Is Bangladesh edging closer to China and Russia?

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh HasinaDeutsche Welle

Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said recently that it didn’t matter at all if people from her country didn’t fly to the United States, adding that “there are other oceans and other continents in the world.”

“We will not be dependent on others, who will not give us visas,” she said.

Her comments came in response to a warning from Washington that it would slap visa restrictions on Bangladeshi citizens who undermine the democratic election process at home.

The new US visa policy was announced ahead of national elections that are due to be held in the South Asian country by January 2024.

The last two general elections, held in 2014 and 2018, were marred by allegations of massive vote rigging and intimidation of opposition activists, charges denied by Hasina’s government.

Can Bangladesh move away from the US?

The United States is the largest importer of Bangladeshi products, importing $8.3 billion (€7.65 billion) worth of goods in 2021, according to the US Department of State. And US companies are among the largest foreign investors in the Muslim-majority country.

Observers believe that Hasina's remarks on the United States sound like and "attempt to be defiant".

“Given how so much of the Bangladeshi political class — including Hasina herself — has family members in the US, it would be misleading to suggest that not having the capacity to fly to the US is no big deal,” Michael Kugelman, the director of the South Asia Institute at Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, told DW.

Bangladesh plans to join the five-nation BRICS bloc, where China and Russia dominate
Deutsche Welle

Jasmin Lorch, a South Asia analyst and guest lecturer at the Humboldt University of Berlin, echoed Kugelman’s sentiments. She pointed out that Bangladesh’s ruling Awami League party members have a strong connection with the US.

“Sheikh Hasina has increasingly been relying on anti-American rhetoric. At the same time, many high-ranking Awami League officials and sympathisers of the party travel to the US for holidays or have their children study in US universities and colleges,” Lorch told DW.

Bangladesh ‘could benefit’ from joining BRICS

Meanwhile, Bangladesh plans to join BRICS in August. The country’s Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen confirmed the decision during a press briefing in Geneva on Wednesday after a meeting between Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa.

The acronym began as a somewhat optimistic term to describe what were the world’s fastest-growing economies at the time. But now the BRICS nations — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — offer a diplomatic forum and development financing outside of Western-dominated global financial institutions.

Bangladesh announced its BRICS plans when it faced a shortage of US dollars to import coal and other fuels to meet its energy needs.

Economic growth in BRICS countries
Deutsche Welle

South Asia expert Kugelman thinks that the Hasina government’s move could benefit the country if done correctly.

“If Dhaka plays its cards right, it could gain a lot from participating in BRICS while also continuing to scale up trade and diplomatic ties with the West,” Kugelman pointed out. “It would be wrong for Dhaka to join BRICS as a tactic to defy the West. But it can certainly help advance its foreign policy interests.”

China vows to safeguard Bangladesh’s sovereignty

Dhaka’s BRICS announcement comes amid Chinese support in safeguarding Bangladesh’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity.

Wang Wenbin, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson, said on Wednesday that his country stands ready “to work together with Bangladesh and other countries to oppose all forms of hegemonism and power politics … and build a community with a shared future for mankind.”

Lorch believes that Bangladesh’s government has been distancing itself from the US and Europe and moving closer to China and Russia for several years.

“China and Russia have intensified their economic cooperation with Bangladesh without criticizing the Awami League’s growing authoritarianism. Unlike economic support from the US and Europe, Chinese investments in Bangladesh’s infrastructure come with no conditionalities for human rights, good governance, or democracy,” Lorch said.

“This has allowed the Awami League to significantly decrease its dependence on so-called Western donors.”

An increasing reliance on authoritarian countries, the South Asia analyst fears, would have a negative effect on Bangladesh’s democratic future. While it remains to be seen how PM Hasina defies Western pressure, both Kugelman and Lorch say the country needs a free, fair, inclusive and participatory national election to stay on the democratic path.