Bangladesh Tilts Toward the U.S. in the Indo-Pacific
Dhaka’s recent moves suggest it is testing the limits of its nonalignment in the region.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.
The highlights this week: Bangladesh moves toward an embrace of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy, Indian opposition leaders hold protests around the country after the conviction of former Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks at the White House democracy summit.
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Bangladesh Looks to Embrace U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy
Bangladesh has long pursued a nonaligned foreign policy. But it appears to be moving closer to a full embrace of the Indo-Pacific Strategy pursued by the United States and its partners in the region, which revolves around countering China. Last month, Dhaka finalized a draft of its own Indo-Pacific Outlook focused on objectives that mirror those of the Indo-Pacific Strategy, such as the need for a free, secure, and peaceful region.
This move comes as the United States and a few key allies have signaled that Bangladesh should be a part of the Indo-Pacific Strategy. Last week, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida gave a speech in New Delhi described as a “new plan” for the region, calling for collaborations with Bangladesh, including a new economic partnership agreement. This month, U.K. Indo-Pacific Minister Anne-Marie Trevelyan visited Bangladesh.
It’s easy to understand why these countries would want Bangladesh to take part in the Indo-Pacific Strategy. It is strategically located, bordering India and serving as a gateway to both South and Southeast Asia. Dhaka has friendly ties with the United States, the other members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (known as the Quad), and many European countries. Both of these factors make Bangladesh a good partner.
China has stepped up its own influence in Bangladesh through infrastructure loans, which U.S. officials have privately described as bad deals for Dhaka. China’s rivals also worry about its expanded naval presence in the western part of the Indian Ocean region, including its military base off Djibouti. All of this lies in Bangladesh’s maritime neighborhood. China is also a major supplier of arms to Bangladesh. So getting Dhaka’s buy-in to the U.S. Indo-Pacific vision would be a strategic victory.
The more intriguing question is why Bangladesh would want to be associated with the Indo-Pacific Strategy and its goal in countering China. Bangladeshi officials have never strayed from the country’s founding principle of nonalignment, captured in a 1974 line from founding father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman: “Friendship to all, malice toward none.” Bangladesh aims to balance relations with rival states. India’s foreign policy is also nonaligned, but it considers China to be a strategic rival.
Participating in the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy would bring Bangladesh closer to key trade and investment partners. Bangladesh’s and India’s current governments are close, and New Delhi likely encouraged Dhaka to embrace the strategy. Two years ago, Gowher Rizvi, an advisor to Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, tellingly said that “we are very willing to be a part of the Indo-Pacific relationship” and India “is our most important partner.”
Even as Bangladesh embraces the Indo-Pacific Strategy, it is still trying to placate China. Dhaka’s own draft Indo-Pacific Outlook stipulates that it seeks to avoid rivalries and has no security goals. Observers note that calling it an “outlook” rather than a “policy” or “strategy” has a softer connotation. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations—which includes many states that have cordial relations with China—opted for the same term in its own Indo-Pacific statement. Dhaka has also not indicated that it would join the Quad.
China nonetheless seems concerned. Last week, the Chinese ambassador to Bangladesh accused Washington of trying to push Dhaka into the U.S. camp. Bangladesh could certainly back off from the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy to deepen relations with China. If Bangladesh’s next election, scheduled for January 2024, is deemed unfree and unfair, Western capitals could also scale back ties. But for now, Bangladesh appears to believe its interests aren’t compromised by stretching the limits of nonalignment.
What We’re Following
Gandhi conviction briefly unites Indian opposition. Indian opposition leaders held protests around the country this week in response to the Indian Parliament’s disqualification of former Indian National Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi. The move followed Gandhi’s conviction on defamation charges for 2019 comments about Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Gandhi received a two-year prison sentence but was released on bail and plans to appeal the conviction.
The opposition protests were centered in six states, including Modi’s home state of Gujarat, but they are unlikely to coalesce into a larger movement. Congress has struggled to push back against Modi’s popularity, and Gandhi himself lacks the charisma and appeal of a galvanizing opposition player. Tellingly, the Indian Express reports that attempts by Congress to organize protests in Gandhi’s constituency in the state of Kerala have been marred by low turnout and internal party disagreements.
One development is that Gandhi’s conviction has brought more global attention to Gautam Adani, the Indian billionaire accused of massive corporate fraud. Opposition leaders, including Gandhi, have suggested that the former Congress leader was convicted now because he has spoken out about Modi’s alleged ties to Adani. In recent days, other opposition lawmakers have renewed calls for an investigation into Adani’s businesses.
The White House hosts democracy summit. Although the White House didn’t release a guest list for the Summit for Democracy it hosted this week, U.S. officials indicated that all countries invited last year were extended the invite again, including both India and Pakistan—despite their documented democratic backsliding in recent years.
As in 2021, Islamabad declined the invitation likely because of Beijing. China was not invited to the summit, but Taiwan was. Although Pakistan is keen to strengthen ties with the United States, especially as it seeks assistance with its economic crisis, participating in the summit would have been a major diplomatic risk. Pakistan-China relations have recently experienced setbacks amid a slowdown in Chinese infrastructure projects and Beijing’s concerns about security risks.
India, a top U.S. partner, accepted the invitation. On Wednesday, Modi delivered a virtual address to the summit, describing India as the “mother of democracy.” Interestingly, he linked India’s democracy not to rights and freedoms but to its long history of elected leaders and economic success—perhaps to avoid bringing attention to other areas that critics have singled out, such as Gandhi’s recent conviction.
Taliban officials visit Tajikistan. A Taliban delegation visited the Afghan Consulate in Khorog, Tajikistan, this week, according to Taliban officials. The visit is significant: Tajikistan’s government has criticized the Taliban regime and taken strong anti-Taliban positions that its neighbors have not. After the Taliban takeover in 2021, Tajikistan provided some members of the anti-Taliban resistance with sanctuary, and the Afghan Embassy in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, pledged loyalty to Amrullah Saleh, a former Afghan vice president who rejects Taliban rule.
A Taliban spokesperson described the visit as a routine administrative matter that included taking stock of damage to the consulate after recent avalanches. However, according to some reports, the Khorog consulate has been turned over to Taliban control—suggesting the embassy in Dushanbe could follow suit. Either outcome would be a major diplomatic victory for the Taliban, given the country’s previous support for the Afghan resistance.
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Under the Radar
For months, Bangladesh’s government has warned about the emergence of a new terrorist organization called Jamaatul Ansar Fil Hindal Sharqiya. This month, a spokesperson for Bangladesh’s elite paramilitary force, the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), said the group was undertaking training for attacks in Bangladesh. Last October, the RAB arrested seven alleged members of the militant group.
Jamaatul Ansar Fil Hindal Sharqiya was established in 2019, merging a few known Islamist militant groups. This is ominous: The country has seen significant declines in terrorist attacks in recent years. The situation is complicated by U.S. sanctions against the RAB, which is leading counterterrorism efforts against the new group. In late 2021, the Biden administration enacted sanctions against the RAB for egregious human rights violations.
The United States has a strong interest in seeing counterterrorism efforts succeed in Bangladesh, but it also wants to send a strong message that it is concerned about human rights and democracy. After all, Dhaka could use the new militant threat as a pretext for fresh crackdowns on the political opposition, which includes Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami, an Islamist party that some experts have linked to militancy.
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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