‘A setback for US-Bangladesh relations’
Daniel Markey, senior advisor for South Asia Programs at the United States Institute of Peace, speaks to Ramisa Rob of The Daily Star about the US perspective on Bangladesh's January 7 election.
Can you describe what are—in your view—the implications of Sheikh Hasina's victory for US foreign policy in South Asia?
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's victory was precisely what the US government expected from a flawed process. US pre-election policies did little or nothing to deliver a free and fair election with full participation of opposition parties, and the lead-up to the elections exposed deep differences over these issues between Washington and Dhaka. This can only be seen as a setback for those who hoped—in vain—that US pressure might steer Bangladesh down a more inclusive and democratic path.
Upcoming elections in Pakistan and India are also likely to expose the limits on Washington's ability to champion democratic practices in large and distant societies. Overall, many US officials—including top members of the Biden administration—appreciate that a less democratically—oriented South Asia will be a more difficult region for the United States to operate. That said, the United States works with many undemocratic states around the world and, in some cases, finds shared interests—rather than values—to be a workable if not preferable foundation for cooperation.
An article in The Wall Street Journal has deemed it as a "defeat for Joe Biden who has centred his foreign policy on democracy." What is your take on this?
These elections ended up being a setback for US-Bangladesh relations and a retreat from inclusive democratic practices in Bangladesh, which is also a setback for Bangladesh itself. The Biden administration's emphasis on democracy led it to take a relatively outspoken position on Bangladesh—certainly when compared to India and China—but realistically US expectations about the effectiveness of these policies had to be tempered. That said, I'm not sure there was a better balance to be struck. Had Washington pushed the democratic agenda more forcefully, it would have left US-Bangladesh relations even more fractured today. If Washington had simply ignored increasing political repression in Bangladesh, it would have betrayed US values and—I believe—interests as well.
How do you perceive this to impact trade ties with the US and EU?
My understanding is that Bangladesh faces other trade challenges unrelated to its politics, but to its "graduation" from LDC status that, over time and in combination with other factors, will make it difficult for Bangladesh to achieve rapid growth without new reforms and a diversified economic approach.
Do you anticipate the US' response to Bangladesh's elections coming from a perspective of balancing its relations with India, especially after the DoJ indictment?
No, I do not think that Washington perceives relations with Bangladesh as any means of "balancing" relations with India. The two are related, of course, but tend to run on different tracks and at different levels of priority. We will see where the DoJ indictment goes, but Washington has for over two decades perceived India as a significant world actor and potential strategic partner. Bangladesh has important trade relations with Washington but is far less relevant than India in geopolitical terms.
How do you view this victory and return of the Awami League government to affect Bangladesh and India's relationship? Did Modi's India take a different, more hands-off approach this time?
I perceived that Modi's India backed Sheikh Hasina to the hilt and anticipates that she will remain India's best choice for relations with Bangladesh. I expect India will stick with this strategy for as long as possible.
With Bangladesh's balancing act and relationship with China and India, are there any implications of this victory for China-India relations?
No, the convergence of India and China in support of Sheikh Hasina and the Awami League is not an indicator of wider convergence. To the contrary, India will remain concerned about Chinese activities in and with Bangladesh, just as New Delhi is concerned about Chinese activities and influence across the South Asian region. India-China tensions will persist and may worsen if the two cannot find a way to better resolve their contested land border.
From the standpoint of China-India relations, this status-quo conclusion was favoured by both parties. Do you foresee any challenges in this balancing act for the Awami League as it embarks on its fourth consecutive term?
The Awami League has been playing this game for a long time now. It clearly appreciates the requirements and challenges of that balancing act as well as the opportunities it creates. But the level of difficulty in finding a balance will likely increase with China increasing involvement in Bangladesh's economy and, by extension, its politics and even national defence. India, witnessing China's deepening ties to Pakistan and expanding military presence along the LAC, will be increasingly sensitive to every move China makes in Bangladesh. To preserve national sovereignty and to avoid new friction with either major neighbour, Dhaka may find it useful to further diversify its international ties—with the US, Japan, and Europe—in order to avoid being sucked into a zero-sum India-China competition.
Lastly, for Bangladesh, what does this election result say about the future of democratic governance in the nation?
The lead-up and conduct of the election is just the latest example of the fact that there is no longer sufficient space for free and open political competition in Bangladesh. The consolidation of power and authority in Sheikh Hasina raises fundamental concerns about whether the state can ever find a way to healthy democratic governance. And relatedly, this also raises questions about how it can achieve sustained political stability or economic growth for its citizens without democratic legitimacy. These core concerns, and not any particular animus toward Sheikh Hasina (or support for the BNP) are the reasons why Washington was so concerned about the conduct of Bangladesh's national elections. In the end, the Biden administration and many others in Washington really do believe that democracy offers the best route to peace and prosperity within and between states.