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ECONOMIC SANCTIONS: Is Bangladesh getting entangled in game?


Dec 31, 2010
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Is Bangladesh getting entangled in game?​

M Serajul Islam | Published: 00:00, May 18,2023


THE prime minister’s statement that Bangladesh will not purchase anything from countries that would impose sanctions took many by surprise because no western country has yet so done. The only sanctions imposed by the west on Bangladesh so far have been those by the United States on the Rapid Action Battalion and senior battalion and police officials for ‘serious human rights violations.’

The prime minister’s statement suggests that she would, perhaps, ignore the US-west’s call for a free and fair election and hold it her way and, therefore, apprehensive of their economic sanctions. There is a bipartisan belief in Bangladesh that the United States and western countries will impose economic sanctions if the Awami League chose to hold elections similar to the 2014 and 2018 elections to remain in power.

The prime minister’s statement is, nevertheless, intriguing because Bangladesh’s economic relations with the United States and the west are extremely asymmetrical. The United States, for instance, has the undeniable power and might to make Bangladesh regret if it pushes Washington towards economic sanctions and retaliates the way the prime minister promised.

Sea changes have occurred in the strategic contexts of Bangladesh’s regional and world politics since the end of the US-led war on terror in August 2021. The US-west was focused on fighting Islamic fundamentalism and Islamic terrorism as issues of utmost strategic importance to them leading to Bangladesh’s controversial elections in 2014 and 2018. They did not want the Bangladesh Nationalist Party to gain power through these two elections because of its alliance with Jamaat. They, thus, looked the other way and allowed the Awami League its second and third terms.

Islamic fundamentalism and Islamic terrorism are no longer indispensable strategic issues of the United States and the west. They have now embraced democracy and human rights as indispensable, instead. These issues have already brought good results for the Democratic Party in the US mid-term elections in 2022. President Joe Biden and the Democratic Party will use these issues again in the US presidential election in 2024.

The Biden administration pursued these issues in Bangladesh as part of its concerns worldwide since it came to power in January 2021 as its foreign and domestic policy goals. It imposed sanctions on the Rapid Action Battalion in pursuit of democracy and human rights. It excluded Bangladesh from Biden’s 110-nation first and second Democracy Summits held in December 2021 and March 2023, thus placing Bangladesh with pariah nations such as Myanmar and North Korea, again for the same reasons.

Most strategic analysts in Bangladesh unfortunately have not seriously focused on these geopolitical developments and realities and their impact on Bangladesh. Many of them felt that the United States and its western allies with India as a key player would give the Awami League a fourth consecutive term to fight China and bring the Indo-Pacific nations together under US-led forums such as the Quad and the Indo-Pacific Strategy against China.

These Bangladeshi analysts have, thus, been in denial about the US call for a free and fair general election in Bangladesh in 2024 that started from the time US ambassador Peter Haas presented his credentials in March 2022. Ambassador Haas’s call was taken up by all the western countries and the United States in Dhaka like a chorus. Yet, anxiety lingered in the minds of these Bangladeshi analysts that the United States encouraged by India was not serious about a free and fair election in Bangladesh.

The prime minister said before leaving for her recent three-nation trip that she would explain to the US leaders the ‘model election’ of her government to meet the US expectations. She was in Washington for five days and, yet, she was unable to meet anyone from the Biden administration which is unprecedented in Bangladesh-US bilateral relations. There was, of course, no reason for them to meet her because before embarking on her visit, she stated in the parliament that Washington was working to change her regime.

The Washington trip and the prime minister’s statement on sanctions, however, flagged the US seriousness for a free and fair general election in Bangladesh. Nevertheless, some of those who doubted the United States all along continue to feel that Washington would eventually come behind the Awami League for a military base in the Bay of Bengal. They believe that the Matarbari deep seaport that some called ‘the game changer’ would eventually become a US military base.

Those who hold this view do so without considering, first, China’s present power and position in the region and the world and, second, the US disinclination to come into a direct conflict with China in the region that a US military base in the bay would certainly lead to. The Chinese ambassador in Dhaka Yao Wen made a milestone address recently at a seminar titled ‘Bangladesh-China Relations: Prognosis for the Future’ which is very important in this context.

Ambassador Wen stated in his presentation clearly that Bangladesh-China relations are ideal, devoid of any tension. He mentioned China’s proactive involvement in Bangladesh’s economic development and further stated that Beijing and Dhaka are currently engaged in discussions for Chinese investments in several strategic projects to underline the strength of Bangladesh-China relations. Wen also underlined China’s focus on anti-China US activities in the region and China’s determination to deal with them. He left no doubt that China would not favour any country in the region should it get involved in these US-led initiatives.

The United States has, meanwhile, also not overtly expressed any intention that it is either seeking to get involved with China militarily or seeking a military base in the bay. The United States is, to the contrary, instead advocating through the Indo-Pacific Strategy ‘a free, open, connected, prosperous, resilient, and secure Indo-Pacific region’ that surprisingly is no different from China’s Belt and Road Initiative with economic connectivity among nations the key element in both. Further, the domestic opinion in the United States, with the country entering its presidential election cycle, is not in favour of war but peace, no doubt as the result of the country’s bad experience from its war on terror.

Therefore, notwithstanding the views of some, the big powers with the ability to influence Bangladesh’s politics, are in no hurry to turn it into a zone of conflict with India’s intention unfortunately not being clear. Japan stated categorically through Iwama Kiminori, its ambassador in Dhaka, that its relations with Bangladesh are economic. Japan has invested in the Matarbari deep-sea project and other projects in Bangladesh hugely. It is aware that its investment would be in jeopardy if China feels that the Matarbari project may eventually become a US military base.

The proponents of the Matarbari project, therefore, have to be cautious and knowledgeable about strategic affairs. Otherwise, Matarbari could push the country towards strategic games of the big powers. They should also consider that Bangladesh could be well served by more investments in its two existing seaports without the Matarbari and that the promise of making Bangladesh the regional economic hub is based on its potential to serve the Seven Sisters, Nepal and Bhutan.

The promise of a hub should ring a bell in the proponents of Matarbari that New Delhi promised in the Awami League’s 2009–2014 term to make Bangladesh the regional connectivity hub with fabulous financial benefits if it gave India land transit which was Bangladesh’s only negotiating card for claiming its critical river water rights from India. Bangladesh is still waiting to become the connectivity hub. The fabulous riches have not reached its coffers. India has still not signed the Teesta deal. Dhaka has, meanwhile, granted India the use of Chattogram and Mangla ports. New Delhi, alas, talks no more of water sharing!

Bangladesh should, therefore, tread with caution about Matarbari which will be operational in 2026. It should develop Matarbari for use by Bangladesh only keeping in perspectives the strategic concerns and the track record of Indian promises. Bangladesh should develop Matarbari also as a negotiating card for its water-sharing rights from India and not play this card away on the vague promise of becoming the regional economic hub.

Bangladesh’s economic future is squarely in the Awami League’s hands now. If it ignores the US and the west’s call for a free and fair general election and brings on Bangladesh the economic sanctions that the prime minister fears, Bangladesh’s economy would be devastated. A free and fair general election should, therefore, be the prayer of every Bangladeshi.

M Serajul Islam is a former career ambassador.


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