Why are China and India fighting together in Bangladesh's "Battle of Begums"?
Bangladesh's January election holds great significance not only for the nation but also for many other countries. China and India are united behind Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, while the United States is perceived supporting Khaleda Zia. That's all there is to it.
Bangladesh's next election will have an influence that goes well beyond its boundaries. The January 7 election is a crucial one for several nations, including the US, Russia, India, and China. Additionally, there is considerable blurring of the conventional alliance boundaries.
It's an important election for India since it's just next door. China is posing a threat to its long-standing influence in Bangladesh, which it assisted in releasing from Pakistan in 1971. Furthermore, there is unquestionable US intervention in the election process.
On the other hand, some contend that the US stance has united China, Russia, and India, an ally. India and China agree to assist Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League in Bangladesh, even though their interests and objectives are diametrically opposed.
Depending on whether they support the ruling Awami League or the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), India, China, and Russia are in different camps in the battle for influence in Bangladesh than the US and its allies. It's interesting to note that China and India generally agree about the issue with the elections in Bangladesh. Prof. Majumder Shantanu
"The US and its allies are in one camp in the struggle for influence in Bangladesh, while India, China, and Russia are in another, depending on whether they back the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) or the government Awami League. Professor of political science at Dhaka University Shantanu Majumder tells indianofexpress that he finds it particularly intriguing because, broadly speaking, China and India agree on the matter of the election in Bangladesh.
Professor Majumder claims that one of the main causes of Bangladesh's growing significance to the US, China, and India is the Bay of Bengal. "All of them are willing to strengthen their position in the northeastern part of the Indian Ocean for military, trade, and natural resources purposes."
There are many in Dhaka who think the US is pressuring the Sheikh Hasina administration by bringing up the subject of "free and fair elections." On the other hand, some accuse India of siding with the ruling party.
Bangladesh has long been of great importance to the US. Bangladesh is not actually a part of the US' interests-based worldview, but Indrani Bagchi, CEO of the Ananta Aspen Center and foreign policy expert, tells IndiaToday.In that the Awami League under Sheikh Hasina has received special criticism from Washington, especially during the elections.
However, why is Bangladesh's domestic politics of relevance to the US?
Over time, different perceptions have developed. First, the US has always opposed the establishment of Bangladesh under Sheikh Hasina's father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. The second is that Washington, maybe carrying over from the days of old Pakistan, feels more at ease with the BNP and Khaleda Zia. Thirdly, Bagchi notes that Sheikh Hasina has been drawing too much attention from China.
This election is viewed as a major litmus test for Bangladeshi democracy and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's ability to navigate the world's centrifugal tendencies. India is likely to face severe consequences as a result of the findings.
THE BEGUMS' WAR IN BANGLADESH
The two largest political parties in Bangladesh, the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, both led by begums—high-ranking Muslim women—have dominated the country's politics for the past thirty years.
The Awami League, led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, was established by her father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who also happened to be Bangladesh's first president. Khaleda Zia is the first female prime minister of Bangladesh and the leader of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).
Since 1991, the main political narrative in Bangladeshi elections has been Hasina against Zia. Over the past twenty years, both have taken turns holding the position of prime minister.
Khaleda Zia was disqualified from running for office after being found guilty on corruption charges just before the 2018 elections. After creating a coalition, the BNP entered the election but only managed to win seven seats, while the Awami League secured 302 out of 350 seats.
After serving a 17-year prison term in 2018, Khaleda Zia was freed from custody in 2020 and is currently under home arrest. She was allegedly at "high risk of death," but the Bangladeshi government hasn't let her travel abroad for medical care.
Opposition parties and the western media have criticized the 2014 and 2018 elections for not being free and fair. This time, too, the same accusations are being made.
"There won't be a strong enough opposition to the January 2024 election in Bangladesh, and it's almost a given that Sheikh Hasina will win a fourth term and the Awami League will enter government. Thousands of BNP activists are incarcerated, along with the party's top officials, according to author and Bangladeshi political specialist Mubashar Hasan, who speaks with indianofexpress.
The BNP has decided to abstain from the election because it wants one to be held under an impartial caretaker administration. Hasina, however, rejected that demand and said that she would hold elections while in office. In light of this, the next election in Bangladesh would undoubtedly move the country closer to authoritarianism, according to Hasan, a post-doctoral research fellow at the University of Oslo in Norway.
To ensure that the general election is a free and fair process, the BNP is insisting that Sheikh Hasina resign and that a caretaker government be put in place. In recent weeks, there have been widespread violent demonstrations in Bangladesh, and it has gone to the streets.
Since October 28, almost 10,000 individuals have been detained, the majority of them are opposition activists. Countless community leaders have escaped to isolated regions of the nation in order to evade apprehension.
According to Mubashar Hasan, millions of BNP supporters feel betrayed and cheated out of their political rights. The expert on Bangladesh expresses serious concerns that radical Islamist and militant Islamist groups may use these kinds of psychological tricks to entice potential jihadists.
The perception of the US toward Khaleda Zia has always been close. This time, its claim of a "free and fair democratic process" is made more forcefully.
Recently, Moscow accused Washington of plotting to organize large-scale anti-government rallies in Bangladesh, setting up a furious verbal spat between the US and Russia.
During his September visit to Dhaka, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated, "The US goal is clearly both to counter China and to isolate Russia in the region."
Building Bangladesh's sole nuclear power plant is being assisted by Russia. Due to Western sanctions related to the conflict in Ukraine, the project has been delayed.
WHY SHEIKH HASINA IN DHAKA SUITS INDIA
Bangladesh is not in a position to ignore the US. Bangladesh's apparel sector is mostly reliant on the US, Europe, and Japan. Professor Shantanu Majumder claims that any embargo imposed by the United States will have a severe negative impact on Bangladesh's economy.
The United States has already hinted at its plans.
It placed sanctions on the Rapid Action Battalion of Bangladesh and six of its commanders in 2021 because to suspected violations of human rights. The United States said in September that it will limit visas for anybody attempting to sabotage Bangladesh's democratic election process.
According to CEO of Ananta Aspen Center Indrani Bagchi, "India has spoken to the US privately and at very high levels about India's support for Sheikh Hasina and its concerns regarding the return of BNP-Jamaat-e-Islami in Bangladesh."
India worries that a return to the previous extreme politics, including reestablishing ties with Pakistan's Islamist organizations and the ISI, may occur if the BNP-Jamaat were to regain power. According to Bagchi, India views this as harmful to its own security.
For more than ten years, India has made investments in several New Delhi regimes as well as in Sheikh Hasina's Awami League government.
Hasina has shown consideration for India's security worries. As a reward, India has been a kind neighbor to Bangladesh, fostering connectivity to highlight the two nations' dependency on each other's economies and security, according to Bagchi.
Bangladesh and India have reached a historic land border deal under Hasina's leadership. The nations exchange petroleum and power, and India is Bangladesh's first responder.
India and Japan have been Bangladesh's dependable development partners in opposition to China's Border and Roads Initiative (BRI), according to Bagchi.
THE CHINA FACTOR IN BANGLADESH
Washington's pressure is feared to have the unintended consequence of driving Bangladesh closer to China.
Additionally, there's a chance—or risk, depending on your perspective—that Bangladesh will move closer to China as a result of the intense pressure Bangladesh is facing from the US. Keep in mind that the relationship between China and Bangladesh is now at an all-time high. Any astute observer can perceive Beijing's support for the current regime, even though it isn't always evident," says Shantanu Majumder, a lecturer at Dhaka University.
Given that Bangladesh and India share a land border, particularly over the slender Siliguri Corridor, sometimes known as the "Chicken's Neck," which links the northeastern states to the mainland, Bangladesh is strategically significant to China.
Over the past six years, Chinese corporations have made $26 billion in investments in Bangladesh. Over the past 12 years, there has reportedly been a 58% increase in their bilateral commerce.
China's increasing influence in Bangladesh is undoubtedly a cause for concern for India. Nonetheless, Indrani Bagchi notes that there is comprehension of this issue in Bangladesh.
"Although Dhaka rejects all Indian offers and is roughly 70–80% dependent on China for its defense equipment, it is also true that the Hasina government canceled the Chinese port project in Sonadia and gave Japan an alternative project at Matarbari," the speaker continues.
Unlike any other little nation, Sheikh Hasina has been an amazing juggler who has taken use of Bangladesh's geostrategic importance. "She has gotten agreements for Bangladesh from all sides without upsetting Beijing, Washington, or New Delhi. However, based on the current surveys, it appears like she is being pressured to choose a side, claims Majumder.
Hasina's decisions and the events that transpire in Bangladesh over the next few months will affect not just its people but also people living outside its borders. How much will she yield to the pressure from the US? Will Bangladesh and China embrace each other more closely? And how can she maintain India's interests front and center amidst all these competing agendas?
Thus, everyone will be watching to see how the script plays out.