Bangladesh is one of those countries that should receive attention from Washington but typically do not. The general elections late last year that installed Sheikh Hasina, one of the most influential female leaders in the world, into power for a record third straight term went largely unnoticed in Washington. Bangladesh may not be a major destination for U.S. exports and hasn’t caught President Donald Trump’s eye for “stealing” American jobs. But Bangladesh’s success in striding toward economic prosperity, containing the spread of terrorism, and protecting Rohingya refugees from untold atrocities should inspire U.S. policymakers to recalibrate their Bangladesh policy.
Perhaps some changes are underway. Last month, the House Foreign Affairs Committee called upon Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to demonstrate America’s “continued commitment to and respect for democratic institutions [in Asia], beginning with Bangladesh.” Representative Eliot Engel, the committee chairman, penned the letter along with five colleagues in which he expressed dismay at the “negative trajectory of democracy” in a country that used to be known for its fragile but boisterous democracy.
For context, since its transition to a multiparty democratic system in the early 1990s, two parties have come to dominate Bangladeshi politics: Hasina’s Awami League, and her nemesis Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party. The two parties alternated power in successive elections until 2008. Bangladesh managed to qualify as a nominal democracy mostly because the elections were credible, and the handover of power was peaceful by Bangladeshi standards. One bipartisan consensus facilitated this tenuous achievement — a so-called caretaker government system. Since neither party trusts the other, the Bangladeshis improvised a brief interim administration consisting of nonpartisans to oversee the electoral processes.
If Americans are fed up with their own growing partisanship, they should find some solace by looking at Bangladesh. Due to bad blood between the two parties, hardly any political institutions rose above political bickering. Using her party’s supermajority in the legislation, Hasina amended the constitution, abolishing the caretaker government system in 2011. In response, opposition blocs led by Zia boycotted the 2014 election, only to ensure Hasina’s easy victory. The United States backed a dialogue between the two feuding parties mediated by the United Nations. But all efforts were in vain.
An opposition-less parliament gave Hasina carte blanche to entrench her rule, which she did. But it came at the cost of Hasina’s image. During her second consecutive term, she shed any pretense of compromise. Zia found herself languishing in prison at the age of 73 after being convicted in corruption cases. Ham-handed crackdowns against the opposition parties nipped their chances of mounting a challenge at ballot boxes, essentially cementing Hasina’s image as an iron lady — an intimation that U.S. Admiral Phil Davidson made in his deposition to the Senate Armed Services Committee. “Bangladesh’s December 30 elections point to concerning trend of consolidation of power by the ruling Awami League and raise fears that PM [Prime Minister] Hasina is aiming to achieve a de facto one-party state,” Davidson said.
Despite those troubling trends, Hasina is perhaps the best option that the Bangladeshis have for the foreseeable future. The reasons are threefold. First, Hasina is demonstrably delivering on her economic promises. In 2018, Bangladesh posted higher annual growth in GDP, 7.9 percent, than any other country in South Asia. Japan’s Nikkei Asian Review recently called Bangladesh “one of the world’s economic success stories.” Second, Hasina has somewhat contained the spread of international terrorist groups in Bangladesh. Although the country experienced a spate of random killings, including a massacre at an upscale restaurant in Dhaka, claimed by Islamic State sympathizers, Hasina has been largely successful in keeping the threats posed by terrorism under check. And, third, Hasina has exhibited an unambiguous diplomatic acumen, carving out a distinct position for her country in a region that is a strategic battleground between India and China. Moreover, Hasina’s Bangladesh has shamed many leading countries by sheltering almost 1 million Rohingya refugees who have been able to flee genocide committed by the Burmese government.
For these very reasons, the United States cannot but take a greater interest in Bangladesh. The South Asian country is projected to become one of the top 30 economies by 2030, even larger than the Netherlands. It would thus be prudent for Washington to devise long-term strategies to boost bilateral trade. The United States is already Bangladesh’s largest single market for exports after the European Union. More incentives from Washington, such as duty-free access to Bangladeshi products, would prove helpful. Unlike some of its neighbors, Bangladesh has yet to capitulate to what amounts to be China’s checkbook diplomacy. The United States should, therefore, increase investment in Bangladesh; doing so would provide Washington with the opportunity to not only gain a stronger foothold but also counter China’s omnipresence in South Asia.
Given Bangladesh’s record in fighting and vulnerability to international terrorism and the country’s geostrategic location, it is imperative for Washington to beef up security cooperation with Bangladesh, a point that Davidson echoed in his deposition. But in the short term, the Trump administration must give shape to its Rohingya policy. While it is praiseworthy that the United States continues to offer monetary assistance for Rohingya refugees, Washington should ramp up political efforts so that Myanmar feels compelled to put an end to the ongoing crisis. Bangladesh is fighting for humanitarian causes, which resonates with values the United States champions. Therefore, the two countries should work closely bilaterally and at international fora that deal with the Rohingya crisis.
In sum, there should be no doubt as to why Washington should strengthen its engagement with Bangladesh. However, reaping long-term gains becomes easier when two democracies invest in a relationship that is based on mutual trust and respect for international institutions, open markets, and human rights. Therefore, the Trump administration should encourage Bangladesh to stick to democratic principles and institutions as part of its increased engagement.
Arafat Kabir is a Bangladesh-based analyst of regional and global affairs. His articles have appeared in outlets including The Wall Street Journal, The National Interest and International Policy Digest. Follow him on Twitter @ArafatKabirUpol.