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Is US Paying the Price for Criticizing Sheikh Hasina’s Autocratic Rule?

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Is US Paying the Price for Criticizing Sheikh Hasina’s Autocratic Rule?

Bangladesh seems to have snubbed the U.S. by opting for Airbus rather than Boeing aircraft.

Is US Paying the Price for Criticizing Sheikh Hasina’s Autocratic Rule?

French President Emmanuel Macron with Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina at a meeting during Macron’s visit to Dhaka, Bangladesh, September 11, 2023.

Credit: X/Emmanuel Macron

In a significant departure from its long-standing tradition of using American-made Boeing aircraft, Biman Bangladesh Airlines, Bangladesh’s national air carrier, recently decided to buy four European-made Airbus planes.

Biman Bangladesh has a fleet of over 20  planes, most of which are wide-bodied Boeing planes, with some Dash-8 turboprops.

According to the newspaper reports, in deciding to purchase wide-bodied Airbus  A-30 planes, Biman went against the evaluation of the aircraft by its own appraisal committee, which found in January 2024 that Biman would incur huge financial loss if it bought Airbus planes.

Following that committee’s report, the government appointed another appraisal committee, which in April 2024 found that purchasing Airbus aircraft would be financially beneficial for Biman. The government went with the second evaluation to opt for Airbus.

The price of each Airbus plane is $180 million with a non-refundable $5 million commitment fee for each airplane. Bangladesh will have to fork out this amount for four Airbus planes when the country’s economy is weakening and it is in the grip of a dollar crisis. The situation is not good as U.S. companies operating in Bangladesh are reportedly unable to remit their profit due to the dollar crisis.

In an official statement, Biman’s outgoing Managing Director Shafizul Azim said that the purchase of Airbus planes is driven by a desire to avoid future uncertainty, given the recent safety concerns surrounding Boeing. By diversifying the airline’s fleet Biman is ensuring its long-term stability and security, he said.

Azim’s argument is not without basis. Boeing is facing serious credibility issues due to accidents, flaws in their aircraft, and slow delivery of planes to customers. As a result, the company has lost $32 billion worldwide.

Customers are moving away from this iconic American company. This is the case with Saudi Arabia, for example, which recently placed an order for 105 Airbus planes.

However, Biman’s decision to purchase Airbus aircraft is influenced not by financial or business logic. Rather it appears to have been heavily influenced by geopolitics and Bangladesh’s foreign policy priorities.

Prioritizing politics above business interests in the aviation sector is not unique to Bangladesh. According to aviation researchers, the aviation industry differs from most businesses relating to services or commodities as it directly involves national interests, sovereignty, and prestige of countries. In international relations, the politics of civil aviation affects how governments view one another, and how individual citizens view their own and foreign countries.

Bangladesh’s relationship with the United States has been deteriorating in recent years. In 2021, the U.S. imposed sanctions on Bangladesh’s elite paramilitary Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and several of its top security officials for human rights violations.

Then, in the run-up to Bangladesh’s controversial one-sided general elections held in January 2024,  the U.S. announced visa restrictions for officials and politicians who were found to be subverting free and fair elections in Bangladesh. Recently, the U.S. has imposed sanctions on Bangladesh’s former army chief for alleged corruption.

Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has responded strongly to the U.S. actions. She accused Washington of conspiring against her government and recently, without naming the U.S., she claimed that a country is plotting to establish an air base and a Christian state like that of Timor-Leste, using the territories of Bangladesh and Myanmar. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Donald Lu denied these allegations.

The decision to shift away from Boeing is likely part of Dhaka’s responses to the recent U.S. decisions. The purchase of Airbus aircraft is also likely aimed at strengthening Bangladesh’s relationship with European countries like France, Spain, Germany, and the U.K., which manufacture and assemble various parts of the Airbus planes. The Airbus case also underpins a rift in foreign policy priorities between the U.S. and European countries.

While the United States has focused on a democratic outcome for Bangladesh, even describing the recent Bangladesh general election in a State Department statement as ”not free or fair,” European countries have prioritized deepening business ties with Bangladesh. The European Union was less harsh in its response to the general elections, merely expressing concern over the limited participation, and urging the government to work toward greater transparency and adhere to democratic values.

During his visit to Bangladesh in 2023, French President Emmanuel Macron announced the sale of 10 Airbus planes. The joint communique issued at the end of the visit mentioned “prosperity, peace, and people,” but Macron refrained from explicitly criticizing Bangladeshi’s democratic backsliding.

Selling Airbus planes to Bangladesh has allowed France and other European powers to outsmart the Americans, who have traditionally used bilateral air service agreements to win contract rivalry with Europeans in many instances.

This rivalry among Western countries has provided Hasina with leverage. Purchasing Airbus planes will likely ease any pressures for democracy from the European countries.