Situated in the heart of the Bay of Bengal, the People’s Republic of Bangladesh has steadily proven itself to be a standout economic player in South Asia despite its increased domestic authoritarianism. According to the World Bank, Bangladesh has achieved a higher per capita income than both Pakistan and India, overtaking the former in 2016 and the latter in 2019.
While Bangladesh’s burgeoning economy has opened new investment opportunities for outside powers, Dhaka’s stagnating political landscape has implications for regional foreign policy dynamics, especially vis-à-vis China, India, and the United States. In this context, the United States, Bangladesh’s longtime partner, has articulated its interest in advancing a “free and open Indo-Pacific” and increased its focus on regional strategic competition with China. However, the expansion of Bangladesh’s one-party rule under Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League (AL) since 2009 has witnessed deepening authoritarianism, challenging the bilateral partnership, while Dhaka’s relationship with China has grown. Unlike both major powers, India has ramped up support with its formerly conjoint neighbor by spearheading diplomatic visits at the head-of-government level.
The upcoming January 2024 general election will serve as a geopolitical testament to how Bangladesh’s role will unravel with these major regional powers. As experts anticipate Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to secure a fourth consecutive term, policymakers in Dhaka are likely to maintain a balancing act with all three powers to varying degrees, with New Delhi potentially drawing in greater geopolitical leverage due to its bilateral historical ties with Bangladesh.
Upcoming Elections and Dhaka’s Troubled Politics
Bangladesh’s governance remains plagued by rampant corruption and unyielding animosity shared between the two influential political families, the ruling AL and the primary opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party led by Khaleda Zia. Anti-government demonstrations and associated violence typically intensify ahead of each election cycle. Local authorities have repeatedly placed opposition leaders, such as Khaleda Zia, under house arrest.
Several incidents of arson, clashes, vandalism, and other forms of violence have occurred as local authorities have resorted to the use of force on several occasions, and demonstrators from opposing rival camps have repeatedly clashed with one another.
In recent months, various opposition parties have demanded the current administration’s resignation to facilitate the upcoming election under a neutral caretaker government. Several incidents of arson, clashes, vandalism, and other forms of violence have occurred as local authorities have resorted to the use of force on several occasions, and demonstrators from opposing rival camps have repeatedly clashed with one another. According to Prothom Alo, poll-related violence left at least 72 people killed and 7,000 others injured in approximately 500 recorded incidents between January 2022 to February 2023.
Strategic Implications for the United States
South Asia is one of the four critical sub-regions of the Indo-Pacific. The United States has begun to Indo-Pacific Outlook suggests that Bangladesh wants to avoid overt alignment with either Beijing or Washington. While some of the principles and objectives included in the Outlook align with Washington’s vision of a rules-based, transparent world order, this does not immediately imply that Dhaka is aligned with the United States. Dhaka favors a multipolar international system without any interference in any state’s sovereign affairs – running in contrast to Washington’s strategic imperative to maintain its preeminence as the world’s sole superpower.
This tension has contributed to some bilateral tensions since 2021. In 2021, the United States implemented sanctions against the Rapid Action Battalion paramilitary force for committing human rights violations. In May 2023, the United States restricted the issuance of visas for individuals “believed to be… undermining the democratic election process in Bangladesh.” As Bangladesh continues down an anti-democratic course that stands in opposition to the “free and open Indo-Pacific” principles advocated by the Indo-U.S. axis, relations between Washington and Dhaka may become further strained.
Yet the United States retains a great deal of economic and political leverage over Bangladesh. The United States is Bangladesh’s largest export market for garments, which offers Washington a viable alternative to diversifying manufacturing services away from China. It also provides Dhaka with opportunities to seek overseas investments in diversifying its predominantly export-dominated textile industry to other high-value sectors, such as leather and light engineering. Compared to China, the United States has longevity as a partner for Bangladesh, having offered educational, employment, and other opportunities since 1972.
However, a largely anticipated AL victory in January may present additional challenges for the U.S.-Bangladesh moving forward. If the election is perceived as undemocratic and the US enforces targeted sanctions on legislators associated with the AL, bilateral tensions are likely to persist and intensify over the long haul. This could impact agreements – such as the recently approved Acquisition Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA) and General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) – which may encounter challenges during the implementation phase, including potentially politicized delays. This is particularly significant in enhancing the United States’ deterrence posture in the Indo-Pacific region.
Geoeconomic Ramifications for China
In recent years, China has played an increasingly prominent role in Bangladesh’s economy. China is now Bangladesh’s largest trade partner and second-largest arms exporter. This influence has grown steadily over the years, irrespective of which party is in power. Both parties have historically sought Chinese investments. Under the AL, Bangladesh has secured a plethora of critical infrastructure-related undertakings since 2016.
The outcome of the 2024 election is unlikely to significantly transform the bilateral partnership either way – policymakers in Beijing seek to maintain a commercial workaround with Dhaka to keep Delhi and Washington at arm’s length. China’s geopolitical leverage remains incumbent upon its trade opportunities with Bangladesh, as Beijing neither possesses the historical links with Dhaka as New Delhi does, nor the political influence that Washington has cultivated through the power of the dollar.
As a member of the Non-Aligned Movement alongside India, Bangladesh strives to achieve its Vision 2041 goal by seeking “friendship toward all, malice toward none.”
Beijing has prudently crafted its reputation as an apolitical state in Bangladesh by refraining from providing public commentary on Dhaka’s domestic affairs. During a recent bilateral Silk Road Forum in Dhaka, the Chinese ambassador to Bangladesh asserted, “China supports the stance Bangladesh has taken in refusing foreign interference in the internal affairs.” Beijing may not become involved in Dhaka’s domestic affairs, but Chinese leaders remain overtly apprehensive about the country’s external dealings. The Chinese ambassador’s comments about “substantial damage” to bilateral relations over Bangladesh’s possibility of joining the U.S.-led Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and Dhaka’s subsequent pushback underscores Beijing’s trepidations.
Sociopolitical and Economic Implications for India
New Delhi holds a significant position in Dhaka’s foreign policy considerations. Bangladesh shares historical and cultural ties with its neighboring country since India played a crucial role in its journey to independence. As a member of the Non-Aligned Movement alongside India, Bangladesh strives to achieve its Vision 2041 goal by seeking “friendship toward all, malice toward none.” While the United States and India have accelerated their bilateral relationship in several areas, Washington should not anticipate Delhi to take more proactive measures than carefully balancing its policies toward China. In mid-August, a Bengali-language Indian newspaper reported Delhi lawmakers’ concerns about potentially destabilizing US policies in Bangladesh before the election, which could harm India’s security as a neighboring country and in South Asia. This implies that India’s aspiration for a multi-polar world without external sovereign influence slightly diverges from the United States’ overarching regional policies.
In contrast to Beijing and Washington, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Sheikh Hasina have ramped up high-level bilateral visits. India’s consistent efforts to safeguard Bangladesh’s internal politics also place it ahead in the regional competition. Both countries have resolved a lingering water-sharing dispute along the Kushiyara River and extended bilateral cooperation in various sectors. During Sheikh Hasina’s multi-day visit to India in September 2022, the prime minister asserted India’s significance as the “most important and closest neighbor of Bangladesh.”
Ultimately, Bangladesh presents itself as an inclusive state that favors a multipolar world order without any interference in a state’s sovereign affairs. Moving forward, the state with the least overt opposition to the AL’s rule – i.e., India – will likely maintain an edge to advance its geopolitical objectives. India may possess significantly fewer resources compared to China and the U.S., but it draws the greatest comparative leverage as both Dhaka and New Delhi share historical links as one nation (rashtra) and share a similar vision of a multiple world order without interference in sovereign affairs. The January election will underline Bangladesh’s political climate for years to come.
Also Read: What’s Next for Bangladeshi Politics?
Image 1: Election Posters of Sheikh Hasina via Flickr.
Image 2: Khaleda Zia, the leader of the Bangladesh National Party via Flickr.