Bangladesh elections mark a pro-China tipping point in South Asia

Beijing will celebrate a return of the Awami League the most. But Dhaka might struggle to balance India-China ties.

Supporters of the ruling Awami League
Bangladesh is gearing up for the January 7 elections, but former PM Khaleda Zia's BNP has repeated its boycott call [File: Saiful Islam Kallal/AP Photo]

The year 2024 will witness key elections to choose democratic governments across the world, and the season begins with the Bangladesh election on January 7. Altogether, 29 political parties, including the governing Awami League (AL) and a faction of the opposition Jatiya Party, will fight the elections. With almost all the opposition parties led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and the Jamaat-e-Islami (Jamaat) sitting out, the return of AL to power for a fourth term is a fait accompli.

Bangladesh’s general elections have always drawn international attention. But this time round, certain geopolitical issues at play have pushed the level a few notches up. Till the opposition parties were in the race, countries like the United States and India, and blocs like the European Union, resorted to rhetoric, administrative action and backroom diplomacy to pressure the AL government into ensuring the elections appear to be free and fair.

This was counterbalanced by China and Russia, who told others — read the US — not to meddle in Bangladesh’s internal matters.

Such a polarisation of world powers reveals the geopolitics at play in South Asia. It matters to these countries as to who rules Bangladesh. It is about who gains out of a status quo versus who is looking at potential gains if AL is voted out of power.

Taking positions

By late 2021, the US had already made up its mind. In a press statement on December 10 that year, Secretary of State Antony Blinken imposed sanctions on two Bangladeshi security officials, Benazir Ahmed and Miftah Uddin Ahmed, for alleged extrajudicial killings, making them and their immediate family members ineligible for entry into the US. The Department of the Treasury also designated Bangladesh’s elite Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), Benazir Ahmed and five other officials under the Global Magnitsky Sanctions Program in connection with serious human rights abuse.

In May 2023, the US government enacted a visa policy which denied visas to those engaged in undermining the “democratic election process”. In September 2023, the US announced that it was taking steps to implement the new visa policy. On November 13, 2023, US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Donald Lu wrote to all three major parties – the AL, BNP and the Jatiya Party – calling for “dialogue without preconditions”. The beaming pictures of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and US President Joe Biden taken at the September G20 Summit in New Delhi do not appear to have translated into a more benign US policy over the AL-affiliated Bangladeshi government.

In the run-up to prior elections, it was customary for the AL and the BNP to elicit support from India and other leading world powers, and this time was no exception. During its visit to New Delhi in August 2023, a five-member AL delegation, led by Agriculture Minister Mohammad Abdur Razzaque, met senior Indian ministers and leaders of the governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and advocated that re-election of the AL was essential to ensure stability in the South Asian region.

The AL’s talking points were familiar: a combination of fear-mongering over the BNP-Jamaat combine’s political Islamist tilt and reassurance that Dhaka would not ignore New Delhi’s sensitivities about Beijing; that China was more of a development partner, not a strategic partner; that Bangladesh has not forgotten the antagonistic role China and the US played against the country’s liberation struggle in 1971, and how India was the friend that truly helped the country gain independence.

Compared with the US and its Western allies, China and India have shown more restraint in their reaction to the Bangladesh elections. While China has stated that it will back the Bangladeshi government against external interference, India believes that putting “too much” pressure would strengthen hardline forces in Bangladesh’s opposition parties.

The Chinese strategic calculus

The Chinese have identified opportunities in retaining the AL government. Since 2010, China’s influence has been growing in the decision-making architecture of both Bangladesh and the AL at various levels. Beijing has strong strategic compulsions to turn Bangladesh into a state heavily dependent on it, like Myanmar and Cambodia.

Doing so will ensure easier Chinese access to Indian Ocean sea lanes, bypassing the Malacca Strait via the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) connecting Yunnan province to the seaport city of Kyaukpyu in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. Geographically, the Ganga-Padma-Brahmaputra delta hosts the shortest land route to access the sea lanes from mainland China.

That was the British calculation when they set up Calcutta (now known as Kolkata), which was then part of undivided Bengal, as their transshipment point to support the East India Company’s opium and tea trade with China. As things stand, AL in power will ensure a predictable, stable and favourable political climate to protect and promote China’s large infrastructure investments in Bangladesh.

The metamorphosis

AL’s metamorphosis from a mass-based party of middle-class, secular, pro-Indian leaders, wedded to the spirit of the 1971 liberation struggle, to a party run by China-backed oligarchs – some with dubious credentials – is cause for concern both in New Delhi and Washington. Take Hasina’s top adviser, Salman Rahman, who critics claim effectively runs the government. Rahman’s family owns Beximco, one of Asia’s largest textile firms, which has significant business deals with China; or Zunaid Ahmed Palak, lawyer and minister of state for information and communication technology, who has faced accusations of being soft on Chinese companies in his role.

It is not that the AL is the only governing party being driven by oligarchic interests. In neighbouring India, for instance, oligarchs close to Prime Minister Narendra Modi also push their interests, cloaked in the garb of national interests, shaping and driving domestic and foreign policies. Geopolitical issues like transborder infrastructure, disaster and pandemic response and wars provide platforms that put invisible men in grey suits on the same page as they parse out territories for commercial exploitation transcending borders.

With AL set to retain its control over Bangladesh, the US effort to disrupt this metamorphosis by using human rights as a diplomatic weapon appears to have failed. To put it more bluntly, the outcome of the elections marks the tipping point at which Bangladesh buckles into China’s Belt and Road Initiative more firmly than the US-backed Indo-Pacific efforts to counter Beijing.

With street violence and demonstrations on the rise, this is easier said than done. Like many other South Asian and Indian Ocean Rim Association countries, Bangladesh may not be in a position to manage the shift when China transitions from a “development partner” to a “strategic partner”.

What happens after the January 7 elections is as important as the vote itself – for Bangladesh, the region, and the world’s big powers.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.