The United States’ stake in free and fair elections in Bangladesh

For the U.S., not only democracy is at risk in the upcoming national elections

June 11, 2023, ASIA – By Joseph Rozen

 Sheikh Hasina in Gopalganj Kotalipara, 2023. (Photo: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Sheikh Hasina in Gopalganj Kotalipara, 2023. (Photo: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

As the great-power competition between the U.S. and China intensifies, pressure on other countries to choose sides is mounting, creating a divide between the democratic and autocratic camps.

At the core of this competition lies one key question: who will have more influence in shaping the global order in a reality of growing polarization and multilateralism?

While each of the powers has its own immediate partners, many countries around the world are trying to remain neutral and attract more attention from both powers, especially in the global south. So far, China is winning the hearts and minds of many countries in the global south by offering them much needed loans and investments amid the global economic downturn. China has also been successful in widening the cracks in what the U.S. aspires to push as a united Western front against Chinese influence.

China’s generous funding is highly attractive for most of the global south, and despite a degree of suspicion towards China’s motives, some countries in the developing world do not consider the U.S. a dependable alternative, given that their assistance is typically accompanied by preconditions and criticism over democratic backsliding. This trend is noticeably evident in the South Asia region, which is becoming a potential game-changer in the broader great-power competition. As of now, this region continues to tilt in China’s favour.

Meanwhile, the U.S. is directing its efforts towards strengthening its partnerships with like-minded countries, creating interregional groupings to counter China such as the Quad – consisting of India, Japan and Australia – and AUKUS, an alliance with the UK and Australia. It is also working to establish cooperation with countries that are leading the global semiconductors industry such as Japan, Taiwan, and the Netherlands. While establishing such groupings is crucial for the geostrategic posture of the U.S. in Asia, Washington continues to overlook the global south.

Examples of recent shifts by South Asian countries towards China are striking. Pakistan, largely influenced by its security apparatus, has veered away from its U.S. relations, instead opting to fortify bonds with China amidst Beijing’s escalating tensions with India. Meanwhile, Sri Lanka is caught up in the throes of a severe economic crisis that can be traced back to a series of loan agreements it signed with China, most notably the Hambantota port agreement/lease. Myanmar, under unceasing military rule since 2021, is another testament to a similar trend. Yet despite the mixed outcomes of these countries’ relations with China, U.S. influence in the region is eroding.

In this geopolitical setting, Bangladesh – alongside India – stands out as the last potentially valuable partner of the so-called democratic camp. As a rising middle power with a fast-growing economy that is situated in the Bay of Bengal, Bangladesh’s geostrategic importance as a future trade hub is immense. Thus far, Prime Minister Hasina has been able to steer in rocky waters and maintain good relations with both China and the U.S. while avoiding becoming dependent on either of the superpowers. The upcoming elections in Bangladesh are therefore of great importance not only for the future of democracy in the country, but also due to the broader geostrategic implications their results will have.

Recent moves by the U.S. indicate that a more pragmatic approach has been taken to secure free and fair elections in Bangladesh, with the hope that success on this front might curb Chinese influence in the region and result in greater economic and political cooperation between Bangladesh and the Indo-Pacific.

Despite ongoing criticism from Washington over human rights violations in Bangladesh, which led to fraught relations between the two, the U.S. abstained from showing support for any of the parties in Bangladesh. Moreover, the U.S. reiterated its commitment to free and fair elections that would reflect the will of Bangladeshi people, rejecting the option of a caretaker government.

State Secretary Antony Blinken recently announced a new visa policy to support Bangladesh’s goal of holding free, fair, and peaceful national elections. The policy enables the U.S. to restrict the issuance of visas to any Bangladeshi individual believed to have undermined the election process, whether that individual is associated with the ruling party or the opposition. These restrictions represent a clear signal to the Bangladeshi government to hold democratic elections, and to the Bangladesh National Party to avoid boycotting the elections and destabilizing the country and instead allow the people of Bangladesh to have a democratic choice. Blinken’s announcement came after a previous statement he made on the matter during a meeting with his Bangladeshi counterpart, Foreign Minister Momen. 

In response, the Bangladeshi Ministry of Foreign Affairs reaffirmed its commitment to democratic elections, stating that the government “will take necessary measures” to prevent and address any unlawful practices that may compromise the smooth conduct of the elections. It also stated that “the electoral process will remain under strict vigilance, including by international observers as accredited by the Election Commission”. Prime Minister Hasina added that she would “ensure our people’s voting rights, because people should decide who will run the country”.

These encouraging and pragmatic steps by the U.S. and the government of Bangladesh are instrumental in enabling the Bangladeshi people to exercise their democratic rights. Looking forward, a successful election will also be important in creating the political stability necessary for Bangladesh to continue rising as a middle power and valuable partner of the U.S. in South Asia and the Indo-Pacific.

Joseph Rozen is an expert in Asian affairs and national security. He is an experienced practitioner who served for a decade in the Israeli National Security Council as the director for APAC affairs, with focus on China, Japan and India.

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