Will the US squeeze on Bangladesh backfire?
Shortly before the crisis in Ukraine began consuming the world’s attention, the United States began stepping up pressure on Bangladesh to join its Indo-Pacific military pact to contain China. But unfortunately, it is using a false pretext that may rile up the Bengali nation that carries the bitter memory of America’s opposition to its birth.
Washington recently sanctioned Bangladesh’s elite police unit, the Rapid Action Battalion, citing “serious human rights abuses.” Six of its current and former officers have been accused of abductions, murders, and torture. Benazir Ahmed, the former RAB head who is now chief of Bangladesh Police, has also been barred from entering the United States.
Then U.S. officials started asking questions about how Bangladesh — a Florida-sized nation of 165 million inhabitants — has spent American military aid, presumably with the hidden motive of adding further sanctions if the funds have been improperly used.
This revelation deepens the suspicion that Washington is using the pretext of human rights abuses to push Bangladesh to become a member of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, an informal anti-China military pact comprising of the United States, Japan, Australia, and India.
Bangladesh has faced U.S. pressure at least since October 2020 when then-Deputy Secretary of State Stephen E. Biegun visited Dhaka and formally invited the South Asian nation to join the group. Dhaka has refused so far because of threats from China, which is a significant source of investment capital for Bangladesh.
Both China and the United States are courting Bangladesh because being next to the Bay of Bengal it can provide easy access to the Indian Ocean, which funnels much of the world trade. By controlling this sea lane, the United States can choke off China’s economy. Bangladesh can give China an alternative land route via Burma.
Largely devoid of natural resources and born extremely poor in 1971 with a meager annual per-capita income of $90, Bangladesh in recent years has earned accolades worldwide as an economic success story. Each working Bengali now earns more than $2,000 a year on average, scoring better than its larger and more resourceful neighbors. Hoping to further improve its fortunes, Bangladesh is working on big plans that will require a large amount of foreign capital.
China signed a $21 billion aid deal with Dhaka five years ago and has granted Bangladesh virtually tariff-free access to its markets. China is Bangladesh’s second largest arms supplier, and it is helping build a big military base near the Bay of Bengal.
Announcing the sanctions in Washington on Dec. 10, Secretary of State Antony Blinken blamed the RAB for more than 600 abductions in the past 12 years and a similar number of murders. The force, founded in 2004 in response to public outcry to control rapidly rising crime, handles internal security as well as criminal and government-directed investigations. In recent years, the government allegedly used it to wipe out political opponents.
Nonetheless, Washington is displaying a double standard. When President Ziaur Rahman railroaded the trials of hundreds of rebel soldiers in 1977 and secretly hanged an undisclosed number of them, the United States did not publicly chastise him, let alone impose sanctions. Only Jane Coon, then deputy assistant secretary of state, blocked his visit to the White House, ignoring then-U.S. Ambassador to Bangladesh Ed Masters’ push.
Washington’s sanctions strategies often carry hidden agendas. When America imposed sanctions on the Soviet Union after it invaded Afghanistan, they were billed as part of a rescue mission, but they were actually intended to warn Moscow not to march into Iran. Applying the same tactic, Americans are giving Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina two messages: punish the named officers, and join the Quad. Hasina’s failure to comply, especially with the second demand, is likely to subject Bangladesh to more sanctions.
The U.S. steps may embarrass Hasina on the world stage, but sanctions in general rarely achieve their stated goals. Often they do just the opposite — make the recipients more rigid. Hasina will certainly not put her police chief on trial, because such a step will open up a Pandora’s box, putting her administration and her political future in jeopardy. It’s common knowledge that the RAB did not act arbitrarily without approval from the top. To concede the U.S. demands will make Hasina look weak to her followers as well as adversaries.
This leaves the United States with the only hope that its secret strategy to coerce Hasina into the Quad will succeed. The prime minister is less than likely to bend over backwards to please Washington, simply because of her fear to look weak, if nothing else. Can she afford to be on the wrong side of both India — which is playing second fiddle to America — and the United States at the same time? Her records indicate she can.
Furthermore, the region has a history of resisting America’s diktat. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, refused to join U.S.-led military pacts in the 1950s. Pakistan’s President Ayub Khan snubbed a U.S. request to send soldiers to fight in Vietnam. Even former Bangladesh President Ziaur Rahman, who was America’s poodle, barked when Washington pressed him to support sanctions on Iran in 1979.
With its latest steps, the United States runs the risk of being branded as a nation genetically predisposed to harming the homeland of 165 million Bengalis. Many of them still vividly remember how President Richard Nixon aided their enemy, Pakistan, to pursue his secret “ping-pong diplomacy” via Islamabad. There is still a lingering suspicion that the United States really does not wish Bangladesh well. Hasina believes deep down that Washington’s hidden agenda is to banish her into political oblivion.
Bangladesh’s foreign office is bitter. But Hasina, not known for making rash decisions, has been rather mum on the sanctions, and is unlikely to open her mouth any time soon, especially because her long-time chief patron, India, is now reported to be a co-conspirator in America’s mischief. To bring Bangladesh in line, the United States needs India on its side.
India is no more on the same page with Hasina. Dhaka-Delhi relations soured after India botched several trade deals, threatened to push back an alleged 40 million illegal Bengali migrants, and, above all, Indians chided Bangladesh for cozying up to China. India won’t take any direct action against Bangladesh, but it will secretly endorse Washington’s dirty tricks.
With its “friendship to all, malice toward none” foreign policy, Bangladesh is between a rock and a hard place. While the Biden administration is pulling Dhaka to its side, China has vowed fire and fury if Bangladesh embraces Uncle Sam.
Since the 1950s, Beijing has refrained from squeezing Delhi too hard lest India jump into the U.S. orbit. Both America and India may find the Chinese tactic instructive to deal with Bangladesh: instead of bullying, honor Dhaka’s neutrality and insist that China not be given advantage over the United States and India. But pushing Bangladesh to the edge will lead Hasina to draw from her experience in successfully fending off U.S. pressures and rally the Bengalis around her, citing America’s chronic hostility toward the Bengali nation.