DC delves into what is driving US policy towards Bangladesh, and its broader geopolitical context, with Michael Kugelman

The US's most prominent South Asia expert at present has said a 'lessening and reduction' of ties between the two nations is a real possibility, if the Biden administration were to conclude, in the aftermath of the country's next general election, currently expected to be held in the first half of January 2024, that it had been yet another sham.

Michael Kugelman, who heads up the Wilson Centre in Washington's South Asia Institute as director, does acknowledge though that it may be more difficult for the US to make the sort of "conclusive judgement" it would like (on the election) before embarking on any possible path to disengagement, if the biggest opposition party BNP boycotts it.

"Because if the Awami League is running against itself, even if it gets 98% of the vote, you can't say that those votes were taken away from the BNP. So it's all very unsettled," Kugelman said in an interview with Dhaka Courier/UNB, noting that the Biden administration wants a free and fair election in Bangladesh and at the end of the day, the US wants to have a good relationship with Bangladesh.

Likewise, the Awami League-led government of Bangladesh keeps repeating that it is committed to holding a "free, fair and peaceful" election in the country. But with confidence in the process at an all-time low after being constantly degraded over the course of almost a decade, almost no-one seems prepared this time, to merely take their word for it.

After the vote, based on its own observations and of those it chooses to consult, if Washington concludes that it was indeed rigged again, Kugelman said he would not be surprised if that then prompted the administration to conduct a review of its relations with Bangladesh. That would be the classic American way of doing it. The review would conclude with a recommendation to downgrade or not, and then it would be up to the Biden administration whether it chooses to act on it or not.

"I think that one of the reasons why the Biden administration has been putting so much pressure on Dhaka, announcing the visa policy, the sanctions on Rab, I think the idea is to impress upon the ruling party, the imperative of doing whatever is possible to ensure a free and fair election - so that the administration doesn't have to make the decision about what the future of the relationship should look like," said Kugelman, who was in Dhaka for almost a week (Aug. 28 - Sep. 3) on his maiden visit.

As for the constant exchange we've been witnessing between the two governments at various levels, Kugelman lends a key insight into the workings of Washington, saying that through those engagements, the Biden administration is 'signalling' to Dhaka that it would rather not consider the option of less engagement. But in the event of a sham election: "We can't rule out a lessening and reduction of ties. I think this wouldn't necessarily happen. But I think it's a possibility."

Projecting the future in Bangladesh politics has always been a fraught affair, even for observers with front row seats to the action for decades now. So at one point when he says he does not "really have a sense as to what is going on," revealing a refreshing humility and honesty in his intellectual approach. The fact that he serves as the director of the South Asia Institute, or writes the South Asia Brief, a weekly newsletter, for Foreign Policy, doesn't mean that he would possess equal expertise on all the nations in the region, and Kugelman would probably be the first to admit that Bangladesh is probably one of his weakest links, among the 8 or 9 countries covered in his 'beat' (inc. Myanmar).

The only thing of which there is "a very good chance", in his opinion, is that the election result will be contested. Apart from that, everything remains very unsettled, with question marks about the outcome of the election, on whether the opposition will participate or choose to boycott, and what else could happen in the lead up to the election.

"It's an uncertain moment," Kugelman said. "As an outside observer of Bangladesh, I see here something playing out that really is playing out in a lot of countries around the world, including in the United States, quite frankly, and that is a very polarised politics."

Nevertheless, the most important question for him over the next few months will be whether the opposition boycotts the election or not: "That would appear to change the entire complexion of the election if they are not in it."

Even accounting for all the uncertainty, he thinks the outcome of the election and how it is perceived and construed could have significant implications for the relationship develops between the two countries. Thus he maintains that we are witnessing "a big moment for Bangladesh and a big moment for US-Bangladesh relations."

Asked about a public perception that Washington is 'favouring the BNP,' Kugelman was pretty dismissive, saying: "I don't want to over-generalise public opinion in Bangladesh. But what I will say is that the Biden administration is not favouring the BNP."

What they are seeing is that the Biden administration is trying to make Bangladesh a test case for its values-based foreign policy. "In other words, it's very robustly pursuing this policy of promoting democracy and human rights in Bangladesh. It's a selective policy that does not apply in many other countries, including Pakistan, as well as India," Kugelman said.

"I think it's more of the issue of the policies and concerns about rights and democracy, more so than who's in power and who's in the opposition," he added.

A Tough Spot

Responding to a question, the expert said Bangladesh is in a tough spot. "I would argue that, in the immediate term, it faces immediate challenges, both politically and geopolitically. It faces a very unsettled, uncertain political moment. But it also is experiencing what I would describe as unprecedented geopolitical churn on a soil and in its neighborhood with these multiple great power competitions playing out."

But at the same time, he said, if they move beyond that, he thinks it faces longer run challenges like climate change. "And I think it's too late to simply shrug off climate change as a long term challenge. It's, it's here."

Kugelman said Bangladesh is dealing with immediate term challenges with political issues and with geopolitics, certainly with the economy.

Of course, one should never be complacent about terrorism risks here, he said, adding that it seems that things are not nearly as concerning as they were some years ago.

But, Kugelman added, one cannot rule out the future threat of militancy as well. "So I think it's a matter of striking a balance between focusing on the immediate term while also ensuring that enough policy space is allocated to start focusing on addressing the longer term challenges as well."

Intensifying Geopolitical Rivalries

Responding to a question on Bangladesh's relation with four big powers, Kugelman said, "You have what I would describe as intensifying geopolitical rivalries. And Bangladesh has essentially become a battleground for three of these geopolitical rivalries - India-China; US-China; and US-Russia."

And, he said, it is going to become increasingly difficult for Dhaka to manage its relations with all four of these countries.

Talking about Bangladesh's Indo-Pacific Outlook, he said it appears to emphasise principles and preferences and priorities that align with ideas found in both the US Indo-Pacific policy and in the foreign policy principles of China.

"It seems to be an effort to balance relations with both the US and China. I also think it was very wise of Dhaka to name it outlook instead of strategy. If it were a strategy that would convey a more formal document but if it is just an outlook that suggests it is maybe a bit more informal," said the expert.

He thinks that is meant to send a signal to both Beijing and Moscow that just because Bangladesh has come up with this Indo-Pacific document, it's not meant to endorse the US Indo-Pacific strategy.

BRICS Expansion and Bangladesh

Kugelman thinks that it would have been good for Bangladesh in terms of its capacity to show that it is a player worth taking seriously on the global stage.

He said BRICS is a troubled entity and it struggled to get things done. "And I think that with Iran now joining BRICS, there is a danger that the West will start to perceive it as an anti-West Block, even though I think that's an inaccurate perception."

He said one could say that maybe it is not the worst thing for Bangladesh not to get membership this time. "But I do think there's a chance that there'll be future rounds of expansion and down the road, Bangladesh can join."

"There are fewer candidates as strong as Bangladesh for admission to BRICS. It is a major emerging economy. It is also an Asian country. I was struck that of the six new members, none of them was from Asia," he added.

In the BRICS, China, India, and the other members do not have anything against Bangladesh. "So I'd like to think that if it wants to join down the road, it would have a good chance," said the expert.

Responding to a question on the economic scenario, he said Bangladesh economy remains quite robust. "But over the long run, I think you have to worry. This is an economy that's been so disproportionately focused on garment exports, textiles for so long. The economy is changing in a big way.

He hoped that there will be a moment when Bangladesh will need to be in a position to diversify its top source of exports so that it is in a better position to compete with the real big economic stars.

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