The BNP workers and supporters have brought back that historical 'cheera-moori' politics, and political winds blow over the country once again. This time the call is for political reforms, for voting rights. Perhaps this will be sorted out in the days to come. Or perhaps not. BNP hasn't come up with any roadmap for reforms. Then there are certain elements who declare 'the game will be on'. Time will tell if that will be a game of votes as in 1954 or 1971. The Gaibandha election gives an inkling of the seriousness of the problem.

The curious matter is that suddenly many important foreign persons are regularly talking about the voting right of Bangladesh's citizens. One such person is Peter Haas. He is the 17th US ambassador to Bangladesh. Haas' views, thoughts and expectations have recurrently been appearing in Bangladesh's news media.

Over the past few months, BNP workers have been going ahead, armed with their 'cheera-moori', while Peter Haas is taking centre stage in the news media, in the village tea-stall 'adda' and the confidential WhatsApp chats of the urbanites. Haas' gestures are bold and appealing. But surely Bangladeshis must learn to unitedly solve their own problems. When will that day arrive?

At a 'Meet the Ambassador' event on 29 September, Haas made it clear what he and his government wishes. For the time being, there are five things that they want -- to have Bangladesh as their security ally in the Indo-Pacific region; an international standard election for the sake of democracy, pluralism and good governance; capacity building to face social and environmental dangers; improvement of labour rights; and proper protection of Rohingyas in Bangladesh until they can return safely to their homeland.

The wish-list isn't too long but has a lot of sensitive issues tucked into it, particularly the first wish. Haas and the US want Bangladesh by their side to tackle any 'threats' to US interests in the Indo-Pacific region. They want to sign two defence agreements for this, which they say is necessary. These proposals are a bit uncomfortable for Bangladesh because China is in the same region, a rival to US interests. There is India too. And everyone's interests are not the same.

What will Bangladesh do now? Whose interests will it give priority to? This is a matter of concern. Even those with their cheera and moori are having to give this matter thought. But they do share at least one common wish with Peter Haas, perhaps coincidental, perhaps not!

When it's hard to remain 'neutral'

The interests of around 15 countries lie in the Indo-Pacific region. Not too long ago this region was important as a hub of global economy. And now one wave of international tension after another is sweeping through the region.

It is common knowledge that China is the major power in the Indo-Pacific. Also in this region are Taiwan, Korea, Vietnam and Indonesia. These are all rising economies of the world. They all have high geopolitical ambitions too.

As China-US tensions heighten around the world, this is having an impact on the Indo-Pacific region too. Polarisation is taking place faster than imagined here and is being driven too. In such a complex area of rivalry, how can Bangladesh chose to befriend a single particular power? But the circumstances do not allow Bangladesh to stand without taking sides. It neither has that physical strength nor mental strength.

'Neutrality' is a social and political stance. But that requires economic clout. Bangladesh does not have that economic strength that it had even a couple of years ago, at least not at present. That has been revealed in recent times.

The world is aware of Bangladesh's concern over its reserves. It doesn't want to be a Sri Lanka. It has had to approach IMF. Apprehensions of a famine have been declared. It is heard that the working-class families have cut down on their food intake. It would have been better to remain 'neutral', but it is hard to remain 'neutral' amid such tensions. It requires strong self-rule to remain neutral. It requires national unity. Bangladesh does not have any of this. And so it needs a 'guardian' and perhaps Peter Haas knows where the problem lies.

This small country is struggling to maintain a balance with the three big powers of today. A relationship with all three at the same time is not easy. There is always the risk if displeasing at least two sides

On his own accord, he said Bangladesh's relations with China should not hamper Washington-Dhaka friendship. But the matter is certainly more complicated than Haas' aspiration. After all, Bangladesh's relations with the People's Republic of China is no longer a matter of just common cordiality. It has grown gradually over 47 years. The bond between the two is now multidimensional and very deep. Hundreds of Chinese companies are doing business in Bangladesh at present. It is not just Padma Bridge. China has massive contribution to Bangladesh's infrastructural development over the past few decades. They have contributed in building up military strength too.

China has gradually given strength and self-confidence to the country which the US had belittled as a 'bottomless basket'. China had made a mistake in delaying to recognise Bangladesh in 1971. But it made up for this later. So it is difficult for Bangladesh to hobnob with China's rival. Again, there is the Taiwan question. Bangladesh does not recognise Taiwan as an independent entity. Yet protecting Taiwan is an inseparable part of the Indo-Pacific strategy.

In the meantime, the economic recession has cast a shadow over China-Bangladesh relations. The depleting foreign currency reserves are a deterrent for Bangladesh to fall into debt for any mega infrastructural project again. Any proposal in this regard will not grab much attention either. But where is there space for China's contribution to Bangladesh other than in bridges, tunnels, roads and so on? China may be a superpower, but its moral and cultural contribution in Bangladesh is weak. India or the US is way ahead in that regard.

It is not just with China that Bangladesh has keep up good relations, but it has to strike a balance with the neighbour on its three borders, India. The bottom line is, this small country is struggling to maintain a balance with the three big powers of today. A relationship with all three at the same time is not easy. There is always the risk of displeasing at least two sides. The friend of a historic past India will certainly not want to be a 'victim'. Even after receiving everything, there are still always things that India will want from Bangladesh and the list gradually changes.

Earlier India's demand was to ensure that Bangladesh was not a safe haven for its 'insurgent forces'. Now added to that list is a clear desire to use Bangladesh's territory for the economic growth of India's northeast region. The infrastructure constructed by China has proven to be useful for them and will be even more useful in the days to come. India has no problem with Bangladesh celebrating a bridge made with China's funds.

What could be better for New Delhi than its almost isolated Assam and Tripura being able to so easily use the Chittagong Port! If Bangladesh wants, even the distance between Kolkata and Agartala can be slashed. None of this conflicts with US interests. Even so, it will be difficult to acquiesce to all of Peter Haas' wishes.

In which direction will Bangladesh turn?

New Delhi is adverse to anyone else's dominance in the ocean of its neighbourhood. They make no secret of this. And so, India and the US do not share the same point of  view concerning the Indo-Pacific Strategy. Similarly, India has no reason to be thrilled by the arrival of Chinese engineers at the banks of Teesta in Rangpur, in close proximity to Siliguri. The list of such tripartite tensions of likes and dislikes is considerably long. And it is only natural that these three countries have differences in their likes and dislikes when it comes to the question of Bangladesh's elections, politics and good governance. Beijing doesn't bother its head over the human rights record of its credit recipient countries. So the interest and enthusiasm of China, India and the US differ even when it comes to the 'cheera-moori' politics. It is same in the case of the election and 'game' before and after.

Bangladesh even failed to receive any expected assistance from India and China in five years regarding the Rohingya crisis. The question looms large as to whether they even wanted to cooperate in this regard

Even after taking all of this into cognizance, the demands being made by the US, as a 'guardian', have made everyone sit up and think. It has influence and control over the World Bank, IMF, the UN and various missions. The US and EU are a big market for Bangladesh's export goods. A large number of expatriates live in those countries too. Innumerable families survive on their earnings.

On the flip side, the Sri Lanka experience shows that India and China cannot always save their 'friends'. Nepal suffers from the same regrets. After its economic crisis, Pakistan too had to rush to IMF this year. It could not simply depend on Beijing, though the two countries call each other 'all-weather strategic partners'.

The nightmare that Bangladesh went through during the Covid outbreak is on this list too. Even after signing an agreement, vaccines weren't arriving as committed from its large neighbour. Yet almost without asking, the US has so far provided Bangladesh with around 60 million doses of the vaccine, a large chunk of the US' global vaccine grant during the pandemic. Another scar was created in India-Bangladesh relations when Bangladesh failed to receive Teesta water after an inordinate wait. Amid the regular visits by the leaders of both countries, it too an astonishing 12 years for the Joint Rivers Commission to hold a meeting. Meanwhile, two dams were even constructed in Sikkim.

Bangladesh even failed to receive any expected assistance from India and China in five years regarding the Rohingya crisis. The question looms large as to whether they even wanted to cooperate in this regard. If China and India even now give more importance to Myanmar, a country with a population of 60 million, than to Bangladesh, a country of 170 million people, why should there be any hope for the future? These two countries have done nothing to lessen the trade imbalance either. It is because of this mental distance that Bangladesh's meritorious young generation gives more priority to Europe and North America as a destination than Beijing or Delhi. That is why Bangladesh faces administrative anxiety when faced with sanctions of America or Europe. They have to arrange ample funds to lobby. It would perhaps not be so in the face of any sanctions from China or India.

How will the Bangladesh government and the people ignore this harsh truth? Perhaps Peter Haas is betting on these weak points.

It is also true that neutrality is not any effective strategy in the face of financial and economic distress. Bangladesh is not capable of what Switzerland is capable of. Times are changing fast. Even countries like Sweden and Finland are having to relinquish their neutrality in the face of new global realities.

But in which direction will Bangladesh turn? It is true that North Korea and Myanmar are leaning towards one side and are surviving. The people there, though, have lost democracy and much of their independence as citizens. Will Bangladeshis be agreeable to live in such an isolated and semi-independent manner? People are riding bicycles in search of politics once again. Is this an aspiration for a new Bangladesh?

* Altaf Parvez is a researcher on history