Renewed U.S. outreach to Bangladesh signals strategic shift in region

Renewed U.S. outreach to Bangladesh signals strategic shift in region

When Donald Lu visited Bangladesh last year, the veteran American envoy was banging the drum of democracy ahead of elections that critics warned were tilted in favor of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her ruling Awami League.

Washington had threatened visa restrictions on officials suspected of impeding a free vote. But Hasina still cruised to a fourth consecutive term in a poll boycotted by the opposition and tarnished by violence, the arrests of rival leaders and activists, and allegations of manipulation at polling stations.

Both the U.S. and the U.K. criticized the poll as "not free and fair" while UN human rights chief Volker Turk called on Bangladesh's government "to take steps to renew the country's commitment to democracy and human rights."

Lu, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, returned to Dhaka this month with a starkly different message focused on bolstering economic ties and battling climate change.

Unlike his 2023 visit, the diplomat also skipped meetings with opposition leaders and rights groups, stirring questions about whether Washington had abandoned its stance on democracy in a country that critics say is quickly sliding into authoritarianism.

"It appears that the U.S. has accepted the ground reality, albeit grudgingly, and hitting the reset button in the relationship," Ali Riaz, distinguished professor of Politics and Government at Illinois State University, told Nikkei Asia.

Following a  meeting with Bangladesh's foreign minister, Lu acknowledged that Washington's earlier warnings about the elections had stoked tensions, and pointed to a need to "move forward" and "rebuild trust."

"I can only say that during his trip, [he] focused on talking about economic partnership and Bangladesh's role in the U.S.'s Indo-Pacific policy," Mohammad Ali Arafat, Bangladesh's State Minister for Information and Broadcasting, said of Lu's three-day visit. "There was no discussion about the opposition, democracy, human rights, politics or elections."

Donald Lu, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, waves as he arrives in Kathmandu on July 14, 2023.   © AP
Bangladesh is among the biggest apparel exporters to the U.S., while Washington sees the country of 164 million, squeezed between India and Myanmar, as a valuable ally in its bid to contain China's rising regional influence, analysts said.

Just a month after the controversial January election, deemed unfair by Washington, U.S. President Joe Biden sent Hasina a letter expressing a "sincere desire" to work together on a range of issues, and "partnering ... on our shared vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific."

"The U.S. accords Bangladesh with considerable levels of strategic significance that have risen amid intensifying great power competition," said Michael Kugelman, director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington. "[It] views Bangladesh as a strategically located littoral state sitting astride the Indian Ocean -- and one that has strengthened ties with Beijing even amid a close relationship with New Delhi."

Still, within a week of Lu's May 14-16 visit, the U.S. government slapped sanctions on retired Bangladeshi army chief Aziz Ahmed and his immediate family on corruption allegations.

"The Ahmed case is a reminder that the U.S. hasn't jettisoned the values component of its policy in Bangladesh," Kugelman said. "But I wouldn't overstate its impact on the relationship. It's a fairly light punishment -- much lighter than economic sanctions -- and it targets a retired military leader, not the current government."

Illinois State's Riaz said Washington was prioritizing business and geopolitical interests while still aiming to maintain some influence over the Bangladeshi government.

"Apparently, these considerations are prompting the U.S. to work on low hanging fruit and avoid stress in the relationship in the near future," he added. "But such engagement on 'soft' issues without addressing democracy and human rights issues will further diminish U.S. leverage in Bangladesh and the region."

Years of past political unrest in Bangladesh may also be playing a role in how Washington massages its messaging with Dhaka.

"Despite the near collapse of democracy in Bangladesh, the country remains largely stable," said Shafquat Rabbee, a U.S.-based geopolitical analyst. "So, from the American perspective, a less turbulent Bangladesh, with some obvious undercurrent of political oppression, is better than a violently unstable Bangladesh with a chaotic democracy."

News Courtesy:

Nikkei Asia | May 28, 2024

An unhandled error has occurred. Reload 🗙