The intricate web of diplomatic involvement in Bangladesh’s politics is becoming increasingly apparent as major global powers vie for supremacy.
Foreign diplomats in Dhaka have been discreetly involved in Bangladesh’s politics, although there has been an attempt to conceal their role. Both politicians and diplomats tend to avoid openly discussing these matters. However, as the 12th parliamentary election approaches within a year, foreign diplomats have become more visibly active, with each taking clear positions in opposition to one another.
YOU CAN ALSO READ: ELECTION NEGOTIATION: WHY IS AWAMI LEAGUE TOUGH ON BNP?
Considering the recent facts, now it is becoming essential to recognise the delicate nature of diplomatic involvement in domestic politics and the need for transparency and accountability.
The stirring tensions about intrigues and interference
It is not uncommon for major global powers to involve themselves in Bangladesh’s national elections and politics. While some are supporting the nation’s sovereignty, some are trying to influence internal affairs.
Last year, members of the United States Congress wrote a letter to President Joe Biden, urging immediate action to address human rights curtailment, prevention of fair elections, and the deteriorating situation in Bangladesh. Similarly, six members of the European Parliament, including Ivan Štefanec, wrote a letter to Josep Borrell, emphasizing the need for free, fair, and impartial elections in Bangladesh.
Notably, on December 2021, the United States imposed sanctions on RAB and seven current and former officials due to severe human rights violations.
Additionally, Vice-President of the European Commission, Josep Borrell, had written a letter to Ivan Štefanec, a member of the European Parliament, expressing concern about the political crisis and human rights violations in Bangladesh, while emphasising the importance of dialogue last month.
The involvement of foreign powers in Bangladesh’s politics has triggered a diplomatic showdown, highlighting the clash between the United States and China. China had expressed concerns and support for Bangladesh about Western involvement in the country’s internal issues. On June, the spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Wang Wenbin, stated China’s support for Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s stance on the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), a specialised security force in Bangladesh, and emphasized China’s support for Bangladesh’s sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity.
As a recent development, the statement from the Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson also touched upon the issue of Bangladesh’s politics, highlighting the positions of the US and EU against interfering in the internal affairs of other countries. Russia expressed full support for countries like Bangladesh that base their foreign and internal policies on national interests rather than following the influence of foreign powers, particularly developed countries.
The Russian Foreign Ministry criticised what it deemed as “indecent interference in internal politics” in Bangladesh and addressed a letter to European and American politicians to express their concern over the “flawless and fair” elections. This is “neocolonialism and yet another attempt at blatant interference” in the internal affairs of a sovereign state, Russia said.
In response to the Russian Foreign Ministry’s statement, the Russian Embassy in Dhaka issued a statement on their Facebook page, affirming Russia’s commitment to a non-interference policy in the internal affairs of other countries. They expressed full support for countries like Bangladesh that evaluate foreign and internal policies based on national interests, even when facing opposition from Western powers.
Maria Zakharova, spokesperson for the Russian Foreign Ministry, took to Twitter to condemn certain European and American politicians for their letter, calling it a shameless interference in internal politics and a violation of Bangladesh’s sovereignty.
Diplomatic showdown of China and US
The country has witnessed a flurry of visits from U.S. and Chinese officials this January. Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang broke a 32-year tradition by visiting Dhaka on January 10, 2023, en route to Africa, highlighting China’s growing interest in Bangladesh. Although it was not an official state visit, Qin held a meeting with Abul Kalam Abdul Momen, the Foreign Minister of Bangladesh, which marked a noteworthy development. On a separate occasion, a delegation led by Chen Zhou, the deputy head of the International Department of the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee, visited Bangladesh for three days.
These high-level visits from China took place amidst a series of diplomatic activities by the United States. Eileen Laubacher, the senior director for South Asia at the National Security Council of the White House, embarked on a four-day visit to Dhaka starting on January 7, 2023. On January 9, she held a meeting with Minister Momen, just before Qin’s brief stopover at the Dhaka airport. On January 14, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Donald Lu was in Dhaka, where he held a series of meetings with political parties, senior officials, and civil society leaders.
These high-level diplomatic engagements reflect the broader competition between the United States and China, as they vie for influence in Bangladesh—a strategically important country located at the head of the Bay of Bengal.
More rivalry: The clash of ‘US-Russia’ & ‘China-Japan’
Bangladesh has emerged as a new arena for the ongoing rivalry between the United States and Russia, alongside their existing competition with China. The government has taken initiatives to address the country’s chronic power shortage, including the construction of the country’s first nuclear power plant in partnership with the Russian company Rostrum under a $12 billion contract, largely funded by Russia. Moreover, Russia has been a friend of Bangladesh since its independence and has been supporting energy cooperation the most.
Bangladesh’s diplomatic relations with the United States have been cordial since its independence, with the US being a significant trading partner and investor in various sectors. However, the US has consistently interfered and questioned the state of democracy in Bangladesh, which has strained bilateral cooperation.
The exclusion of Bangladesh from President Biden’s Democracy Summit and the criticism by US officials regarding the decline of democracy have further strained the relationship and the last nail in the coffin was sanctioning RAB. Furthermore, tensions between the US and Bangladesh escalated when a Russian ship carrying goods for Bangladesh’s nuclear power plant was prevented from docking at a Bangladeshi port due to US sanctions.
On the other hand, Japan, facing its own challenges with China, is investing resources to counter China’s influence globally. Prior to China’s entry into the infrastructure sector in Bangladesh, Japanese companies dominated the market. However, with China winning some contracts, the Japanese resources are being advertised by the neighboring country to counter China’s advancements in Bangladeshi infrastructure.
For years, Bangladesh had coveted the construction of a deep-sea port, and initially, China had been vying for the opportunity to develop the Sonadia port. However, due to geopolitical considerations, Bangladesh was forced to abandon the deal. After a significant delay, Japan stepped in with its investment in the BIG-B development project, strategically aimed at countering China’s growing influence in the Bay of Bengal region.
Presently, Japan is actively engaged in constructing the Matarbari deep-sea port, in addition to other associated projects such as coal power plants and a cross-country road that bolsters connectivity with India’s north-eastern states.
Foreign powers’ involvement in Bangladesh’s domestic politics is becoming increasingly evident as the country prepares for its upcoming parliamentary election. This has turned Bangladesh into a battleground for global competition among major powers. To navigate this complex situation, it is crucial for Bangladesh to carefully consider the influence of foreign actors in order to protect the country’s interests and maintain the integrity of its democratic processes.