Exploring the Big Powers Stake in Bangladesh’s Upcoming Election -The Asian Age


 Arafat Islam Joy

Bangladesh is preparing for its next general election in late 2023 or early 2024. It may be Bangladesh's most anticipated election due to debates, speculation, and the country's future. No doubt, the nation's destiny will depend on the results of this election. Bangladesh’s party politics also depend upon it, as the current government is aiming for its fourth consecutive term while the main opposition is looking for a return to power through it. Due to its tumultuous domestic politics and auspicious strategic influence, the upcoming parliamentary election has taken the attention of many.

Internationally, Bangladesh is becoming more and more known as an important player in the Indo-Pacific region. Bangladesh’s strategic location on the Bay of Bengal and economic potential make it an attractive ally for Indo-Pacific competitors. This also attracts big powers in our internal politics. Despite having achieved a measure of political and economic stability in recent times, the country now seems to be facing renewed uncertainty from external factors. Foreign powers are careful this time, but not hostile. French President Macron's and Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov’s visits also signify that this pre-election time is crucial for other countries. But the big powers in this region, mainly the United States, India, and China, will be closely following this election since it affects their interests.

American interests in Bangladesh

As the general election approaches in Bangladesh, concerns about its political and economic future are mounting. Regrettably, during this period of economic turmoil, Bangladesh is facing accusations of democratic backsliding from the Joe Biden administration. The US is apparently applying pressure on Bangladesh due to its interest in establishing stronger defense ties with the nation, driven by its strategic geographical location. In a bid to exert pressure, the US has threatened to impose visa sanctions and other measures. And the geostrategic interests of the US will play big roles here in the upcoming election.

In geopolitics, Bangladesh has refused to take sides in the ongoing power struggle for control of the Indian Ocean. Bangladesh's Indo-Pacific policy promotes "rules-based multilateral systems" for "equitable and sustainable development" while balancing the US and China. But the US believes that Sheikh Hasina’s leadership made Bangladesh more susceptible to China's steady inroads in the country, and the US administration thinks that the opposition will be able to contain Chinese influence. Following this, the US is playing a mind game with multiple actors.

China moves closer

The strain in the Bangladesh-US relationship has allowed China to move closer to Sheikh Hasina. No doubt, these two countries have built a good relationship over the past few years. In June, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said in a statement: "We firmly support Bangladesh in safeguarding its sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity." China also said it supports Bangladesh in upholding independent domestic and foreign policies and pursuing a development path that suits its national realities. It seems Bangladesh is not leaning towards China, but China is leaning towards Bangladesh, ignoring the political parties.

There is a misperception among many people that Bangladesh could fall into the Chinese debt trap, which is baseless. Bangladesh has decades of experience managing aid and loans, working with a variety of bilateral and multilateral funders. Bangladesh seems aware that if it falls short of China’s debt diplomacy, it will be a huge loss because an economically strong Bangladesh is an asset for Asia. Bangladesh has also bought submarines from China, and it has joined the Chinese One Belt, One Road initiative. In Dhaka, the strategy is clear. They balance US influence with Chinese offerings. Knowing this strategy, China might offer Bangladesh more economic and political assistance in the upcoming election.

India’s crucial ally

Anand Kumar, Associate Fellow, Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses, writes in the Tribune that under the leadership of Sheikh Hasina during the past three terms, Bangladesh experienced remarkable economic growth. It emerged as one of South Asia’s fastest-growing economies and is at present the region’s second-largest economy, trailing only behind India. But India fears it will face a hostile regime in Bangladesh if Sheikh Hasina goes. India has also conveyed its concerns to Washington regarding the perceived destabilizing actions taken by the US that could affect the overall security of India as a neighboring nation and the broader South Asian region. India is unhappy with America’s current involvement in the context of the impending elections in Bangladesh.

For India, Bangladesh is more important and crucial to its eastern policy. Access to the seven states in the northeast is either through the ‘chicken neck’ corridor just north of Bangladesh or through Bangladeshi territory. Overland transit and transit through the Chittagong harbor are major benefits India has gained from its warm relations with the current regime. An end to cross-border terrorism and secessionist movements is another, while illegal migration and smuggling are within acceptable bounds. The Indian Government is apprehensive that if concessions are granted to the BNP or Jamaat-e-Islami, it could pave the way for an increase in fundamentalism in Dhaka shortly.

As happy as India is to see Bangladesh's improvement, the mountainous political pressure from the US and its allies remains worrisome even for India. However, the steady growth of the India-Bangladesh bilateral partnership proves that India-Bangladesh ties being a role model of good neighborhood diplomacy is not a shallow statement made by Sheikh Hasina to present a certain idea of the bilateral relationship. Realizing Bangladesh’s significance to stability, the ruling government has made the most of its bargaining power. To the country’s external partners, the status quo must be maintained, as this has helped Bangladesh become one of Asia’s most remarkable and unexpected success stories in recent years.

Arafat Islam Joy is a freelancer
who completed his graduation in International Relations from
Dhaka University.