Bangladesh will remain a test case for US foreign policy

The US has raised questions about the elections that took place on 7 January in Bangladesh. Even so, it is eager to go ahead with its bilateral relations. Michael Kugelman, director of the Washington-based Wilson Centre’s South Asia Institute, spoke in an interview taken in the last week of January over phone by Prothom Alo’s diplomatic correspondent Raheed Ejaz, about how the future of US relations with Bangladesh may evolve.

Michael KugelmanProthom Alo

Prothom Alo :

Let's start with the State Department's statement on 8 January, the day immediately after the election. When the State Department mentioned that this election was not free and fair, it indirectly acknowledged this was a sort of major policy setback. What was the reason behind this policy setback?

Micheal Kugelman: The US put a lot of effort into trying to promote a free and fair election. In terms of why it didn't work, you could look at it from the US side, or from the Bangladesh side. If you look at it from the perspective of US policy, there have been many times when Washington has sought to pursue policies meant to create a better outcome in another country and a lot of time it fails. So one can argue it is simply another case of US leverage falling short in cases where it tries very hard.

Prothom Alo :

And from the Bangladesh perspective?

Micheal Kugelman: There has been uneasiness about this external pressure and particularly pressure from the US. Prime minister Sheikh Hasina has been open about this unease over this pressure from the US and the role it plays. Then again, the ruling party had a very strong interest in doing everything possible to ensure that it does not lose power. Agreeing to a free and fair election, where you have a level playing field, a crackdown on the violence, no rigging, no irregularities, no violence, would create the best possible pathway for the BNP to return to power. Then one can argue that there would be a very high risk that if the BNP returned to power, it could use retributive power which could lead to a lot of arrests, imprisonment and so on. Therefore the interest of the ruling party was perhaps strongly aligned with the need to not do anything that could give the opposition a chance to return to power and so no form of pressure including from a critical trade partner like the US, would be able to move the needle forward, so to speak, for a free and fair election.

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Prothom Alo :

Despite pressure from the US, the election has been held and Awami League is back in power for the fourth consecutive time. How do you foresee Dhaka-Washington ties in the coming days?

Michael Kugelman: My sense if that the US government will want to be very careful about how it pursues its policy with Bangladesh post-polls. There is an increasing awareness of Bangladesh's strategic importance. I think it comes down to great power competition. US-China competition is now playing out across South Asia including in Bangladesh. Even though Bangladesh's relations with India are very strong, Bangladesh has scaled up its commercial and trade ties with China in recent years. Russia has also been more present in Bangladesh than it has in the past. So I think that there is a realisation on the part of the US that you can't do anything that risks pushing Bangladesh closer to China or closer to Russia.

Also, the trade relationship between the US and Bangladesh has expanded. The US is especially important for Bangladesh because America is the top export destination for Bangladesh. We are seeing broader trade and investment cooperation between the US and Bangladesh and that is important from the US perspective. It doesn't want to see China get too much of an advantage in terms of its own investments and presence there. In strategic and commercial cooperation, I think the US wants to build on that in the backdrop of the intensifying power competition.

Prothom Alo :

Coming to the policy of the Biden administration, it has been pursuing the democracy agenda robustly. In comparison, the Trump administration didn't push the democracy agenda so hard. So why has the Biden administration been pushing the democracy agenda so relentlessly?

Michael Kugelman: First, one clarification -- it is easy to forget this, but you did actually have this democracy promotion policy being pushed by the Trump administration, not as robustly as it has been during the Biden administration, but it was there.

When you had Trump era ambassadors in Bangladesh, in particular Marcia Bernicat who was there during the Trump era, you did have messaging from the US embassy there emphasising rights and democracy and free and fair elections. So this is not completely out of the blue. There is a degree of policy continuity between Biden and Trump. It is only that it is happening more now. So why are we seeing so much of this focus on rights, democracy and elections from the Biden administration?

There are several factors at play. One is that the Biden administration had made rights and democracy a big core of its foreign policy. I would also argue that despite what I was saying before about how the US is increasingly looking at Bangladesh as an important strategic space. it is clearly important enough for the US to be concerned about rights and democracy playing out, concerned enough to be focused on.

My sense is that US officials think that they can actually successfully help bring about outcomes that lead to more rights and democracy. And that is because, from the US perspective, you are not trying to create something out of thin air here. Bangladesh has democratic traditions, it has democratic institutions, it has had democratic successes, and I think from the US perspective that means that there is a precedent, there is a baseline here. It is not as difficult to promote democracy in a country that has these traditions as the countries that have never had democracy.

Prothom Alo :

When Ambassador Haas met with the foreign minister Hasan Mahmud recently in his maiden courtesy call, he made a statement that he was more focused on expanding and deepening ties. So is there an indication that there is a sort of adjustment of the policy from the State Department regarding the relationship with Bangladesh?

Michael Kugelman: We can see from the messaging coming from the state department including the initial reaction to the elections, they will continue focusing on rights and democracy issues. 

They will want to continue making Bangladesh a test case for the US foreign policy. At the same time they are going to be focussed on strategic considerations as well and build up a partnership to allow for the US to counter China, to trade more with Bangladesh, and so on. This is not new. And I argue that, you go back a number of years, there has been this focus on balancing the value side of the relationship with the more strategic consideration. You go back to the Trump era and you will read policy documents put up by the Pentagon to the State Department about the US Indo-Pacific Strategy, and Bangladesh will be mentioned in those documents. There were a lot of discussions on how Bangladesh is a key partner in the Indo-Pacific on a variety of different issues, from counter-terrorism to counter-piracy and many things in between.

We might see a sort of imbalance where the values-based components of the relationship would get less weight than the strategic-based components of the relationship. But I think you are going to see that dual focus.

Michael Kugelman
Prothom Alo

Prothom Alo :

You mention that Bangladesh will still remain a test case for the Biden administration and also the issues of interest will dominate in the big power rivalry for the relationship with Bangladesh. When we talk about democratic values, the issues of Data Protection Act and so on, do you think this could create an impediment for prospective US business in Bangladesh?

Michael Kugelman: If the US tries to balance the values and interest-based sides of its relationship with Bangladesh, it's not going to be easy. And one reason for that is these democracy concerns will constrain greater cooperation between the US and Bangladesh.

You have got a lot of new influential actors in the West that are trying to ramp up investment in Bangladesh. But I think it is very difficult for American tech companies to seriously consider scaling up investment in Bangladesh when you have very oppressive internet environment, not just in terms of how Bangladesh exploits digital security laws, but also the fact that people have been arrested and jailed after posting messages in Facebook. That awkward plug between promoting Digital Bangladesh and cracking down on the internet, doesn't put US tech investors in a very comfortable position.

Prothom Alo :

Do you think the strong postures by Russia, China and India, immediately after the election, makes US think very cautiously in evolving its engagement with Bangladesh in the context of the geopolitics surrounding the Bay of Bengal?

Michael Kugelman: I do think that geopolitical factors offer a rationale for US to back away from the rights-based foreign policy in Bangladesh. So long as the US pressures Bangladesh and Bangladesh angrily pushes back, that's a dynamic that is happily exploited by Russia and China. It gives them an opportunity to portray the US as a meddling destabilising factor in Bangladesh.

Another reason why geopolitical provides a reason for backing away from democracy promotion is that it puts the US at odds with India. The US and India see eye to eye on many issues, but Bangladesh is not one of them. Post-election, looking at the way forward, if the US backs away and there is less public messaging coming from Washington about democracy, if it holds back more issuing of sanctions, I think that could bring down the divide between the US and India on the issue of Bangladesh which would be helpful for geopolitical reasons.

Bangladesh is a democracy. One can argue that it approaching very close to authoritarianism, but it is a democracy. It has democratic traditions and so that makes it an appealing test case from the US perspective

Prothom Alo :

The US and India are on the same page, not just in the region of South Asia but elsewhere in the world. But on the democratic push, India is not on the same page as the US as regards the Bangladesh election. Was that a key element of US policy failure in its democracy push for Bangladesh?

Michael Kugelman: The US has an important strategic partnership with India. It is very clear that the fact that US promotion policy caused friction with India on the political issues of South Asia, yes, I think that it's very significant. But many observers in Bangladesh believe that India exerts heavy influence not only on politics in Bangladesh, but also over US thinking on Bangladesh. I do not that that because if India really had this very strong influence over US policy, then the US would not have been maintaining this democracy pressure campaign for so long.

Many have noted over the last few months the US government has become much quieter about Bangladesh. It hasn't been making much public messaging about democracy and some have wondered if that India's influence right there. Not necessarily.

There were a few visa restrictions announced in September, but nothing since then. That could be the impact of India there and I think the US-India relations could be helped if Delhi feels that the US is receptive to India's concerns.

But in my view, the main reason why the US probably stepped back in the months before the election is just that it decided that the situation on the ground was getting increasingly tense, and it may be just better to step away and let things play out.

Prothom Alo :

Do you think that Bangladesh will still remain a test case for Washington's value-based democracy push in the coming days? If there is a regime change in Washington DC, hypothetically if the Republicans come to power, will they push the value-based foreign policy as the Biden administration is doing now?

Michael Kugelman: I think it will and you are going to continue to see the US make democracy and rights a top priority in its policy and that's been telegraphed by the US government officials just over the last few days.

 It is interesting that even as we talk about how US has this values-based foreign policy, it doesn't really apply it in many countries. It may apply it in the context of US rivals.

But Bangladesh is a democracy. One can argue that it approaching very close to authoritarianism, but it is a democracy. It has democratic traditions and so that makes it an appealing test case from the US perspective.

If you have a new government, I think that would have a lesser values-based foreign policy. But then, we did see during the Trump era an aspect of a rights-based foreign policy. Essentially you saw democracy take centre stage in US public messaging on Bangladesh even back then. Marcia Bernicat would make speeches that were for rights and democracy and she even had ruffians throw stones at her car, so there is a precedent there, even in a non-Democrat administration. You cannot rule out Bangladesh continuing to be a test case for the US.


Prothom Alo :

Thank you.

Michael Kugelman: Thank you too.

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