Eye on China, pressure on Bangladesh: America’s latest great game east

How the US is tightening the diplomatic screws on Bangladesh in its latest bid to deny China primacy in the Indo-Pacific region

US President Joe Biden and Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina at G20 summit in New Delhi (photo courtesy: Bangladesh High Commission)
US President Joe Biden and Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina at G20 summit in New Delhi (photo courtesy: Bangladesh High Commission)

Subir Bhaumik

Why is the US so hell-bent on pushing Bangladesh on democracy and human rights? Is Bangladesh any worse than Pakistan or many other Middle Eastern sheikhdoms on these issues? Why is the US even threatening to sanction police officers who battle Islamist radicals on the streets? 

The answer can be found in an unfolding strategy that the US is putting in place to block China’s land-to-sea access routes — a pincer grip that Beijing wants to avoid, what many Chinese geo-strategists call the ‘Malacca chokepoint’.

China’s two main exits into the Indian Ocean are through the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (Yunnan-Rakhine) and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (Xinjiang-Balochistan). Understandably, the US seeks to block both.

No wonder the American agencies are backing both the Baloch and the Rakhine insurgencies, covertly supplying them with weapons and even drones through kissing the-coast operations by visiting US warships ostensibly headed for a port of call in either Bangladesh or India, who can drop their consignments by quietly going just close enough to the Rakhine (Myanmar) or Makran (Pakistan) coast.

Top Bangladesh sources say the US has ratcheted down huge pressure on the Sheikh Hasina government on human rights issues and pushed for ‘fair elections’ — basically to push the Bangladeshi prime minister to sign two military-related pacts, a GSOMIA (general security of military information agreement) and an ACSA (acquisitions and cross-servicing agreement) — and may now add more pressure to provide logistics support for a possible no-fly zone. If she does not play ball, the US may go all out to promote violent Opposition agitations and other forms of interventions to effect a regime change.

The back-to-back visits to Bangladesh earlier this year by rear admiral Eileen Laubacher, senior director for South Asia in the US National Security Council and the state department’s assistant secretary (South-Central Asia) Donald Lu have been interpreted in Dhaka as part of Washington’s mounting urgency for Bangladesh to go along with its plans in Myanmar.

But if winter comes, can spring be far behind? The new Chinese foreign minister Qin Gang (now removed) made a sudden ‘technical stopover’ in Dhaka on his way to Africa and met Bangladeshi foreign minister A.K. Abdul Momen for two hours at the airport on a day when rear admiral Laubacher was nearing the end of her trip.

A high-level delegation of the Communist Party of China (CPC) led by the deputy head of the CPC’s international department, Chen Zhou, also visited Bangladesh and extensively interacted with major political parties and government functionaries to ‘interpret the spirit of the 20th CPC National Congress for improving bilateral relations’.

It is possible that the Chinese have got wind of America’s plans and hope to checkmate them. They do have a few cards to play in Bangladesh —especially the huge development assistance for key infrastructure projects, many of which are yet to materialise.

Foreign minister Momen is said to have raised the issue with his Chinese counterpart during the late-night meeting at Dhaka airport. And Dhaka is likely to leverage the situation to get what it wants from China in order to expedite its crucial projects in the election year, for all the leverage it brings to the table.

But the Chinese would oblige Bangladesh, fully or partly, only if they were sure Dhaka would resist the temptation to support the US and its allies, who may just plan to hit the Burmese military junta hard enough. Hasina’s diplomatic skills (her foreign minister is better known for gaffes than adroit diplomacy) will certainly be put to a huge test this election year as her country risks getting drawn into the larger Sino–US rivalry.

The US strategy is to deny the Myanmar air force (now beefed up by the induction of Sukhoi fighters) dominance of the sky above Rakhine State, where the Arakan Army rebels now control two-thirds of the land area but cannot make a final push because they cannot neutralise the Burmese air power.

Washington is ‘seriously considering’ imposing a Bosnia-type no-fly zone over Rakhine State. For it to deploy aircraft carriers in the Bay of Bengal to impose the no-fly zone, the US would need logistical support from coastal nations like Bangladesh, which explains the American pressure on Hasina’s government.

China worries that if Rakhine secures independence with American support, it will scuttle the China–Myanmar Economic Corridor and may even hand over the Chinafunded Kyaukphyu deep sea port to the US. An independent Rakhine could lay open the western Myanmar states of Chin and Kachin too—where ethnic rebellions are just as strong as Rakhine—to covert US military assistance towards their secession in turn. 

India may be circumspect about the breakup of Myanmar and three or four independent states on its shared borders with the pagoda nation, but it would surely not mind disruption of the two Chinese corridors through Pakistan and Myanmar. Pakistan has meanwhile alleged Indian backing for the Baloch rebels, who have attacked Chinese nationals as much as Pakistani security forces. 

India may not be as yet willing to see Myanmar fall apart, but can Delhi shield Hasina from the US pressure which is mounting by the day? Narendra Modi may have set up Hasina for a photo-op with US President Joe Biden at the recent G20 meeting; but will India check its temptation to join the US in a block-Chin effort and back Hasina despite Delhi’s own nagging apprehensions that the Bangladesh prime minister has drifted too close to the Chinese?

Subir Bhaumik is a former BBC and Reuters correspondent and author of books on South Asian conflicts

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