By Donald Camp —
The United States and India, despite a converging worldview on some foreign policy issues, responded quite differently to the December 30 election in Bangladesh.
India went all-in with re-elected Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Prime Minister Modi was the first foreign leader to call with congratulations and the External Affairs Ministry “warmly congratulated the people of Bangladesh for reaffirming their faith in democracy, development, and the vision of (Hasina’s father) Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.” By contrast, the State Department issued a subdued statement that commended those who came out to vote and “noted with concern” pre-election intimidation of the opposition and election-day irregularities.
Despite these differences, India and the United States share common interests in Bangladesh. Following these elections, both countries should cooperate on shared goals such as counter-terrorism, limiting Chinese influence, and resolving the Rohingya crisis.
Why the Difference?
The lopsided Awami League win was a welcome development in Delhi, where successive Hasina governments have worked closely with India on border issues, water sharing, and counter-terrorism. By contrast, the opposition Bangladesh National Party is viewed as too close to Pakistan. With Delhi increasingly putting its regional emphasis on “Act East,” Bangladesh’s proximity to Southeast Asia looms large, as does the cultural and economic affinity within Greater Bengal.
In Washington, the eighth most populous country in the world gets less attention. The South Asia strategy announced by President Trump in 2017 did not reference Bangladesh (although its emphasis on counter-terrorism suggested where our current interests lie). Without a strong geopolitical rationale for engagement, human rights and a badly-flawed election were the areas that the U.S. government decided to emphasize after the election.
What shared interests do the United States and India have in Bangladesh?
Counter-terrorism: India sees the hand of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence in political violence, border skirmishes, and violence by Islamic groups throughout Bangladesh and the region. The United States is concerned at possible inroads by international terrorist groups. The 2016 killing of 29 people at a coffee shop in Dhaka led to a drawdown of personnel at the U.S. embassy, and a 2018 attack on then-U.S. ambassador Marcia Bernicat fueled a perception that Americans in particular could be targets of violence. The United States and India should be able to share their differing perceptions of Bangladesh-based terrorism, with the goal of a better understanding of the threat.
The rapid growth in Chinese influence in the region: The United States sees China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as a means to pull Eurasian nations into China’s orbit and create debt traps for its targets. For India, BRI in Bangladesh does not present the same political problem that it does in Pakistan where Indian sovereignty in Kashmir is an issue. And, in fact, Chinese investment in transit links with Myanmar and China could ultimately redound to India’s benefit. But Delhi needs to count on the Hasina government to continue to balance its relations with its two giant neighbors and not be seduced by huge Chinese loans for infrastructure and for military equipment. This will work to the benefit of U.S. interests as well.
Dealing with the Rohingya crisis: Bangladesh has been burdened with an economic and social crisis not of its making with the exodus of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar. Sheikh Hasina has gotten international praise for the willingness of her government to host nearly one million refugees. International aid agencies have provided substantial assistance. But Bangladesh can be forgiven for doubting whether this level of aid will be continued in the long term, as the crisis becomes normalized and other international priorities intrude. Bangladesh will need to depend on good will and refugee assistance from India and the west for years in the future to maintain its internal stability and economic growth.
How can the United States and India cooperate on Bangladesh?
Despite Washington’s lukewarm reaction to the election, the United States should endeavor to work productively with the Sheikh Hasina government where appropriate. Coordinating with India whenever possible can leverage that relationship.
The United States and India have a relatively-short but fruitful history of cooperation on India’s periphery. India has in recent years acknowledged that U.S. involvement in the region can often pay benefits to India, given a common interest in regional stability, counter terrorism, and economic development.
Bangladesh is ripe for that kind of cooperation. Enhanced dialogue is a start. The current high-level channel of communication between the United States and Bangladesh involves the under secretary of state and the foreign secretary. Involving India in a trilateral dialogue will acknowledge our common interests and the potential for cooperation.
Despite flaws in governance and human rights, U.S. leadership cannot set Bangladesh aside until the next crisis. Washington may in fact find an open door in Dhaka. Prime Minister Hasina’s appointment of newly-elected legislator Abdul Momen as foreign minister puts a friend of the United States in an influential position. Momen has lived most of his life in the United States, having studied and worked in Boston for many years. He knows the United States well.
The United States has worked with Bangladesh productively since its independence in 1971. Such cooperation needs to continue and expand. Partnering with India pays dividends for all three countries.