Bangladesh To Serve Geopolitical Interests
Strategic location, economic growth attracting powerful attention
Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is very busy these days. On September 8, she will be meeting the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Dhaka and then proceed to New Delhi for a bilateral with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the same day.
She will attend the G20 summit to be held on September 9 and 10, as a special guest on India’s invitation and head back to Dhaka for a bilateral with the visiting French President Emmanuel Macron on September 10.
These back-to-back meetings will be taking place in a rather tense geopolitical context. There is growing anxiety about Bangladesh in Big Power circles due to its strategic geopolitical location as well as its rapid economic growth with Big Power involvement.
India, the United States and China have their own particular reasons to be worried about the domestic situation in Bangladesh in the context of the parliamentary elections slated for January 2024.
The reasons for the anxiety are: the increasing Chinese involvement in the economic affairs of Bangladesh that could develop into a political and geo-political relationship; the mounting US pressure on the Hasina government on human rights issues and its consequences for Bangladesh, India and South Asia; an uncertain outcome of the Bangladeshi parliamentary elections due in January 2024.
Bangladesh-Russia relations improved with Hasina’s coming to power. During the rule of military dictator H.M.Ershad they touched the nadir as Ershad had moved closer to Russia’s adversaries. Russia is now a firm supporter of Hasina’s.
During the Dhaka talks, there will be an exchange of views “on the most pressing regional and international issues,” said Maria Zakharova, Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman
Unlike the US, Russia does not comment on Bangladesh’s internal affairs and embarrass the Bangladeshi government. Zakharova had earlier slammed the US for “persistently trying to influence the domestic processes in the country.”
The Russian embassy in Dhaka had released a statement criticising “the hegemonic ambitions” of countries that identified themselves as “developed democracies.”
Bangladesh is constructing the first of two nuclear power plants in collaboration with Russia's Rosatom in a $12.65 billion project, 90% of which is financed through a Russian loan repayable in 28 years, with a 10-year grace period. Bangladesh and Russia had agreed to use Yuan to settle payment for the nuclear plant.
India is eager to firm up its good relations with Bangladesh, particularly the pro-India Awami League government led by Sheikh Hasina.
India is worried that US pressure on Hasina on human rights issues could discredit her regime and give a handle to anti-India and Islamic radical forces to the detriment of both India and the South Asian region.
Too much US pressure could drive Bangladesh into the arms of China, and that would be good neither for India nor the US. Hindustan Times recently reported that India had suggested to the US to restrain itself.
But it is not certain if Washington will go by India’s wishes because it had decided some time ago to look at Bangladesh and other South Asian countries from an independent, US-centred angle, rather than see these countries through the Indian lens.
The US is using human rights issues as a stick to beat Hasina into submission because she had defiantly told the US that Bangladeshis couldn't care less if the US denied them visas citing human rights violations. There were other countries Bangladeshis could visit, she said.
Hasina is also miffed about the US’ sheltering a Bangladeshi army officer who had allegedly participated in the plot to assassinate her father and founder of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, in August 1975.
The US seeks Hasina’s submission to achieve its objective of getting Bangladesh to join QUAD, an anti-China association comprising the US, UK, Australia, Japan and India. But Hasina does not want to antagonise China which is a major investor in Bangladesh and the principal supplier of arms to the Bangladeshi armed forces.
However, Bangladesh does not want bad relations with the US. The US is the largest importer of Bangladeshi products, importing US$ 8.3 billion worth of goods in 2021. US companies are among the largest foreign investors in Bangladesh.
Bangladesh does not want to veer to the Chinese side either and exacerbate the geopolitical tension involving a number of powers, regional and global. It is therefore counting on friendly India to intercede with the US on its behalf and to restrain it from precipitating a crisis.
Hasina’s talks with Modi in New Delhi would have covered this issue as well as other issues of Bangladeshi interest such as better connectivity with India including a diesel pipeline, and the sharing of the waters of the river Teesta. Teesta waters sharing has electoral implications for Hasina.
Bangladesh has a strong economic relationship with China. Beijing’s trade, investment, and loans to Bangladesh are worth around US$ 60 billion, the largest ever pledged to Bangladesh by a single country.
China has expressed support for safeguarding Bangladesh's sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin had said that China stood ready, “to work together with Bangladesh and other countries to oppose all forms of hegemonism and power politics and build a community with a shared future for mankind.”
French President Emmanuel Macron’s meeting on September 10 would be the first by a French President in 33 years. France sees Bangladesh as a country that has been experiencing rapid economic growth and seeking to diversify its partnerships.
Since Bangladesh is particularly vulnerable to climate change, the French would emphasise their determination to stand by Bangladesh on the disaster mitigation front.
France successfully launched Bangladeshi satellite “Bangabanhdu-1” on May 11th, 2018. The French company Thales Alenia Space had designed, made and launched the satellite. With that Bangladesh became the fourth country in South Asia to own a communication satellite.
France is one of the largest export destinations for Bangladesh. France exports food products, electrical equipment, and chemicals to Bangladesh. By 2020, bilateral trade was worth 2.76 billion euros. Bangladesh’s export to France accounted for 2.52 billion euros of that, while French exports to Bangladesh were just $250 million.
The two countries’ economic ties go beyond bilateral trade. For example, in 2020, France provided a COVID-19 loan of 150 million euros to Bangladesh. France also has a green and inclusive growth project worth 367 million euros in Bangladesh.
France is also directly supporting infrastructure development projects in Bangladesh through the l’Agence Française de Développement (AFD). French investments are taking place in Bangladesh.
This includes a 275 million Euro investment in a water production plant in Narayanganj and the Lafarge-Surma cement factory, which cost US$ 253 million. France’s Danone and Bangladesh’s Grameen are dedicated to ending malnutrition in Bangladesh.
French high-tech company Thales is modernising air traffic management in Bangladesh. Sheikh Hasina has met the French Defense Minister, and the President of Dassault Aviation. Talks about France providing Rafale jet fighter aircraft to Bangladesh had reportedly taken place.
At the geopolitical level, France and Bangladesh are wary of the stalemate between the Quad and China. France has its own Indo-Pacific strategy which is at variance with that of the US. And Bangladesh is wary about being caught in an Indo-Pacific geopolitical warfare. There is thus solid ground for cooperation between Dhaka and Paris.