As the much-talked-about general elections expected in early January 2024 approach, the global superpowers are zooming their hawkish eyes on Bangladesh.
Most concerned people in the West, of course, the Bangladeshi expatriates and especially the Indians frankly ask why the superpowers are interested in the political development in a country of 173 million people.
In one word – the “China card”. The West, neighbouring India and even Japan are feeling jittery over the growing Chinese influence in the Sheikh Hasina-led government and her party Awami League.
Once an Indian diplomat in a private gathering sought opinion on why China’s mega-projects get approval quickly, and India’s infrastructure development projects are delayed due to bureaucratic red tape. He was told that the Japanese had a similar experience of projects falling through the faultline of bureaucracy.
China’s inroad to Bangladesh and getting contracts for mega projects had irked India, Japan and the United States.
Indian media have written on the expansion and development project of the third largest airport at Sylhet, in northeast Bangladesh and the proposed Teesta River Comprehensive Management and Restoration Project. However, the later project was shelved showing errors in the loan proposal.
The Osmani International Airport in Sylhet is in close proximity to Assam and Arunachal state is further north, where India borders with Tibet in China. The airport is in a strategic location for eavesdropping into Indian northeast states, it is feared by Delhi. Recently China’s official map shows Arunachal as South Tibet, inviting fresh ruckus with Red Dragon.
What is China’s interest in the Teesta River, a transboundary river that flows through India and Bangladesh? The proposed project has raised eyebrows in the region. The river is a significant source of water for both India and Bangladesh.
Indeed, the river is crucial for the economic development of the region as it is a source of water for agriculture and hydroelectric power generation. The river water sharing has been a bone of contention between the two neighbours for decades.
China’s involvement in the Teesta River dispute has added a new dimension to the conflict. The Red Dragon’s interest in the Teesta River can be attributed to its strategic ambitions in the region. The river originates in the Himalayas and flows through the Indian states of Sikkim and West Bengal before entering Bangladesh, says a river morphologist.
Japan has undertaken to construct the largest deep-sea port on Maheskhali island, in the Bay of Bengal and has been able to bulldoze the Chinese proposal of a second deep-sea port in Sonadia, not far from the ongoing project of the Rising Sun.
Tokyo has been able to convince Delhi that the deep-sea port on the Bangladesh coast which serves adequately to export/import of northeast Indian states, will boost economic growth and immensely contribute to the country’s GDP.
Bangladesh, last week became the 33rd member of the nuclear club. The under-construction Russian project Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant will augment electric generation in energy-starved northern Bangladesh.
Other than the nuclear power plant, Russia does not have a second mega project in Bangladesh.
Bangladesh imports food grains from Russia and exports various garments items, jute, frozen foods, tea, leather, home textiles and ceramic products.
Bangladesh, however, has a historic relationship with Russia. The former Soviet Union took a proactive position in favour of Bangladesh’s independence war in 1971.
Delhi and Moscow signed a historic Indo–Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation which expedited the bloody independence of Bangladesh.
Meanwhile, the United States is being bombarded by cyber-warriors with anti-American rhetoric in social media after Washington announced visa restrictions on officials of the governing party, opposition, government officials, police administration, judiciary and media persons. This applies to those who undermine or cause hindrance to the democratic elections in Bangladesh, the axe will fall upon individuals and their immediate family members.
It is understood that the visa restriction by the USA triggers a chain reaction in Australia, Canada, France Germany, Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the allies in the West in denial of entry to their countries.
The US Embassy in Dhaka to counter the rhetoric has launched the #DidYouKnow campaign for Bangladesh’s audience in social media.
For example: #DidYouKnow, the United States is the biggest foreign direct investor in #Bangladesh?
#DidYouKnow, the United States is the biggest foreign direct investor in #Bangladesh? American businesses like @Chevron contribute to Bangladesh's growing energy needs. Thanks for a fascinating tour of Chevron's Sylhet facility, which provides over half of Bangladesh's domestic… pic.twitter.com/Nj1VNpwbAA
— U.S. Embassy Dhaka (@usembassydhaka) August 27, 2023
Bangladesh received USD 3.44 billion in foreign direct investment (FDI) during 2021-2022 for three broad sectors of FDI inflows: infrastructure, manufacturing, and services, according to Bangladesh Bank (the central bank).
The USA FDI stood at $575 million in 2022, while China seems the largest FDI source of Bangladesh climbed to $940 million for 2022, reported Dhaka Tribune.
Diverse sectors offer opportunities for U.S. companies, including natural gas exploration and production, power generation, financial services, infrastructure, agribusiness, information technology, consulting services, and civil aviation to name just a few.
The garment sector has been a key driver of economic growth for Bangladesh over the past few decades. The US-Bangladesh has a $14 billion trade relationship and it’s growing, tweets the US Embassy in Dhaka.
What irks Bangladesh is when America expresses concern on stellar human rights record, democratic election process, freedom of the press and freedom of expression.
The relations went cold in 2021 when the US imposed punitive measures, in support of US Global Magnitsky human rights sanctions, targeting six of the elite anti-crime Rapid Action Battalion’s (RAB’s) former officials, including current and immediate past heads of the Bangladesh police.
The sanction did make an impact. A study claimed that RAB’s extra-judicial killings and enforced disappearances have dramatically reduced, which received accolades from human rights organisations.
Meanwhile, Abed Khan, Chief Editor of Dainik Kalbela warns that in a week several economic sanctions against individuals, business establishments and government entities are likely to be imposed citing corruption and money-laundering, which is now a transnational crime.
Journalist Chandan Nandy, based in New Delhi writes in the Northeast News portal (blocked by Bangladesh authorities) also claims that sanction is in the offing against money laundering and corruption.
Foreign Minister Dr AK Abdul Momen trashed rumours of fresh sanctions by the US, in response to media reports told journalists. “We were in the US…they (US) only want free and fair elections. Even the words – participatory or caretaker government – were not mentioned,” he remarked.
While the United States pressure on the current government on the upcoming general election is visible, China and Russia’s position contradicts the United States, quoting unnamed sources in Washington DC.
The polarisation of the rivals United States, China and Russia has been observed, writes a commentator for BBC Bangla Service.
Humayun Kabir, a former Bangladesh ambassador to Washington, opines that Bangladesh has become the new ‘field of polarisation’ of the United States, China and Russia.
He said that the US President Joe Biden administration’s foreign policy envisages ‘establishing democracy and human rights’ in different countries of the world and Bangladesh is in the bigger canvass to neutralise China’s hegemony in South and South East Asia.
Another reason is that America’s Indo-Pacific strategy has focused on actively implementing the United States domination in the Asia region, with new and old allies.
Kabir said, the European Union too also want Bangladesh to strengthen democracy and hold free and fair elections in upcoming polls. In exchange, Bangladesh will benefit equally, especially from the trade facility, which is believed to strengthen the democratic process in the country.
China is a development partner of Bangladesh, retorted Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, when she was confronted by overjealous Indian journalists.
Professor Imtiaz Ahmed of Dhaka University says Bangladesh is caught in a triangle of Russia, China and America, because of its geo-strategic position.
Bangladesh, positioned on the coast of the Bay of Bengal which merges with the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean comes under the fold of strategic partnership with America, Japan and India.
Political historian Mohiuddin Ahmad said the reason Bangladesh is a strategic partner in Asia because the country has made dramatic economic development and has been fairing on the parameters of Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), which gives hope to the big powers rivals that the country is not a failed state like Pakistan or Somalia.
Therefore, the agenda of the United States, European Union, Japan and India to encourage Bangladesh to hold free, fair and credible elections and remain steadfast on the path to democracy will enable Sheikh Hasina to be the longest-serving prime minister to return to power for the fifth tenure.
Saleem Samad is an award-winning independent journalist based in Bangladesh. A media rights defender with the Reporters Without Borders (@RSF_inter). Recipient of Ashoka Fellowship and Hellman-Hammett Award. He could be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @saleemsamad