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What Underlies Sheikh Hasina’s Successful Diplomacy?

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What Underlies Sheikh Hasina’s Successful Diplomacy?

Bangladesh’s economic resilience has bolstered its foreign policy and allowed its prime minister to pursue a more assertive approach on the international stage.

What Underlies Sheikh Hasina’s Successful Diplomacy?

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina shakes hands with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz at the Munich Security Conference, Germany, Feb. 17, 2024.

Credit: X/Awami League

Following her victory in the disputed general elections in January, which was boycotted by the opposition, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina received congratulatory messages from several Asian and allied nations, including India, China, and Russia. However, powerful Western democracies like the United States and United Kingdom expressed concern over the election’s legitimacy.

A month later, Hasina received a letter of cooperation from U.S. President Joe Biden. This was followed by the visit of a high-level U.S. delegation to Dhaka late last week.

This turnaround is the outcome not only of Washington’s willingness to engage with the new government, despite its concerns over the fairness of the elections, but also of Hasina’s diplomatic skills. She has leveraged the country’s growing economic might to win friends.

Hasina has served four terms as Bangladesh’s prime minister so far and the present term is her fifth. What accounts for her political longevity? And how has she been able to enhance Bangladesh’s influence on the global stage?

Hasina’s tenure as Awami League (AL) chief stands out for its longevity, surpassing any other politician in the party’s history. Unchallenged within the party, she has become its public face, echoing the undisputed leadership role of her father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in the 1960s and 70s.

However, her rise to prominence wasn’t without its challenges. Upon returning from exile in 1981, Hasina found the AL riven with factionalism and weakened by the assassination of several of its leaders, including Rahman. The presence of multiple and competing centers of power exacerbated the crisis.

Moreover, the brutal military dictatorship of the time lured AL members to legitimize its rule, further weakening the party’s ranks. Despite these obstacles, Hasina’s leadership proved pivotal in unifying the party and paving the way for its eventual resurgence.

Rumeen Farhana, international affairs secretary of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, (BNP), the AL’s main rival, told The Diplomat that it’s not an easy feat to “stay in power for more than fifteen years” especially given her “abysmal human rights record.” During her decade-long rule, Hasina has unleashed brute force to suppress opposition parties, including the BNP. Her government has also silenced dissenting voices. Hundreds have been forcibly disappeared.

Many in Bangladesh believe that her leadership, both within her party and at the national level, has been crucial not only for her long stint at the helm but also for Bangladesh’s pursuit of its national interests abroad. Her shrewd understanding of world politics has also helped her play the chips on the bargaining table more deftly, they say.

As Obaidul Quader, secretary general of the ruling Awami League and effectively the second-most powerful person in Bangladesh pointed out, economic diplomacy is the secret behind Hasina’s influence. “She consistently prioritizes economic diplomacy, which I think serves as the backbone of her foreign policy,” Qader told The Diplomat.

Bangladesh’s economic resilience, even amidst the COVID-19 crisis, has bolstered its foreign policy and allowed Hasina to pursue a more assertive approach on the international stage.

Under Hasina, Bangladesh’s diplomacy with India, China, and Russia has matured. It has been able to maintain a steady course because of the economic relationships it has with these countries. China tops the list of Bangladesh’s trading partners, with bilateral trade reaching $16 billion last year. India comes in second. Meanwhile, Russia is building a massive $12 billion nuclear power plant, the largest infrastructure project in Bangladesh’s history.

Western nations, major buyers of Bangladesh’s booming apparel exports, which earned the country $47 billion in foreign exchange last year, recognize the South Asian nation’s growing importance in the global economy. As Bangladesh’s buying power surges, it’s becoming an increasingly attractive market. During his visit just before the general election,  French President Emmanuel Macron signed a $3 billion deal for French aviation giant Airbus with Bangladesh.

According to Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister Hasan Mahmud, while the country’s location and the present global geopolitical context play a part in enabling Bangladesh to maintain close ties with both regional rivals, India and China, as well as both global rivals, China and the United States, it is Hasina’s “steadfast diplomacy that makes us a notable player on the global stage today.”

The core principle of Bangladesh’s foreign policy, “friendship to all and malice to none,” was established by Hasina’s father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the nation’s founding father and independent Bangladesh’s first prime minister. This policy stemmed from Bangladesh’s unique circumstances — a densely populated nation with limited resources seeking stability in a complex geopolitical landscape.

However, decades of steady development and economic growth have empowered Bangladesh to engage in international negotiations with greater confidence and assertiveness, and to pursue its interests on both bilateral and multilateral platforms.

“Prime Minister Hasina’s success in diplomacy and trade stems from her ability to make her counterparts feel like they are getting a good deal in negotiations,” Munshi Faiz Ahmed, a former chairman of the Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies (BIISS) told The Diplomat. Besides, she has been very vocal about global issues on the international stage. For example, recently Hasina issued “a strong statement terming Israel’s attack on Palestine as ‘genocide.’” Her government has also “taken a leading role, garnering international attention in urging other nations to take proactive action to address climate change,” Ahmed said.

Sujit Roy Nandi, a prominent AL leader, emphasized the importance of internal harmony for successful diplomacy. He commended Hasina’s ability to maintain discipline within the party through “effective communication and unwavering resolve,” highlighting her skills in negotiation and navigating complex situations.

“The tumultuous past has helped her [Hasina] to shape her vision with certain clarity. She has brought discipline in her party first and then channeled her power of communication on the global level,” Nandi told The Diplomat, “That’s obviously helped her and Bangladesh to perform better diplomatically.”

Farhana, the BNP leader, admitted that Hasina is “a skilled maneuverer of diplomacy.” “But so were many dictators in history,” she pointed out. Hasina’s “diplomatic success doesn’t make her a popular leader. It has made her popular among her own party only.”