It will be hard for any country, including Bangladesh, to remain unaffected by a global recession. Bangladesh economists have begun discussion on how risky this recession will be for us and how well Bangladesh is doing in the prevailing circumstances. There are differences among the economists, but all acknowledge the threat and the fact that Bangladesh has begun feeling the pressure.
The major and most discussed reason behind the global recession is the Russian aggression in Ukraine and the war that ensued. In modern times, a war does not remain restricted to a region or simply to clashes and conflict. The world got to understand this very well after the onset of the Ukraine-Russia war. This war once again has created a situation where the world can be divided into two camps. And in response to the war, there have been all sorts of sanctions and counter sanctions, sparking off an economic war. Taking sides in this time of divisions and economic war, has become a matter of calculations in global politics. Such global circumstances have placed countries like Bangladesh under economic pressure and pitched them into the complex task of weighing the odds in geopolitical positioning.
In the case of world trade, imports and exports are not only dependent on commercial and economic interests. Having the funds does not necessarily make it possible to import goods from any country. Having exportable goods does not make it possible to export these abroad. Political and diplomatic relations are involved, interests between country, the different sides in global politics, the domestic and international polices of various countries, rules and regulation, as well as conditionalities also play a role. The Ukraine-Russia war has made all this more complex.
Bangladesh is an import-dependent country. In face of the global economic slump, Bangladesh must keep its imports up in order to keep the supply of essential commodities normal. Then again, exports must also be kept up to meet the import costs. The problem is, the regional and global political powers will keep Bangladesh under pressure, wanting to pull it to their respective sides. The question is, how and how far will Bangladesh manage to tackle this global recession that looms large?
If we look at the import market, 33 per cent of Bangladesh's imported goods come from China, and around 25 per cent from India. On the other hand, Bangladesh's biggest export market is the US and Europe. Around 63 per cent of our export trade is with countries of the West. Bangladesh's development partners and creditors, on one hand, are JICA, ADB, the World Bank and IMF, and on the other hand there are countries like China and Russia. Has Bangladesh managed to find and choose a side from among them?
It is clear that the post-Trump US wants to retrieve its leadership in global politics. Russia's aggression in Ukraine has significantly brightened that prospect for the US. US leadership and influence has once against taken a firm grip over NATO and European countries. During Obama's term in office, the US had taken up the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), but Trump withdrew the US from the treaty. With Biden at the helm now, the US is returning there with the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF) deal. The US has taken up this initiative to counter the China-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). And the US wants Bangladesh in this economic alliance initially comprising 13 countries including the US.
Other than economic alliances, the US wants to consolidate its leadership in various defence cooperation and other initiatives centered in this region. A couple of years ago, the Chinese ambassador at the time has cautioned Bangladesh in this regard. He said that Bangladesh's bilateral ties with China would "substantially be damaged" if Bangladesh joined QUAD.
The present ambassador Li Jiming may not have been quite so blunt, but there have been indications of fresh warnings. At a recent seminar he said, "Something dangerous has happened in our region. We have done well for a decade without AUKUS, QUAD and IPEF. Suddenly, these things have come in front of us. I strongly believe we will do even better without these pacts. Hence, we have to decide for ourselves whether we need to be a part of these things." He expressed his hope that Bangladesh would be sensible in taking a decision about the US-led pacts. These comments indicate just how sensitive the recent US initiatives in the Indo-Pacific region are to China.
If the US feels that it is important for them to have Bangladesh by their side in these pacts, then they may choose to put pressure on Bangladesh. US has an advantage in this regard and there are various realities that may compel Bangladesh towards them. Two consecutive questionable elections, the steady shrinking of democratic space, various repressive instruments against the news media, a fragile human rights situation, repression and oppression of the opposition, and allegations of enforced disappearances and killings -- they can easily use all this to put the pressure on Bangladesh.
The US has placed sanctions on RAB over human rights issues. And it is quite clear that these sanctions will not be lifted all that easily. US ambassador Peter Haas, speaking at an event, said that there is no scope for repeal of sanctions against the Rapid Action Battalion without concrete action and accountability. He also said that if Bangladesh was to avail GSP benefits and development funds, it would have to fully implement international standards in workers' rights.
The elections are ahead. Peter Haas quite openly said, "The election process has informally started and which we can see in newspapers. So it is for us from now on to remain alert about whether a free, fair and international standard election is being held."
On his Asia visit, Biden announced the formation of the economic pact IPF, making it clear that Asia had grown in importance for the US. Economy and security are equally important in the strategic competition that exists between China and US in global politics.
Some analysts have remarked that while Biden has turned from security to pay attention to the Asian market, while China is leaning towards security from economy. China has been placing particular importance on security after the setting up of QUAD in this region.
At the Boao forum on 21 April, the security initiatives highlighted by China's President Xi Jinping to establish a balance with the US, indicates China's plans to build up military cooperation and pacts. It is clear that China will come up with counter initiatives in face of the US' military and economic activities.
No one particular side in global politics will be able to protect all over Bangladesh's initiatives. Fulfilling US demands will mean displeasing China. And doing anything in favour of China's aspiration, will mean displeasing not just the US and the West, but will also make neighbouring India uncomfortable.
With the elections ahead, all this is very difficult and complex for the government which already suffers from a legitimacy crisis on the international front where elections are concerned. Upholding national interests and winning the election -- one of the two may be the casualty in these calculations.
* AKM Zakaria is deputy editor of Prothom Alo and can be contacted at [email protected]
* This column appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir