Bangladesh needs to strike a fine diplomatic balance between major powers

Bangladesh can neither ignore the US and India nor China in the light of the changing global geopolitical situation, writes Emilia Fernandez for South Asia Monitor

Emilia Fernandez Mar 02, 2022
Bangladesh’s elite paramilitary force, the Rapid Action Battalion (Photo: Eurasia)

On December 10, 2021, the Biden administration imposed sanctions on Bangladesh’s elite paramilitary force, the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), and seven of its current and former officials, accusing them of human rights abuses and abductions. 

Even though the US and Bangladesh have been enjoying a cozy relationship since the latter’s birth, this sudden rights related sanctions raised concern in the South Asian nation, especially as it was imposed without any prior warning. 

Sanction, an instrument of foreign policy, can be used to create pressure on a state or non-state actor to influence decisions and actions perceived as security threats or violation of international conduct. The US normally slaps sanctions, using it as a carrot and stick policy, on countries it thinks are rogue states and threatening its national interests.  

Dhaka responds 

As Bangladesh is neither a rogue state nor a threat to US interests, the sanctions surprised most South Asia political analysts. How Bangladesh responded deserves analysis. 

Initially, Bangladesh followed the diplomatic way to communicate to the US its stance against the allegations. The diplomatic efforts were mainly focused on convincing the US that Bangladesh has been misrepresented by vested groups. This is how Bangladesh differentiated itself from other countries on which the US has imposed sanctions. Bangladesh showed a positive attitude and welcomed constructive suggestions from the US. 

In response to human rights violations, the Foreign Ministry of Bangladesh has established a human rights cell under the United Nations to look into rights issues and abuses with required attention. As it has been set up under the UN, it can be expected that the situation will be monitored properly and the real data will be presented. 

According to the Bangladesh government, they have already sent data on the country's human rights situation and its progress in rescuing people who allegedly fell victim to enforced disappearances. The law enforcement agencies have rescued several people mentioned in the report. It said the government is working to find the whereabouts of the rest of the people. 

No more sanctions? 

Gregory W Meeks, the chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and an influential US Congressman, has said there is no plan  to impose further sanctions against the security forces of Bangladesh. Meeks hinted that certain vested groups are lobbying with the Biden Administration to slap sanctions against more Bangladeshi officers and politicians. Though he supports the Biden administration’s stance on RAB, he made it clear that wholesale sanction against Bangladesh is unwarranted

April 4, 2022 will mark the golden jubilee of US-Bangladesh relations. In order to celebrate the 50 years of establishment of diplomatic ties, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken invited Bangladesh Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen to Washington. This indicates that the Biden administration has taken Bangladesh’s responses to the US sanction in a positive light. 

Bangladesh handled the US sanction on RAB professionally with much emphasis on diplomatic maneuvers. The crisis may be resolved soon, but Bangladesh should decode the hidden motive of Washington. What does the US expect from Bangladesh?  

US and China 

The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD), a strategic security dialogue between the US, India, Japan and Australia may be considered in this context. Maybe the US is trying to create pressure on Bangladesh to join an Indo-Pacific military pact to contain China. Probably, the Biden administration may slap more sanctions if Bangladesh fails to meet the US expectation on Indo-Pacific. 

Bangladesh’s economy is at a take-off stage with the potential of graduating from LDC by 2026. It aspires to be a developed economy by 2041. Considering Bangladesh’s economic situation, global powers should not drag it into any geopolitical tug-of-war. Bangladesh can neither ignore the US and India nor China in the light of the changing global geopolitical situation.  

Bangladesh has to ensure neutrality and strike a fine diplomatic balance among major global powers to continue its development trajectory. Otherwise, the country is going to face more sanctions which will worsen US-Bangladesh relations and will ultimately push Bangladesh into the strategic orbit of China. 

(The author, a security and political analyst with a focus on South Asian geopolitics, is a Ph.D. researcher at the University of Lucerne, Switzerland. Views are personal. She can be reached at: 

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