Bangladesh needs to be smart about US sanctions
The US sanctions against individuals and a law enforcement agency in Bangladesh took us by surprise—especially when we found ourselves bracketed with countries like North Korea and Myanmar—sending shock waves throughout the power structure as well as the civil society. It is also clear that these sanctions are not about to be lifted anytime soon; remember the withdrawal of GSP after the Rana Plaza collapse, and the promise of its reinstatement once compliance was met? Despite very good compliance, the GSP agenda was never under serious consideration by the US.
Coming back to the sanctions: Once the shouts of "conspiracy" and the routine blame games have subsided, we will have to come to terms with the rapidly changing geopolitics, of which these sanctions are symptomatic.
It is of little consequence to discuss morality or even democracy in this context, although if those were indeed of central concern, one might have been able to conjure up a modicum of sympathy for the actions imposed. There is no denying that not all is hunky dory with our "State of Denmark." However, who can deny that "Denmark" has risen, that enemies have been contained, that other challenges remain that might indeed require more muscle? However, it is not enough for "Denmark" to grow and expand; it must advance on other fronts as well, which, let's simply say (although this is no simple matter), includes the rights of citizens to be better respected. It should matter not whether the US wants this from us—we obviously want it for ourselves, and if we do not, we certainly should.
Apologies for digressing. At the heart of the matter is the growing Western discomfort with the rise of China compounded by the Ukraine crisis, which further threatens to destabilise the world order. Under the circumstances, the US would like to contain China in the Pacific as well as the Indo-Pacific. Some of you may have noted that the US sent an urgent, high-powered delegation even to the Solomon Islands, a tiny country with a population of under 700,000, after it signed a treaty with China. This is eloquent testimony to the degree of sensitivity in the West around all things related to China.
The US wants Bangladesh to get on board its China (containment) project. This is a difficult ask: China is just round the block and commands an economy that will soon overtake that of the US. China is also heavily involved in mega construction projects in Bangladesh. In other words, Bangladesh is way more dependent on China than it is on the far-away US as far as investment is concerned.
The human rights and democracy cards are meant to create pressure, and when deployed by the most powerful country in the world, it is best to give it serious thought. After all, the US is a country with which we have vital trade relations, and where—and this is important—we have a large number of immigrants, many of whom are drawn from Bangladesh's upper classes. Bangladesh cannot afford to earn the ire of the US.
While we may cry foul that similar or worse rights violations have occurred elsewhere with nearly zero consequences (e.g. in Israel, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Afghanistan, India, Cambodia, Turkey) or that there are growing rights abuses in the West itself, given the rise of neo-Nazis and white supremacists, and a history of violent racism against black and indigenous populations, our cries will be of little avail. The main issue is China, and perhaps the coming cold war. The main issue is Western insecurity, and a concern that their dominance maintained over the last 200 years can no longer be taken for granted.
If Bangladesh considers joining the Indo-Pacific treaty, it must ensure that it gets its money's worth (think markets, technology, investment; also think GSP). There should be no hurry. So far, Bangladesh has managed to balance India and China with reasonable success. It will now have to learn a new game: how to balance China and the US. Let's wait to see what others do—after all, many countries are likely to face a similar dilemma and will wish to stay away from superpower rivalries. As a developmental state, Bangladesh's concerns are business, markets, and economics; it has no interest in military pacts or security treaties. I do see Myanmar as a threat, but that is something that we will have to deal with bilaterally. At any rate, it does not look as if either China or the US will help us out with that.
We have been placed in a dilemma that is not of our making. All we can do is continue to utter our constitutionally binding foreign policy mantra of "Friendship to All, Malice to None," which, unfortunately, will not make anyone happy. In the meantime, we must vigorously avoid joining any security pact, but remain open to treaties structured around developmental goals. Given the second cold war that is clearly in the making, perhaps the need of the hour is for Jawaharlal Nehru to be resurrected to put together a new Non-Aligned Movement?
We should also note that the Biden administration has declared its intention to again assume the role of the champion of human rights and democracy. If these can be combined with geopolitical goals, so much the better! I fear, alas, that we may have to swallow some pride. If we are smart, improving human rights and democracy quickly may allow us to earn enough brownie points to put Bangladesh in a stronger position from which to negotiate our geopolitical space.
KAS Murshid is an economist and former director-general of Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS).