Sanctions against Rab and the shifts in US policies
Since the US Department of Treasury and the Department of State imposed sanctions on the Rapid Action Battalion (Rab) and seven of its current and former officials on December 10, the future of the Bangladesh-US relationship has become a topic of analysis and intense speculation in Bangladeshi media. Although these discussions are often prefaced by why the US imposed sanctions, even the staunch critics of the US decision have implicitly acknowledged that extrajudicial killings in Bangladesh—the primary factor in the US sanctions—have been a matter of concern for a long period. Some insist that such a harsh punitive measure is disproportionate, pointing at poor human rights records of other countries, particularly countries in South Asia, against which the US has taken no actions yet.
The proponents of these arguments miss the point that drawing parallels with other countries' poor human rights records is essentially an acceptance of the rationale of the sanctions. The habitual deniers have continued to do what they do best. Some pundits are also trying to trivialise the sanctions and insisting that soon it will be pushed to the backburner and the status quo will prevail. On the other hand, another group of people are speculating that it will be followed up soon with more robust punitive actions.
While the US decision to impose sanctions were prompted by increasing incidents of extrajudicial killings and serious erosion of democracy in Bangladesh in recent years, it is also intrinsically tied to the ongoing shift in US foreign and security policies under the Biden administration. As such, the sanctions need to be located within these shifts, which have implications for any future Bangladesh-US relationship.
The Biden administration's determination to make a clear break from the Trump-era foreign policy of waltzing with authoritarian leaders became clear from day one of the administration, as Biden was elected with this promise. Besides rejoining international entities such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Paris Accord on Climate Change, the Biden administration made strengthening the US alliances and working with other countries on global common goods a priority. But important aspects of the security strategy and foreign policy of the Biden administration—as reflected in the Interim National Security Guidance, published in March 2021—were highlighting the values of democracy in opposition to the growing authoritarianism, and focusing on the Asia Pacific region. Both have bearing on the recent decision regarding several countries, including Bangladesh.
Biden's emphasis on democratic values as a security strategy is distinctly different from his predecessors—not only Donald Trump (2017-2021), but Barack Obama (2009-2017) and George W Bush (2001-2009) as well. Bush's militaristic strategy engendered the so-called War on Terror and weakened both US security and its global standing. Obama's strategy was somewhat less ambitious, yet focused on global security intended to achieve a leadership role for the US. But it didn't achieve a great deal because of the US's engagement in various wars, particularly in the Middle East and the North Africa (MENA) region. Under the Bush and Obama administrations, democratic norms and values were not placed at the centre of US policies. Biden, on two separate occasions, underscored that democracy and human rights would be the focus of his foreign policy. He said on February 4, 2021, "We must start with diplomacy rooted in America's most cherished democratic values: defending freedom, championing opportunity, upholding universal rights, respecting the rule of law, and treating every person with dignity." After the US withdrawal from Afghanistan on August 31, 2021, Biden said, "I've been clear that human rights will be the centre of our foreign policy. But the way to do that is not through endless military deployments, but through diplomacy, economic tools and rallying the rest of the world for support."
Ironically, Biden's emphasis on democracy comes at a time when the US is experiencing a serious democratic backsliding, and pernicious polarisation has made many of its democratic institutions dysfunctional. Rise of extremism within US society is endangering its democracy and posing challenges to its security. As such, there are legitimate questions as to whether the work should start at home rather than focusing outward. The insurrection on January 6, 2021 by Trump supporters has laid bare the serious threats that US institutions face; it has also demonstrated the growing influence of anti-democratic forces in the US, including violent white supremacist groups. The Biden administration has taken note of it; the National Security Guidance states, "Domestic violent extremism challenges core principles of our democracy and demands policies that protect public safety, while promoting our values and respecting our laws." These threats can be countered not only through legal measures, but also through reinvigorating ideological underpinnings and addressing the core issues, such as the lack of trust in institutions, elite dominance in policymaking, and economic insecurity. The Biden administration's domestic agenda intends to address these issues through several measures.
On the other hand, the Biden administration wants to regain a formidable place on the world stage—even if not the leadership position of the yesteryear—by pursuing the values which can unite a wide range of countries. It wants to take a clear stand against ideologies which intend to undermine the liberal world order. With that objective, the Summit for Democracy was convened in December 2021. But the US's close relationship with various authoritarian regimes and inclusion of some of the semi-authoritarian countries in the summit reveal some weaknesses of this approach.
The second element of the foreign and security policies of the Biden administration is its focus on the Indo-Pacific region. Since the mid-1970s, particularly after the defeat in Vietnam, the Asia Pacific region has received little attention from US policymakers. US policy on South Asia has been ad hoc since the 1950s with one distinct feature—the tilt towards Pakistan. The lack of interests in the Asia Pacific region and ad hoc South Asia policy did not change, although the US became deeply engaged in the Afghan war against the erstwhile Soviet Union between 1979 and 1989. US security and economic interests did not face any formidable challenges in the region warranting any actions. As the centre of gravity of the global economy began to shift to Asia Pacific in the 1990s, it drew US attention. However, not until Barack Obama came to office did the US deploy additional resources or take any initiative for further alignment. Barack Obama's Pivot to Asia policy took shape in 2010 for several reasons, including the economic importance of the region and the growing influence of China. Obama accepted the inevitable rise of China as he repeatedly said, "The United States welcomes the rise of China." He characterised the US-China relationship as the most important bilateral relationship.
However, the relationship started to change as China became more assertive and began to challenge the global power architecture. The announcement of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013, Xi Jinping's proposal for US-China relations as a "new type of great power relations" and subsequent efforts to expand its sphere of influence became the bone of contention. Consequently, the US expedited its efforts to reach a deal under the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The objective was to advance strategic interests of the US along with the economic integration of 12 countries covering 40 percent of global trade. Trump on his first day in office withdrew the US from the treaty. While the other treaty partners went ahead, the US lost its ability to influence the region, leaving the region open to Chinese pull. Trump's transactional foreign policy efforts with China failed, and he turned to a belligerent posture. In 2017, the US took initiative to revive the moribund Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the Quad)—a strategic security dialogue between the US, Australia, Japan, and India. In 2019, Trump realised the need for US presence in the region and devised the Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS), aimed at curbing China's influence.
Since coming to power, although President Joe Biden has not used the term IPS, his administration seeks to build a strategic framework to counter the growing influence of China. Biden has made it amply clear that the US considers China as a rival and would like to halt its growing influence—both at strategic and ideological levels. Highlighting the human rights violation in Xinjiang, China's support for Myanmar's military junta, and its assertiveness in various regions including South Asia, the Biden administration has taken a strong stance. Its heightened efforts to align Asia Pacific countries with the US is reflected in the recent trips of the US secretaries of state and defence to the region.
Recent punitive actions by the US of varying degrees against Myanmar, China, North Korea, and Bangladesh need to be seen as an integral part of the twin policy thrust of the Biden administration, democracy and confronting China's assertiveness. As the Bangladesh government devises its response to the sanctions on Rab, it must also consider the larger picture and the geopolitical dynamics of the Asia Pacific region. Addressing the institutional aspects of Rab and the sanctioned individuals should constitute one element of the response—the other aspect involves these dynamics.
Dr Ali Riaz is a distinguished professor of political science at Illinois State University in the US, and a non-resident senior fellow of the Atlantic Council.