerns over democracy, human rights, and geopolitical interests, China has emerged as a steadfast supporter of Bangladesh. In a statement issued on June 14, 2023, Beijing articulated its stance, stating, “Indeed, while turning a blind eye to its own racial discrimination, gun violence and drug proliferation problems, a certain country has long been interfering in the internal affairs of Bangladesh and many other developing countries under the pretext of democracy and human rights. We firmly support Bangladesh in safeguarding its sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity, upholding independent domestic and foreign policies, and pursuing a development path that suits its national realities.”

Bangladesh’s Delicate Balance between the U.S. and China

In the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic and amid the Russia-Ukraine conflict, geopolitical tensions in the Indo-Pacific have escalated. Both China and the United States are vying for Bangladesh’s direct involvement in their foreign policy strategies. The U.S. has invited Bangladesh to join its Indo-Pacific Strategy as a regional partner, while China, cautioning against damage to bilateral relations, encourages Bangladesh’s participation in its Global Development Initiative and Global Security Initiative.

Russia is also in competition with China to counter U.S. influence in Bangladesh. Accusing the U.S. ambassador in Dhaka of persistent interference, Russia criticizes the “hegemonic ambitions” of developed democracies (PressXpress, 2023). This stance aligns with China’s interests, consolidating the Chinese footprint in Bangladesh.

While the United States distances itself from the Awami League government, China extends financial support and strengthens ties with Bangladesh. An agreement between Bangladesh and Russia to use the Chinese yuan in a nuclear power plant project, despite objections from the U.S., reflects evolving geopolitical interests and rivalries in the region.

In addition, The Rohingya issue presents a substantial strategic risk to China’s interests in Bangladesh. China’s potential to exert greater influence might be bolstered by its facilitation of a peaceful resolution, but the enactment of the Burma Act by the United States signifies an augmented American role and influence in addressing the situation. The resolution of the Rohingya problem will have significant implications for the geopolitical landscape in the region, thereby influencing the interests of both China and the United States.

The relationship between the United States and China regarding the Taiwan issue is characterized by conflict. Taiwan holds strategic significance for both nations owing to a multitude of geopolitical, economic, and security considerations. The United States upholds a substantial unofficial relationship with Taiwan, rooted in historical connections and shared democratic principles and free-market ideals. Moreover, Taiwan is deemed a pivotal ally for the United States within the Asia-Pacific region, with U.S. backing contributing to the enhancement of Taiwan’s defense capabilities (Lin & Zhou, 2016). By contrast, China sees Taiwan as crucial to its territorial integrity and national interest due to historical and cultural ties, aiming to reunify Taiwan with the mainland for historical cohesion. This objective aligns with China’s ambition for regional dominance and opposes any foreign recognition of Taiwan’s independence, advocating for global adherence to the One-China policy (FUKUDA, 2022).

Prospects in Future U.S.-Bangladesh Relations
China employs a soft power strategy in South Asia, including Bangladesh. Conversely, the United States has a history of using economic statecraft i.e., imposing sanctions on nations accused of violating human rights and democratic principles, such as Cuba, Iran, North Korea, and Syria. Sanctions are applied as a response to perceived threats to U.S. interests, aiming to weaken the economy of targeted nations in response to unfavorable policies or decisions.

On September 22, 2023, the U.S. Department of State announced plans to impose visa restrictions on Bangladeshi individuals deemed responsible for undermining the democratic election process in Bangladesh. This group includes members of law enforcement, the ruling party, and the political opposition. The United States reaffirmed its commitment to supporting free and fair elections in Bangladesh, advocating for peaceful electoral processes. Individuals falling under these restrictions, along with their immediate family members, may face ineligibility for entry into the United States (The Daily Star, 2023).

The U.S. is considering the incorporation of Bangladesh’s apparel industry into a potential new Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) system. Presently, Bangladesh encounters a 15% tariff on Ready-Made Garment (RMG) exports to the U.S. However, this consideration is tied to concerns regarding labor rights violations in Bangladesh (The Business Standard, 2023). 

Additionally, should Bangladesh not conduct free, fair, credible, and participatory elections, the United States might consider taking several measures: Firstly, the considerable financial aid and logistical support provided by the U.S. to the Rohingya population could be discontinued. Secondly, considering Bangladesh’s prominence in contributing troops to UN peacekeeping missions, potential restrictions or bans on such deployments could be implemented. Thirdly, assets belonging to Bangladeshi politicians, administrators, law enforcement agencies, and businesspersons in the U.S. could face seizure.

Finally, a potential tool in the form of economic statecraft, particularly economic sanctions, might be imposed on Bangladesh. It’s noteworthy that the United States stands as a major destination for Bangladesh’s exports, while the country predominantly imports from China, ranking the U.S. as the fourth largest import source for Bangladesh.

It is clear that, in recent times Bangladesh’s inclination towards China, strained relations with the United States, and competing interests from India and Russia underscore the complex geopolitical dynamics. Bangladesh’s choices in alliances will significantly impact its development and security. Balancing relations between the U.S. and China requires a nuanced and diplomatic approach that recognizes areas of cooperation while managing areas of competition. Regular communication, mutual respect, and a commitment to addressing global challenges together can contribute to a more stable and constructive relationship. We have to always remember that “Friendship to all, malice towards none,” which is the foreign policy dictum of Bangladesh.

Author : Research Assistant, 
Centre for Advanced Social Research, Dhaka.

References
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FUKUDA M. (2022). New strategies of China regarding the “One-China” principle. The Sasakawa Peace Foundation. https://www.spf.org/japan-us-taiwan-research/en/article/fukuda_01.html

Mahanty, J. N. (1983). China and the Emergence of Bangladesh: Role of Great Power Global perceptions. India Quarterly: A Journal of International Affairs, 39(2), 137–158. https://doi. rg/10.1177/097492848303900202

Morsalin, S. S. (2022). From Cold War to ‘New Cold War’: Bangladesh Foreign Policy vis-à-vis the United States and Russia. Journal of Bangladesh and Global Affairs, 1(01).

Palma, P. (2022, October 3). US watching processes to free, fair polls. The Daily Star. https://www.thedailystar.net/news/bangladesh/diplomacy/news/us-watching-processes-free-fair-polls-3133851

PressXpress. (2023, June 15). Russian Ambassador emphasises Bangladesh’s sovereignty in election process. Press Xpress. https://pressxpress.org/2023/06/10/russian-ambassador-emphasises-bangladeshs-sovereignty-in-election-process/

Lin, G., & Zhou, W. (2016). Does Taiwan matter to the United States? Policy Debates on Taiwan abandonment and beyond. The China Review, 18(3). https://doi.org/10.2307/26484537
Riaz, A. (2021, December 16). US sanctions on Bangladesh’s RAB: What happened? What’s next? Atlantic Council. https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/southasiasource/us-sanctions-on-bangladeshs-rab-what-happened-whats-next/

Shailo, I. (2013). Critical geopolitics and the construction of security in South Asia (Doctoral dissertation, Carleton University).

The Business Standard. (2023, September 21). US to consider including Bangladesh apparel in new GSP. The Business Standard. https://www.tbsnews.net/economy/us-consider-including-bangladesh-apparel-new-gsp-704230

The Daily Star. (2023, September 22). US taking steps to slap visa restrictions on Bangladeshis. The Daily Star. https://www.thedailystar.net/news/bangladesh/diplomacy/news/us-taking-steps-slap-visa-restrictions-bangladeshis-3425376

U.S. relations with Bangladesh - United States Department of State. (2022, July 19). US Department of State. https://www.state.gov/u-s-relations-with-bangladesh/#:~:text=The%20United%20States%20seeks%20a,greater%20contribution%20to%20regional%20security.

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