Bangladesh Becomes U.S.-Russia Battleground
A surprising war of words over U.S. actions in the country highlights Dhaka’s tricky balancing act.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.
The highlights this week: A recent incident shows how Bangladesh has become a site for U.S.-Russia tensions, Pakistan prepares to launch a new counterterrorism operation amid rising attacks, and the White House renominates Eric Garcetti for U.S. ambassador to India.
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A Test for Dhaka’s Foreign Policy
Bangladesh has aimed to balance its relations with China, India, and the United States amid deepening competition between Beijing and the two powers. But another major rivalry—between Moscow and Washington—now poses a test for Dhaka’s nonaligned foreign policy. Bangladesh will need to keep up robust relations with the United States while maintaining ties with Russia, a balancing act that will become more difficult the longer Russia’s war in Ukraine rages on.
Last month, Peter Haas, U.S. ambassador to Bangladesh, met with families of victims allegedly disappeared by Bangladesh’s ruling Awami League party. Haas cut his visit short because of security concerns after a large crowd of protesters gathered outside the meeting venue, calling on Washington to investigate the cases of those disappeared or killed by the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party when it was in power years ago.
The U.S. Embassy in Dhaka issued a sharp statement in response, noting that it had raised the incident with Bangladesh’s government. That statement triggered a bizarre war of words between Washington and Moscow. Russia’s embassy in Dhaka issued its own statement lambasting Haas for interfering in Bangladesh’s domestic affairs. In response, the U.S. Embassy tweeted, “Does this apply to Ukraine?” Hours later, the Russian Embassy posted a cartoon further criticizing the United States.
Although Bangladesh can shrug off a great-power Twitter spat, it can’t ignore a foreign-policy crisis. During a press briefing later in December 2022, Russia’s chief foreign ministry spokesperson labeled Haas’s meeting as a violation of the noninterference principle in international affairs. On Dec. 24, a Russian ship carrying parts for a Moscow-funded nuclear power plant was scheduled to dock at a port in Bangladesh, but the U.S. Embassy notified Dhaka that the ship was sanctioned because of its links to companies that do business with the Russian military.
Bangladesh opted for a middle-ground response: It prevented the ship from docking, triggering protests from the Russian Embassy, but it said it will ensure the Russian products are conveyed to the port on a different ship. According to Benar News, which has covered the story extensively, the ship is temporarily docked in India. This kind of response—which upholds Dhaka’s nonalignment by making concessions to both Washington and Moscow—may become harder to do if the two sides start putting more pressure on Bangladesh.
Myanmar, which shares a border with Bangladesh, is another potential U.S.-Russia flash point that could affect Dhaka. Russia backs the brutal military regime in Myanmar, and the United States demands the restoration of democracy. Dhaka’s own relations with Naypyidaw are delicate: Bangladesh hosts hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees displaced by military violence in recent years, but it wants to repatriate them. Myanmar’s war against insurgents has also caused deadly violence to spill over its border with Bangladesh.
At first glance, navigating the U.S.-Russia rivalry may appear easier for Bangladesh than managing Washington and New Delhi’s rivalries with Beijing. Bangladesh has significant commercial relationships with China, India, and the United States. In contrast, it relies much more on Washington than it does on Moscow, economically speaking. The United States is the top importer of Bangladeshi products and its companies are the top source of foreign direct investment in Bangladesh. Its commercial cooperation with Russia mainly revolves around energy, especially nuclear power.
But in a country with destructive power shortages, any foreign investment in energy is critical. Furthermore, Russia’s criticism of U.S. interference aligns with Bangladesh’s position, which could help the Awami League as it faces increasing Western criticism about its human rights record. Bangladesh doesn’t want to alienate Russia—which helps explain why it kept quiet after a missile launched by Russia, according to Ukraine, hit a Bangladeshi ship docked in a Ukrainian port just days after Russia’s invasion.
For nonaligned states like Bangladesh, the U.S.-Russia spat over Haas’s recent meeting is just the latest reminder that getting dragged into great-power tug of wars has become an occupational hazard.
What We’re Following
Pakistan’s new counterterrorism operation. This week, Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif convened his National Security Council, comprised of top civilian and military officials, to discuss the country’s resurgent terrorism threat. Pakistani media reports say the committee will soon greenlight a new counterterrorism offensive against the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a group that is aligned with the Afghan Taliban.
Speculation about an imminent operation has been mounting. Last November, the TTP announced it was ending a cease-fire with Pakistan and warned of nationwide attacks after failed negotiations with the government. Since then, the group has increased its operations and geographic spread.
Between August 2021 and August 2022, terrorist attacks in Pakistan had risen by more than 50 percent; the number of attacks in December 2022 was the highest of any month that year. For much of last year, the TTP staged attacks in the northwest near the Afghan border, but the last few weeks of 2022 saw an attack in Balochistan and one in Islamabad. The U.S. State Department also warned of a threat to U.S. citizens at the Marriott Hotel in the capital.
Pakistan’s government no longer has the option of shrugging off terrorism threats. If it does launch a counterterrorism operation, then a key question will be if it strikes targets across the border in Afghanistan, where the TTP’s main base is. Cross-border operations could eliminate key leaders but would also deepen tensions with the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.
White House renominates New Delhi ambassador. On Tuesday, U.S. President Joe Biden renominated former Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti to be the next U.S. ambassador to India. The move was timed to accompany the new session of Congress. The White House hopes it will have a better chance of the Senate confirming Garcetti now that it has a larger Democratic majority. Last year, there was no Senate vote after concern over claims that Garcetti didn’t do enough to address sexual harassment allegations against one of his aides when he was mayor.
The Biden administration also has a strong incentive to move forward for the sake of the U.S.-India relationship. The lack of an ambassador since the Biden administration took office makes for poor optics, especially as Washington describes its relationship with New Delhi as a top priority. If the White House again struggles to get Garcetti confirmed, then it may opt to nominate someone more likely to be confirmed quickly.
Attacks in Kashmir. The year began violently in Indian-administered Kashmir, where six people, including two children, died in two separate attacks in the town of Dhangri, near the Line of Control that serves as a de facto border through the disputed territory. In the first attack, on Jan. 1, gunmen fired on several houses; the next day, an unexplained blast detonated in the same area. No one has claimed responsibility.
Nearly two years ago, India and Pakistan concluded a truce to reduce violence along the Line of Control, and border areas have been relatively calm since. Dhangri is a Hindu-majority village, and the casualties of the two attacks were all Hindus. Hindus were also killed last year in attacks locals say were targeted.
Religious dynamics are complicated in the region. Thousands of Hindus left Indian-administered Kashmir in the early 1990s fleeing violence, and New Delhi’s Hindu nationalist government is encouraging them to return. Many Kashmiri Muslims fear this tactic, along with new policies that allow non-Kashmiris to obtain residency certificates, is intended to change the region’s demographics.
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Under the Radar
This week, election officials in Sri Lanka announced that the country will hold local elections before the end of February—the first since the government, led by then-President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, collapsed amid mass protests last summer and Ranil Wickremesinghe replaced him as leader. Sri Lanka’s election commission says nominations for electoral candidates can be filed between Jan. 18 and Jan. 21. About 8,000 local councilor positions are up for grabs.
The local elections have no bearing on the government in Colombo, but they still pose a litmus test for Wickremesinghe. Many Sri Lankans have not welcomed his administration because they see him as too close to the unpopular Rajapaksa family. Wickremesinghe reportedly tried to get the elections delayed, citing the difficulty of carrying them out amid severe economic hardship.
Theoretically, if Wickremesinghe’s party is humiliated in the local elections, then he has the right to dissolve Parliament when it reaches the halfway point of its current term next month. But Wickremesinghe, a battle-hardened political warrior who previously served five appointments as prime minister, is more likely to hold on until national elections at the end of 2024.
Michael Kugelman is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly South Asia Brief. He is the director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington. Twitter: @michaelkugelman
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