Who will Bangladesh side with in the US-China conflict?

The United States wants Bangladesh’s participation in its strategy for the Indo-Pacific region. During a video conference on 15 September, the US deputy assistant secretary of state Laura Stone, apprised newsmen in Dhaka about the matter. The US defence secretary earlier had called our prime minister over phone. A news release of the US defence department said that they had discussed various issues including tackling COVID-19 and also the US Indo-Pacific strategy. The main objective of the US Indo-Pacific strategy is to contain China’s influence in the region.

A recently published book, Rage, which stirred the US politics, reveals certain hitherto unexposed facts about how the contest between the US and China is steadily ramping up. The book describes what president Trump had said to the author, renowned journalist Bob Woodward, when he called the writer on 7 February. It mentions the tensions between the US and China and also how far the pandemic had been perceived as serious. Trump also revealed his version of his phone conversation with president Xi on the day before.

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Trump had previously told Woodward that the ‘Made in China 2025’ plan would overtake the US in 10 hi-tech industries. He told Woodward that he had informed Xi that this was very insulting to him. In the meantime he proudly explained on how far he had managed to harm China’s trade.

The US administration’s foreign policy priorities in recent times make it clear that they see China as their potential rival in the global arena. So in the backdrop of the new Cold War that is clearly emerging on the scene, it is essential that we weigh the odds of the US Indo-Pacific strategy.

It is rather surprising that the left, centre and right wing political parties in Bangladesh, particularly the religion-based parties, have remained silent till now on this issue.

Just what is the US Indo-Pacific strategy? Its main objective is to ostensibly keep the world’s most important maritime trade routes free and safe. The importance of this region is that more than half the world’s population lives here and these economies are fast flourishing. India has a special position in this Indo-Pacific strategy of the US.

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There is a reference of this in a statement made on 11 January 2018 by the US ambassador in New Delhi, Kenneth Juster. India has been given recognition in the US national defence strategy as a leading power in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond. He said that meant they would continue in their support for India as power capable of responding successfully to threats to peace, especially in the Indian Ocean and its vicinity.

The other objectives he mentioned included ensuring a free and open Indo-Pacific region with freedom of navigation, overflight, and commerce, and other lawful uses of the sea, promoting respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and eliminating the scourge of terrorism. He also spoke of cooperation in expanding South Asian regional cooperation.

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It is not clear as yet whether Delhi has said anything to Dhaka about Bangladesh’s involvement in the US Indo-Pacific strategy. Neither side have spoken up. However, it is very natural that India will express its expectations in this regard during unofficial discussions. This is all the more likely, given the heightened tensions between India and China in recent times.

The US has declared Xinhua, People’s Daily, China Global Television Network and similar media outlets as part of the embassy and has taken steps such as restricting their staff. Countering the US steps, China cancelled the visas of some correspondents of Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and others in Beijing and restricted their activities.

The recent military clashes between China and India have been cited when justifying the US Indo-Pacific strategy. In the hearing of the US Senate’s foreign affairs committee on 18 September, assistant secretary for East Asia and Pacific affairs David R Stilwell termed China as a ‘lawless bully’. He gave an account of Beijing’s behaviour over the past few months, mentioning violence along the Indian border and its aggressive actions in the South China Sea.

Mr Stillwell deliberated in detail on Trump administration’s strategy to deal with the situation. He said that the US and the international community had long worked on the premise that if China’s inclusion in the international system was facilitated, the country would bring about reforms and become more open. But China’s foreign and defence policy was run on petty self interest and the Chinese Communist Party was disrupting the international environment to achieve their authoritarian objectives and emerging in a new form.

Our relations with neighbour India may have reached new heights, but we maintained our equidistance during the China-India clashes at the Ladakh border. Naturally this has worried India. The Indian media has been critical of Bangladesh’s close economic ties with China.
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Quoting Mike Pompeii, he said that the foreign policy that he thought about every morning was China. For quite some time now the US has been steadily declaring restrictions and regulations, all targeting China. These included duty on goods imported from China, restrictions on investment, restrictions on Huwaei’s 5G mobile technology in the US and outside, taking action against WeChat and such social communication platforms, human rights related prohibitions, countering China’s clamp down in Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement and so on.

In response to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the US has highlighted the high interest rate on China’s loans and the political as well as security risks involved in Chinese investment. In order to control the flow of information and publicity, the US has declared Xinhua, People’s Daily, China Global Television Network and similar media outlets as part of the embassy and has taken steps such as restricting their staff. Countering the US steps, China cancelled the visas of some correspondents of Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and others in Beijing and restricted their activities. Similar measures were adopted at the Confucius Institute of US Centre.

Meanwhile, competition continues in scaling up military cooperation with the countries of the Indo-Pacific region. The US has attached top priority to military cooperation with Japan, Australia and ASEAN countries. There are talks of a military alliance led by the US being formed in the Asia-Pacific region, on the line of the Europe and North American alliance military NATO.

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Just last week the US signed a defence pact with the Maldives. US warships and Chinese navy are embroiled in a dangerous display of force in the South China Sea. It is more or less clear that a new Cold War is in the offing.

Bangladesh’s foreign policy declares friendship towards all and malice to none. We have apparently adhered to this policy so far and have not been involved in any adversity. Our relations with neighbour India may have reached new heights, but we maintained our equidistance during the China-India clashes at the Ladakh border. Naturally this has worried India. The Indian media has been critical of Bangladesh’s close economic ties with China.

The question is, what response will Bangladesh make to the US overtures for it to join in the Indo-Pacific strategy? Will the politicians and policymakers kindly discuss the matter openly?

*Kamal Ahmed is a senior journalist and columnist. This column appeared in the print and online editions of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir.