The United States has stepped up efforts to push Bangladesh to join its Indo-Pacific military pact to contain China, but it is using a false pretext that will rile up the Bengali nation that carries bitter memories of America’s opposition to its birth.
Washington sanctioned Bangladesh’s elite police unit, the Rapid Action Battalion on, December 10, citing “serious human rights abuses.” Six of its current and former officers have been accused of abductions, murder and torture. Benazir Ahmed, former RAB head who is now chief of Bangladesh Police, has also been barred from entering the United States.
On Friday came a new revelation that America has given Bangladesh until the end of this week to explain how it spent U.S. military aid, totalling about $76 million since 2015. The hidden motive behind this mandate is to potentially impose further penalties if American funds have been improperly used. This revelation deepens the suspicion that Washington is using the pretext of human rights abuses to push Bangladesh to become a member of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, an informal anti-China military pact comprising of the United States, Japan, Australia and India.
Bangladesh has faced U.S. pressure at least since October 2020 when Deputy Secretary of State Stephen E. Biegun visited Dhaka and formally invited the country to join the group. Dhaka has refused so far because of threats from a significant source of its investment capital and technical expertise — China. Both China and America are courting Bangladesh because being next to the Bay of Bengal it can provide easy access to the Indian Ocean, which funnels much of the world trade. By controlling this sea lane, America can choke off China’s economy. Bangladesh can give China an alternative land route via Burma.
Announcing the sanctions in Washington, D.C., Secretary of State Antony Blinken blamed the RAB for more than 600 abductions in the past 12 years and a similar number of murders. The force, founded in 2004 in response to public outcry to control rapidly rising crime, handles internal security as well as criminal and government-directed investigations.
In recent years, the government allegedly used it to wipe out political opponents. Nonetheless, Washington is guilty of double standards in this case. When President Ziaur Rahman railroaded the trials of hundreds of rebel soldiers in 1977 and hanged an undisclosed number, America did not publicly rebuke him, let alone impose sanctions. Only Jane Coon, then deputy assistant secretary of state, blocked his visit to the White House, ignoring Ambassador Ed Masters’ push.
Washington’s sanctions strategies often carry hidden agendas. When America imposed sanctions on the Soviet Union after it invaded Kabul, they were billed as part of a mission to rescue Afghanistan but were actually intended to warn Moscow not to march into Iran. Applying the same tactic, Americans are giving Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina two messages: (1) punish the named officers, and (2) join the Quad. Failing to comply, especially with the second demand, carries the risk of more sanctions.
The U.S. steps may embarrass Hasina on the world stage, but sanctions in general rarely achieve their stated goals. Often, they do just the opposite — make the targets more rigid. Hasina will certainly not put her police chief on trial, because such a step will open up a Pandora’s box, putting her administration and her political future in jeopardy. Even a dumb person knows that the RAB did not act arbitrarily without approval from the top.
Conceding American demands will make Hasina look weak to her followers as well as adversaries. A weak leader is despised in Asia — and perhaps in other parts of the world, too — especially if one fails to stand up to big bullies. This leaves the United States with the hope that its secret strategy to coerce Hasina into the Quad will succeed. The prime minister is less than likely to bend over backwards to please Washington, simply because of her fear of looking weak, if nothing else. Can she afford to be on the wrong side of both India and America at the same time? Her record indicates she can.
Furthermore, the region has a history of resisting America’s diktat. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, refused to join the U.S.-led military pacts in the 1950s. Pakistan’s President Ayub Khan snubbed U.S. requests to send soldiers to fight in Vietnam. Even Ziaur Rahman, who was America’s poodle, barked when Washington pushed him to support sanctions on Iran in 1979. With its latest steps, America runs the risk of being branded as a nation genetically predisposed to harming the homeland of 165 million Bengalis. Many of them still vividly remember how President Richard Nixon aided their enemy, Pakistan, to pursue his secret ping pong diplomacy via Islamabad. There is still a lingering suspicion that America really does not wish Bangladesh well.
Hasina believes deep down that Washington’s hidden agenda is to send her into political oblivion. Not known for making rash decisions, Hasina has been mum on the sanctions, and is unlikely to open her mouth any time soon, especially because her long-time chief patron, India, is now reported to be a co-conspirator in America’s mischief. India is no more on the same page with Hasina. Delhi irked her because it botched several trade deals, has threatened to push back an alleged 40 million Bengali illegal migrants, and, above all, Indians blasted Dhaka for cozying up to archrival China.
Delhi despises Dhaka’s hobnobbing with Beijing, but won’t publicly attack its most friendly neighbour. Pushing Dhaka via Washington is its preferred method. With its “friendship to all, malice toward none” foreign policy, Bangladesh is between a rock and a hard place. While the Biden administration is pulling Dhaka to its side, China has vowed fire and fury if Bangladesh goes to Washington.
Since the 1950s, Beijing has refrained from squeezing Delhi too hard lest India jump into the U.S. orbit. Both America and India may find the Chinese formula handy to deal with Bangladesh. Instead of bullying, honour Dhaka’s neutrality and insist that China not be given advantage over America and India. Pushed to the edge, Hasina will draw from her experience in successfully fending off U.S. pressures and rally the Bengalis around her, citing America’s chronic hostility and mala fides toward the Bengali nation.
(The writer is author of Bangladesh Liberation War, How India, U.S., China and the USSR Shaped the Outcome and The Bangladesh Military Coup and the CIA Link. His new book, One Eleven Minus Two, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s War on Yunus and America, will be published shortly by Rupa & Co., New Delhi)