The Platform

Photo illustration by John Lyman

U.S.-Bangladesh relations are going through a rough spot.

The United States and Bangladesh share a deeply rooted historical relationship, a friendship that has blossomed over the past half-century. This bond is manifested in cooperation across a myriad of fields, including economic development, environmental preservation, counterterrorism, democratic governance, and human rights. Yet, recent maneuvers by Washington have strained these bilateral ties.

Disruptions emerged in 2021 when high-ranking RAB officials were sanctioned by Washington without adequately considering the complexities within Bangladesh. Similarly, the U.S. ambassador to Bangladesh, Peter Haas, brought forth accusations of election fraud in 2022, while neglecting to address political violence committed by both sides.

A concerning development occurred before the May general elections with the announcement of a new U.S. visa policy. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken conveyed what read more as a threat than a diplomatic comment, suggesting potential visa restrictions on Bangladeshi nationals seen to interfere with democratic electoral processes. It’s a policy move that prompts questions about the United States’ respect for Bangladesh’s autonomy and understanding of its complex political dynamics.

This trajectory reveals a pattern of the U.S. imposing policy blunders in the name of democracy and human rights. Among the driving factors are global considerations such as the ongoing Taiwan dispute and the Russia-Ukraine war. The U.S. seems to want Bangladesh to choose a side, leaning away from its tradition of neutrality and non-alignment in world politics.

Thirdly, there’s a growing concern over perceived U.S. infringements on Bangladesh’s sovereignty. There is a sense that the U.S. is leveraging democracy and human rights as a pretext to meddle in Bangladeshi domestic issues. This has generated considerable backlash from Bangladeshis and raises serious questions about the U.S. commitment to democratic values when it appears to support authoritarian regimes in other parts of the world.

Another facet of the strained relationship relates to the close economic ties between Bangladesh and China, with U.S. fears centered on extensive Chinese investments in Bangladesh. These ties, evident in massive infrastructure projects and trade concessions, challenge U.S. influence in the region and raise concerns about Bangladesh’s alignment in global geopolitics.

The undercurrent of Washington’s flawed policy approach also reveals a misplaced focus on opposition narratives within Bangladesh, often based on unsubstantiated claims. It seems Washington has failed to comprehend the complexities of Bangladeshi politics, frequently resulting in misguided policy decisions. Moreover, U.S. policymakers tend to rely heavily on reports from media outlets that can often present a distorted view of Bangladesh’s democratic process.

Another alarming factor is Washington’s escalating pressure on European countries to interfere in Bangladesh’s internal affairs. While the U.S. pushes its agenda, Bangladesh focuses on diversifying its economic engagements and aligning with other international entities such as BRICS, underscoring its growing strategic importance in world politics.

It is crucial to note that imposing a selective and demeaning visa policy towards Bangladesh, a nation of 170 million people, is a grave misstep in terms of diplomacy and international relations. The approach of leveraging immigration policy to influence Bangladesh’s electoral process is not only inappropriate but also potentially harmful.

As a nation steeped in a history of sacrifice, and boasting one of the fastest-growing economies, Bangladesh merits recognition and respect for its autonomy. The United States should tread carefully, avoiding policies that could irreparably damage a long-standing and valuable alliance.

Emilia Fernandez, a security and political analyst with a particular focus on South Asian geopolitics, is a Ph.D. researcher at the University of Lucerne, Switzerland.