India, China and the US are embroiled in a competition with each other in the Indo-Pacific region. After its war with Ukraine, Russia has become involved in this geopolitical vortex too. Bangladesh has close ties with all four of these competing countries. In this context, director of the Washington-based Wilson Centre’s South Asia Institute, Michael Kugelman, speaks to Prothom Alo about the challenges that loom up in front of Bangladesh’s foreign policy and relations between Dhaka and Washington. Prothom Alo’s diplomatic correspondent Raheed Ejaz interviewed Michael Kugelman on 2 September on the sidelines of an international seminar held at the Bangladesh Institute of International Strategic Studies (BIISS) in the capital.
You have been researching on South Asia for quite some time now at the Wilson Centre, but this is your first trip to Dhaka. What is the purpose of this visit? And what are your observations on this trip?
I have had a great visit. One of the big impressions I’ve had on this first trip has been just how young this country still is. I am struck how that 1971 is something that is still spoken about on a daily basis in the political space and so many other spaces as well. Beyond that, I am also struck by how critical this moment is, concerning the election. But also geopolitically, Bangladesh is really caught up in three simultaneous geopolitical rivalries – US-China, India-China and US-Russia. This is a very interesting time for Bangladesh.
You mentioned geopolitical rivalry. How would you rate Bangladesh regarding its geopolitical presence in the Indo-Pacific vis-à-vis the rivalry among the states like India, US and China. How do you evaluate the scenario?
Given just how intense and sharp the great power competition is in the region and in Bangladesh specifically, I think it really is putting to test Bangladesh’s long-standing policy of balancing relations with the various great powers. It gets more difficult to do that when you have that competition sharpening so much. We are seeing US-China competition, we see China-India competition incredibly intense. And ever since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the US-Russia competition is playing out as well. And Bangladesh has relations with all four of these countries, it really puts to test its long standing policy and I think we will see in the coming months just how far Bangladesh can continue with that same policy.
If the US keeps pushing and prodding and pressuring and Dhaka feels that it is being pushed into a corner, there is the possibility that it could move more towards China
Let’s come to the issue of US-Bangladesh relations. Since 2009 onwards we see that there is a deepening and widening relations between Dhaka and Washington. Despite that, we see US-bashing by certain political quarters. And in light of the recent sanctions on RAB and the US visa policy, how do you assess relations with Bangladesh?
There are actually three tracks when looking at US-Bangladesh relationship – geopolitics, democracy and commercial relations. US Bangladesh relations have long been defined by trade cooperation, the US being the top destination for Bangladesh exports. We have seen that pick in the recent years. You have had the establishment of Bangladesh-US business council in the last few years. They sent in a very high powered delegation a few days ago. These different tracks seem sort of contradictory in a sense. The business track is set to proceed on its own track. It should be fine. But one reason why you are seeing stepped up cooperation between the US and Bangladesh is that the US wants to try and strengthen relations with Bangladesh to reduce, even if in part, Bangladesh’s reliance on China for economic assistance.
Clearly the democracy push risks undermining that. I think that there is that possibility that if the US keeps pushing and prodding and pressuring and Dhaka feels that it is being pushed into a corner, there is the possibility that it could move more towards China.
India may deter that. India has a very close relationship with Bangladesh. India may try to discourage Bangladesh from doing that. We could talk about why the US is pushing democracy, but I think that the key point is the potential of contradiction in those two key tracks of the democracy push and the geopolitical lens. The democracy push could undermine the geopolitics focused push for better relations with Bangladesh.
If the US is concerned about Chinese influence, do you think it is a wise move to exert more pressure on Bangladesh for democracy in order to divert it from China?
It is in line with US policy across the region. We are seeing stepped up US engagement with most South Asian countries. I think the US government’s message here is very consistent across many different countries in South Asia. The US wants to provide alternatives to Bangladesh, alternatives to what the Chinese are providing, whether infrastructure support, development assistance or arms. You are seeing the US trying to step up the defence cooperation with Bangladesh. They argument there is the US could offer better deals, better equipment, better technology, and so on. Who knows if Dhaka will believe that. But that is pitch the US is trying to make. We hear the US officials say we want Bangladesh to get the best military deals it can. And of course, the US position is that the best deals come from the US.
One could describe this as indirect pressure, but I think it is more the idea of creating and presenting alternative to Bangladesh that hopefully could draw it a little way from China.
But do you think that initiatives like the visa policy will work to help Bangladesh have a free and fair election, or that may put a strain on Bangladesh-US relations?
I think the reasons why we see tensions in the relationship now is because of that very issue of this push on democracy and rights. While the US would like to see its relationship with Bangladesh succeed, it would like to see its relationship with Bangladesh as a strategic partnership and US officials actually describe it as that these days. This is not India. This is not South Korea. This is not Japan. It is not Australia. It is not an ally. So I do think quite frankly that the US has concluded it can take the risk of alienating the government in Bangladesh. It really wants to push this democracy agenda. I think that the US feels it can really succeed. With the sanctions on the RAB, the visa policy, it could create conditions for a free and fair election. And it is willing to take the risk that it could fail. It doesn’t want to fail. I think that it concludes it can afford to rock the boat. It has that diplomatic space to so that.
Again, there is the strategic risk, if your push too hard, Bangladesh will move closer to China. But I do think the US feels it is sort of protected from that by the fact that India, with its leverage over Bangladesh, will try to press Bangladesh not to do that. But of course India doesn’t want to be in that position of having to make that pitch and that is why India doesn’t like that the US is doing on this democracy push front.
Do you think that the US, by pushing hard for free, fair and peaceful elections, has created a sort of strain on Bangladesh-US relations?
I think so in terms on the official side of the relationship. I imagine there are plenty of members of the Bangladesh public who don’t support the current government, who don’t like what is happening, they welcome it. One could argue that there may be a public diplomacy benefit from this. But certainly many in Bangladesh, especially those who support the ruling party, they don’t like what’s happening. On the official side, clearly Dhaka does not like what is happening. I understand the prime minister has some grievances against US policy going back to 1971, and clearly this pressure and criticism is only going to harden these feelings. It brings back the issue of US support for Pakistan in 1971.
Anti-corruption is certainly important in context of the Indo-Pacific strategy. If you are talking about a free, open rules based Indo-Pacific, obviously that means you don’t want to see corruption
China also supported Pakistan.
Yes, right. But China doesn’t ask any questions. China doesn’t criticise Bangladesh for anything. The more the US pressures Bangladesh, the more government in Dhaka responds in kind. Then you have the kind of speech that the prime minister made in parliament where she accused the US of trying to overthrow her. Obviously that isn’t going to be received well in Washington. This tit-for-tat rhetoric is not good for US-Bangladesh relations.
We hear that corruption is one of the key concerns of the Biden administration and foreign policy too. So do you think the US may use the corruption tool against Bangladesh in the future? Things like money laundering, etc.
It’s interesting because just in the last few days in conversations I’ve had here, I’ve heard that there is a possibility that the US could perhaps impose some additional sanctions some time before the election, targeting certain unnamed individuals for money laundering.
I would think that anti-corruption would go hand in hand with democracy promotion. Anti-corruption is certainly important in context of the Indo-Pacific strategy. If you are talking about a free, open rules based Indo-Pacific, obviously that means you don’t want to see corruption. But I am not aware of a push on anti-corruption within the Indo-Pacific strategy any time recently but maybe I am just not aware of it.
Thank you too.