On May 24, the United States announced it will deny visas to Bangladeshis believed to be complicit in rigging elections, adding to Washington’s recent human rights push against Dhaka.

The United States has accused Bangladesh of political violence, human rights violations and election manipulation. Some observers argue this stance is meant to pressure Hasina into reducing Beijing’s influence in Dhaka amid geopolitical competition between the United States and China.

Washington’s moves against Hasina have ended up, inadvertently, creating a tricky situation for India given Delhi’s long strategic relationship with the Awami League. As a result, India will have to manoeuvre between the fact that its alliance partner in the Quad, the US, opposes Hasina, even as its regional rival China, supports her.

Washington’ stance

The United States’ new visa policy for Bangladesh targets current and former Bangladeshi officials, members of pro-government and Opposition parties, and members of law enforcement, the judiciary and security services, if they are believed to be undermining free and fair elections. Their families can also be denied visas.

While the Bangladesh government claims there is nothing to worry about this policy, observers suggest it will hurt officials who want to send their children to study in the United States – a common practice for elites in South Asia.

In recent years, Washington has taken several such actions to pressure Hasina’s government on human rights and warn it against rigging polls.

In December 2021, Washington sanctioned the Rapid Action Battalion and several of its former and current officials. The Rapid Action Battalion is Bangladesh’s elite paramilitary unit alleged to have carried out enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings on behalf of the government.

A year later, in a shock move, Peter Haas, the American ambassador to Bangladesh, met families of victims of alleged enforced disappearance under Hasina’s rule.

In February, Derek Chollet, the United States’ State Department Counselor, warned Dhaka that democratic backsliding will limit American cooperation, and nudged Hasina to ensure free and fair polls.

Hasina, in turn, has hit back against the United States’ actions, alleging that Washington wants to topple her government.

Activists of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party at rally in Dhaka. Credit: Andrew Biraj/Reuters

Observers such as Avinash Paliwal, associate professor in international relations at SOAS, University of London, suggest that China’s increasing investments in Bangladesh is the “most dominant factor” at play in the Washington-Dhaka tussle. “The US is reserved about the direction it’s taking [vis-à-vis China],” Paliwal told Scroll.

China has made massive investments in Bangladesh including through the Belt and Road Initiative, Beijing’s global infrastructure development strategy. China is also funding 90% of new energy projects in Bangladesh.

Therefore, a Dhaka-based veteran journalist, who did not want to be identified, told Scroll that Washington does not trust Hasina on China. “[Washington’s measures] are part of its China containment policy,” he argued.

However, Michael Kugelman, director of the US-based Wilson Center’s South Asia Institute, said that Washington’s approach is more about making Bangladesh an example of its values-based foreign policy that emphasises promotion of democracy. “This doesn’t mean [Washington] has taken a confrontational position toward Dhaka on the whole,” Kugelman told Scroll. “This is a selective policy, but it’s being applied robustly in Bangladesh. So, this means the [Biden] administration has taken aim at the Awami League’s anti-democratic policies.”

David Bergman, a British journalist who has written extensively about Bangladesh, similarly said that the Biden administration has a “strong policy and narrative about democracy over authoritarianism”. “I don’t think it’s because of Chinese influence in Bangladesh,” Bergman told Scroll.

Tricky situation for India?

Nevertheless, this approach by Washington puts India in a tricky situation. While the US and India are otherwise partners, in Bangladesh their aims seem to clash given Delhi supports Hasina.

Harsh V Pant, Vice President for Studies at the Observer Research Foundation, told Scroll. “India certainly has built strong ties with Sheikh Hasina,” Pant said. “The relations have achieved a lot under her tenure and there’s a stability in their relationship. That stability augurs well for India, Bangladesh and the region.”

India-Bangladesh ties have seen periods of frostiness earlier, especially during the Bangladesh Nationalist Party’s government in Dhaka. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party is widely seen to have an anti-India stance. But with Hasina at the helm in Dhaka, India-Bangladesh bilateral ties stabilised and deepened significantly over the past 15 years.

This has allowed both countries to solve bilateral problems such as the long-standing land border dispute, boost trade and cooperate on regional connectivity, which are all crucial for Delhi. Hasina’s government has also cracked down on North East Indian insurgents operating from Bangladesh.

File image of Joe Biden, then US vice president, alongside Bangladesh Prime Minister Hasina (right) at the United Nations headquarters in 2014. Credit: Brendan McDermid/Reuters

Pant argued that Delhi will not want to antagonise Hasina’s government the way Washington can. “India will continue to support Hasina in whatever way possible because India’s appreciation of the alternative is also perhaps much more nuanced than Washington’s,” he said, referring to the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. “I don’t think India would like to be a part of this Dhaka-Washington kerfuffle.”

In a similar vein, Paliwal suggested that while some in the Bangladesh Nationalist Party’s leadership realise that they need good ties with India, Delhi does not believe the party can deliver as much as Hasina has over the years. “[But] India will have to deal with the BNP if the party wins the election,” he said.

The aforementioned vetern journalist, who did not want to be identified, concurred. “India thinks the BNP is extremist,” he said.

‘Best bet is to stay quiet’

Therefore, Kugelman said, there is not much India can do about Washington’s approach towards Hasina. “Certainly, Delhi’s quiet preference would likely be that the AL returns to power,” Kugelman argued. “But its best bet is to stay quiet. Modi and the BJP may be close with Hasina and the AL, but public sentiment in Bangladesh toward India is more complex.”

He added, “[Delhi staying quiet] earns it even more trust and goodwill from Dhaka, but puts its position at odds with Washington.”

Chinese President Xi Jinping meeting Bangladesh Prime Minister Hasina in Beijing. Credit: Press pool/Reuters

China playing all sides?

The veteran journalist argued that Beijing also prefers Hasina remaining in power. “[China] has made a lot of investments in Bangladesh,” he said. “The BNP is now closer to the US and has denounced Chinese positions.”

This means that rivals India and China agree in this case. “Bangladesh is the only place where China and India’s interests [Hasina remaining in power] are the same,” the veteran journalist said.

Bergman also suggested that China may prefer Hasina because Beijing has dealt with her for over a decade.

Kugelman said Beijing will support anyone willing to work with it. “China is comfortable with Hasina because over her time in power, China’s footprint in Bangladesh has deepened considerably,” he said. “[But] if the BNP were to come to power, I’m sure that party would welcome Chinese engagement, and Beijing would work with a BNP premier as well.”

Paliwal and Pant concurred that China is playing all sides. “It is sweet-talking Hasina and pushing her against the US,” Paliwal argued. “But it’s also talking to the BNP.”

Also read: The great game in India’s backyard: How Pakistan, Bangladesh are balancing Washington and Moscow