Dhaka on cusp of direct relations with Washington

by M Serajul Islam | Published: 00:00, Nov 26,2020


US PRESIDENT Trump’s bizarre strategies to turn vice-president Joe Biden’s convincing election victory in his favour with blatantly false narratives have in effect all crumbled as the states are certifying the November 3 elections to meet their respective deadlines. Michigan, where the president directly interfered in palpably undemocratic ways to stop certification, has finally certified. And with it, the General Services Agency that had refused to certify vice-president Biden’s victory at the behest of the president to hold up the transition has finally agreed to do so. This will now allow the Biden transit team the legal coverage and funds for the transfer of power.

The GSA certification will, very importantly, allow the Biden transit team to, first, prepare it to deal with the raging pandemic that recently passed a grim milestone of a quarter million deaths and, second, access to the extremely important national security and intelligence briefings. The incoming president, as the media will henceforth identify him with the GSA certification, will nevertheless inherit a deeply divided country and the economy on its knees because of the pandemic. He will also inherit an administration that will find that America’s influence on world affairs has been considerably reduced because of his predecessor’s isolationist foreign policy that resulted in the United States’s disengagement with its traditional allies. He will also find that China has stepped into the vacuum because of that policy while his predecessor courted dictators and neo-fascists worldwide.

The incoming president’s South Asian team will see that his predecessor largely ignored South Asia except developing a personal relationship with the Indian prime minister Narendra Modi. The team will also find the palpably obvious fact that India emerged while the Trump administration ignored the region, problems with all the countries of the region and not just Pakistan. The Biden campaign team alluded to the reasons why India became unpopular in South Asia when it raised the red flag on the BJP government’s anti-Muslim action in Kashmir and Assam and its racist and anti-Muslim policies, the National Registration Act and the Citizenship Amendment Act. Hindutva and its neo-fascist bias will raise more red flags when the new administration adopts, as is widely expected, the soft power approach to re-establish its influence on world affairs.

The United States unofficially franchised Bangladesh and other South Asian countries, Pakistan excluded, to India after 9/11. Bangladesh had been forced into a hyphenated relationship with Washington ever since. New Delhi’s views determined Washington’s action related to Bangladesh on major issues. Thus, when New Delhi decided to help the Awami League win the 2014 elections by upending democracy and disenfranchising supporters of the opposition parties on unsubstantiated claims and charges that they were indulging in so-called Islamic terrorism, Washington backed New Delhi and legitimised the 2014 elections. Washington was silent again, no doubt at New Delhi’s behest, when the Awami League-led government disenfranchised the majority of voters in the 2018 elections.

Smaller South Asian nations, including Bangladesh, may witness fundamental changes in Washington’s ways of dealing with them, perhaps for the first time in history because of the four years of the Trump administration and politics in India. Bangladesh may be on the cusp of a new era of relations with the United States. The forthcoming Biden administration may not see Bangladesh through India’s prism any more because of the neo-fascist nature of the BJP government and prefer to deal with the country directly. Bangladesh could, thus, expect a wide array of opportunities from the United States under the Biden administration for its economic stability and sustainable development in trade, business and investment where its vibrant private sector that is already under the radar of Washington could become an asset.

The new US administration is also expected to focus positively on issues of immigration that are of interest to many Bangladeshis. The Biden transit team has already stated that Trump’s infamous Muslim ban would go as soon as president-elect Joe Biden assumes office. The Biden transit team has also strongly hinted that the country will revert to its pro-refugee policies that president Trump dispensed with. The transit team has already signalled that the new administration will look favourably at the 11 million illegal immigrants that the Trump administration promised to hunt down and throw out of the country. Many in Bangladesh may now heave a sigh of relief with these developments.

The Biden administration’s foreign policy approach is expected to witness engagement with China in South and Southeast Asia in place of the hard-ball game of the Trump administration. Bangladesh could benefit from such a policy change from the Trump to the Biden administration as a conduit given the fact that Dhaka has recently tilted significantly towards Beijing. Dhaka could also come under the new administration’s radar favourably to pressure the Myanmar regime and, thereby, China. And the Biden administration may be heaven-sent for Bangladesh in the context of Rohingya refugees.

The Biden administration is expected to be positively disposed towards the Rohingya refugee issue but it could come with a caveat for Bangladesh. Democratic senator Bob Menendez has already flagged the caveat in his letter of October 27 to the secretary of state and the secretary of treasury co-signed by five other Democratic and three Republican senators. The senators held the Rapid Action Battalion responsible for 400 extrajudicial death since 2015 and linked the government to forced disappearances and other oppression on its political opponents. The Biden administration will, no doubt, expect the Bangladesh government to address the accusation before it addresses the Rohingya issue.

A new era of dehyphenated Bangladesh-USA relations outside India’s interference or influence under the Biden administration and its possible benefits will come with other important caveats as well. The nature of Bangladesh’s present politics and the need to address problems there will be one. President Trump’s attempts to disenfranchise millions of voters in some of the key swing states to stay in power illegally has made disenfranchisement a buzz word with the incoming Biden administration. And when the Biden administration focuses on Bangladesh for serious business, it will see disenfranchisement painted prominently on the political canvass of Bangladesh. The new administration will no doubt expect it to be addressed.

The Biden administration will be the most diverse in history and will be significantly influenced by liberal and progressive ideas and ideologies. Senator Bernie Sanders is expected to be the new secretary of labour although he has not yet been named for strategic political reasons. These influences in the Biden administration should remind the Bangladesh and its business-friendly government that the openings they are expecting in trade, business, and investment will not go anywhere unless issues of voter disenfranchisement, human rights, democracy, labour-friendly economy, et cetera are addressed.

Anthony Bilken has been named the new secretary of state. He was the National Security adviser and deputy secretary of state in the Obama administration. The state department is expected to see many at various levels who would have been there if Hillary Clinton had won in 2016. There is news in the grapevines that a South Asian of Bangladeshi origin may land in the same position that Nisha Desai did at the state department in 2013–2017. With all this expected to occur under the new administration, Washington will no doubt encourage Bangladesh to address the caveats to bring in a new era of mutually beneficial bilateral relations where democracy, voter enfranchisement, and human rights could become the buzz words.


M Serajul Islam is a former career Ambassador and writes from Maryland, USA.

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