Bangladesh: Stuck Between the US, India and China
In this Briefing, first-year BSc International Relations student Kaloyan Gavrilov talks about Bangladeshi foreign policy, and explores whether it can and should keep its non-aligned status amid pressures from international powers. This article was edited by Carola Ducco (Co-Editor).
On January 14th, US Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, Donald Lu, landed in Dhaka, Bangladesh, for what was originally intended as a short visit. Soon, his stay had to be extended given the wider number of topics that needed to be discussed. The initial purpose behind the visit was to address the possibility of lifting sanctions on the Rapid Action Battalion, an anti-terrorism unit of the Bangladeshi police force accused of gross human rights violations, with Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen. However, the conversation quickly grew. Soon after Momen, many members of Bangladeshi civil society wished to speak with Lu, with some discussing ways to ensure democracy and transparency ahead of the forthcoming parliamentary elections, and others wishing to thank Lu for the US aid following the devastating floods during June last year.
Lu’s visit on behalf of the United States is part of a wider picture. Both China and India have also been trying to further ties and establish friendships with the South Asian state. Just four days prior to meeting Lu, Bangladeshi Foreign Minister Momen spoke with Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang at Shahjahal International Airport in Dhaka, before the Chinese delegation proceeded with state visits to Africa. The move came as a surprise, as for thirty-two consecutive years the first diplomatic trips of the year for the Chinese Foreign Minister have been to Africa. Representatives of the Chinese delegation soon insisted that the tradition was not broken, as the trip to Bangladesh was not an official visit but rather a “stopover”.
Along with raised eyebrows at the thought of a broken tradition came raised questions surrounding the nature of the discussion between the two Foreign Ministers, and why Bangladesh was chosen as the stopover. Reports suggest that it was to assess the trade deficit between the two countries, as Bangladesh imports $13 billion worth of Chinese goods, while China only imports $800 million worth of Bangladeshi goods. Foreign Minister Momen had also accused China of failing to meet its promises. This was in reference to President Xi Jinping’s visit to Bangladesh in 2016, in which the Chinese Head of State pledged greater investment and an agreement to remove quotas on 98% of Bangladeshi goods. To date, none of these measures have been implemented.
With regards to India, a member of the government is yet to make a visit to Bangladesh in the new year. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina visited New Delhi in September of 2022. There, he and Modi discussed trade, science and more, as well as how to achieve greater collaboration between the two countries on those topics. The two ministers also discussed the controversial issue of water shortages within the region, and the withdrawal of water from the Kushiyara River by Bangladesh as part of the Upper Surma-Kushriya Project. But does a visit from the Bangladeshi Head of State indicate a desire to band with India in its rise as a global superpower, or does it merely reflect the goodwill between two neighbouring states?
In Dhaka, since the Cold War, non-alignment has served as an important component in the wider framework of Bangladeshi foreign policy. Now, Bangladesh finds itself at a crossroads, with three superpowers playing tug of war over it.
The United States
The United States and Bangladesh enjoy strong relations, perhaps as best illustrated by Bangladesh being a large aid recipient of the US, while also receiving additional aid from them in times of natural disaster.
The approach to relations with Bangladesh is part of a wider US strategy for the Indo-Pacific called “pivot to Asia”, initiated under the Obama Administration. The US strategy has focused on initiatives such as AUKUS (a trilateral security pact with the United Kingdom and Australia and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue with Australia, India and Japan. This effort has found bipartisan support in domestic US politics. It comes at a time when both Democrats and Republicans are concerned with the rise of China, as many politicians worry about the country’s restricted internet access, its refusal to abide by international law, and China’s territorial claims in Taiwan.
The United States, in their quest to challenge the CCP and curb Xi Jinping’s ambitions, has been looking to turn surrounding states such as Bangladesh into indispensable allies in what some have termed the “New Cold War” between China and the West.
However, the United States’ focus has been diverted to a war in Ukraine that has caused tens of thousands of deaths since February of last year, and a global energy crisis. Whether they can further dedicate resources to challenge China will depend on their willingness to prioritise this as their geostrategic concerns.
Chinese-Bangladeshi relations remain mixed. The People’s Republic repeatedly blocked Bangladesh’s accession to the United Nations between 1972 and 1974, siding with Pakistan on territorial disputes. Since then, China has amended relations with Bangladesh, particularly focusing on economic cooperation such as free trade deals.
Bangladesh is a part of the One Belt, One Road initiative, in part because of its critical access to the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean, which is crossed by some 80% of global seaborne trade. This makes the country a crucial member of Xi Jinping’s plans for maritime trade.
However, Bangladesh is still wary of China, and for good reason. The story of the Sri Lankan Hambantota Port will stick in the minds of Bangladeshi politicians and businessmen looking to work closely with China as a modern-day Trojan Horse. The port originally appeared as a great infrastructural project to boost trade with Sri Lanka. But soon after, it had to be signed away on a 99-year lease to China to cover the debt accrued to complete the project in the first place. Sri Lanka is a fellow member of the South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation, and this example of debt trap diplomacy will likely push Dhaka to rethink its decision to favour cooperation with China.
Historically, India enjoys better relations with Bangladesh, having supported their independence in the Bangladesh Liberation War. Today, border disputes and matters of illegal immigration only minimally influence a generally fruitful relationship.
Both sides also enjoy a strong bond as part of the Non-Aligned Movement. India, as the founder of the Movement, holds an esteemed social standing among Afro-Asian nation-states and has been a strong advocate of their independence from first-world states. As a post-colonial state, Bangladesh is inclined to support this vision. As a former British colony, it especially shares India’s history of struggle, exploitation and oppression.
India has increasingly adopted a stronger presence in the international sphere, most notably as a significant peacemaker and mediator in the Ukraine war. Should the emerging power wish to continue building its international standing, it will benefit from a strong base of support in its own backyard, which makes Bangladesh an important ally.
The argument for alignment
When aligning, countries often follow hegemonic powers in their proximity, due to the security guarantees that come with this choice.
The Bangladeshi land border is almost entirely shared with India, except for 271 km border with Myanmar in the South-East. Therefore, closer ties with India could be expected. This is especially relevant from an economic standpoint, as India is Bangladesh’s second largest export partner, with over $5 million of trade being carried out in 2020 alone.
China could also be a compelling ally, as it surpasses India as Bangladesh’s largest export partner, with over $10 million a year. Furthermore, China would be better able to assist Bangladesh in its security concerns, such as terrorism, as the current military expenditure reaches close to $300 billion and continues to rise each year. This is especially relevant as India is unlikely to take on this role, as its foreign policy adopts a pro-disarmament stance calling for world peace, hence the Indian aversion to military alliances.
Alignment with the United States is unlikely given the North American power’s already strong ties with other Asian states such as Japan, South Korea and the Philippines. The US will likely prioritise these states, given their greater capacity to dedicate resources towards limiting Chinese growth. The Bangladeshi-American relations built on the foundation of foreign aid are now at risk too, with many prominent figures within American politics calling for a reduction of foreign aid. The most glaring example is Former President Donald Trump, who in the past has proposed a 21% cut in foreign aid. Should Trump run again and be re-elected in 2024, political analysts in Dhaka could be forced to reassess relations with the US.
The case for non-alignment
Perhaps the best example of alignment being strategically important was in Cold-War Europe, where states were pushed to side with the US or the USSR, choosing between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. In Bangladesh however, the situation is radically different. Most importantly, despite some disputed geopolitical issues in nearby areas, South Asia is unlikely to be the theatre of a wide-scale military confrontation in the near future. Over in East Asia, Taiwan remains a taboo topic, for fears of the violence that may escalate if the US were to defend the island during a Chinese invasion. On the one hand, US collective defence agreements concerning the Indo-Pacific are numerous, spanning commitments to defend South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Australia, New Zealand and more. On the other hand, China’s one military commitment is to North Korea. So far, neither the United States nor China has made attempts towards expansion, let alone approaching Bangladesh.
In the current situation, it is unlikely that the threat of armed conflict will force the South Asian state to pick a side in the near future. Therefore, Bangladeshi policymakers may instead seek to maintain relations with all three states, reaping the benefits that come with each: American foreign aid, and the Chinese and Indian trade markets.
Finally, maintaining good relations with all states and affirming its non-aligned status make up the very core of Bangladeshi foreign policy. In a world of increasingly heightened tensions, as we enter a new era of geopolitical competition, it could be within Bangladesh’s interests to maintain positive relations with all so long as it is not forced to pick a side. Non-alignment will likely remain the lens through which Bangladesh continues to look out into the world, going back to the words of their founding figure, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman - “friendship with all, malice to none”.