Among the winners of last week’s G20 summit in New Delhi was Bangladesh. This South Asian country of 170 million people doesn’t make many global headlines. But its deft geopolitical maneuvering serves as an example of how smaller countries — especially authoritarian ones — can leverage the emerging multipolar world order to their benefit.
The Problem Between Hasina and Joe
Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, the daughter of the country’s founder, scored a public relations victory when she secured a series of selfies with President Joe Biden. The smiles in the photos, in which Hasina’s daughter also joined, belie the tension between the two countries.
Just in April, Hasina, who has ruled Bangladesh for the past 14 years, accused the U.S. of orchestrating a regime change campaign against her. The Bangladeshi leader was irked by growing criticism from Washington over her authoritarian rule. In 2021, the Biden administration excluded her from the first Summit for Democracy. It also sanctioned Bangladesh’s paramilitary Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) for extrajudicial killings and other human rights violations.
Weeks after Hasina’s regime change claim, she was given the cold shoulder by the Biden administration during a visit to Washington. Then, in May, the State Department announced a new visa policy that would sanction Bangladeshi officials should they undermine the general elections slated for December.
Hasina presides over the Awami League, which spearheaded the country’s split from Pakistan in 1971. Like her late father, Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, Hasina aims to consolidate one-party rule in upcoming elections. During her nearly 15 consecutive years in power, thousands of political prisoners, including her arch-nemesis, Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh National Party, have been put behind bars.
With its tough actions, the Biden administration seeks to dissuade her from rigging the polls. But Hasina is no global pariah.
G20 host India, which interceded on the Awami League’s behalf in the 1971 Pakistani civil war, remains a major supporter of its government and invited Hasina to this year’s summit. It’s also asked Washington to back off the Bangladesh leader.
Hasina’s photo op with Biden suggests New Delhi’s efforts may be working — though days later, the U.S. embassy in Dhaka condemned the conviction of human rights activists who documented extrajudicial killings in the country.
China and Russia Watching
Bangladesh isn’t a major military power. But it’s the world’s eighth-most populous country and has seen over two decades of rapid economic growth that will soon propel it into the ranks of middle-income countries. It occupies a strategic location as a littoral state in the northeastern Indian Ocean region and a neighbor of India.
China, which is seeking naval footholds in the Indian Ocean, has its eyes on Bangladesh. In the wake of Hasina’s accusations against the United States, China’s foreign ministry came out in support of the Bangladeshi leader, alleging that Washington “has long been interfering in the internal affairs of Bangladesh and many other developing countries under the pretext of democracy and human rights.”
Indeed, through its Global Civilization Initiative, Beijing is trying to create a platform in which countries in the Global South — under the guise of resisting foreign interference — can push back against criticism and pressure on rights violations and authoritarianism.
China-Bangladesh relations are undergirded by healthy economic and military ties. From 2008 to 2021, Chinese development financing in Bangladesh totaled roughly $15 billion, according to the Boston University Global Development Policy Center. Projects financed and constructed by Beijing include a coal power plant and Bangladesh’s longest bridge. Beijing is the largest supplier of military arms to Dhaka.
Russia is also a player in Bangladesh. Before she left for New Delhi, Hasina hosted Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Dhaka. At the memorial museum honoring Bangladesh’s founder Mujib, Lavrov inscribed a note in the entry book on the Soviet Union’s support for Bangladeshi independence from Pakistan (much of which was covert). Russia is constructing and financing a nuclear power plant in Bangladesh. Dhaka will repay the loan in, you guessed it, Chinese yuan.
How to Survive and Thrive In a Multipolar World
Bangladesh is by no means jumping into the China camp. Instead, it’s adroitly balancing great and regional powers. Hasina uses India to balance her opposition at home and critics in the U.S., China to balance India, and then the U.S. to balance China and India.
Bangladesh has also long engaged diverse development partners. Its cooperation with Japan and South Korea is particularly longstanding. In fact, Bangladesh’s textile industry success story begins with a partnership with South Korea’s Daewoo in the 1980s.
Dhaka’s foreign policy, it seems, gives everyone a little something to be happy about. In April, in a joint statement with Japan during Hasina’s visit to the country, Bangladesh and Japan asserted that “the war in Ukraine constitutes a violation of international law.” The visit coincided with Dhaka’s release of its own “Indo-Pacific” outlook — adopting the geographical term referring to the Indian Ocean and Asia-Pacific regions invented by those who would like to contain China. And yet, at the same time, Bangladesh is a member of China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
Still, Hasina’s ties with India remain robust. For New Delhi, the Hasina government is a largely compliant partner and a bulwark against the spread of Pakistani influence on its eastern front. Intelligence cooperation is close. But many Bangladeshis, particularly supporters of the opposition, resent Indian interference in their country. In the past, India has supported insurgent groups in Bangladesh like the Shanti Bahini. The two countries still have outstanding disputes on water rights.
Bangladesh has been able to perform this seemingly unwieldy balancing act because it has consistently eschewed hard alignments, has no great military ambitions, and, above all, boasts a fast-growing, export-driven economy. (Its biggest export market is the U.S.)
Dhaka is at a low risk of debt distress — so there’s little risk here of a debt trap play. And it ranks higher than both India and Pakistan on the United Nations Human Development Index.
Bangladesh’s remarkable economic gains have come amid political upheaval, leading to what many call the “Bangladesh paradox” — or “development without democracy” and growth without stability.
The big question right now, however, is: will it last? Inflation has risen to close to 10 percent — the highest in over a decade. And Bangladesh’s exports are a one-trick pony — dependent on a garment industry that relies on imported inputs and fuel. Once self-sufficient in natural gas, Bangladesh now relies on imported, expensive, liquified natural gas. Domestic exploration has lagged, though a deal with Exxon Mobil may be on the cards.
In spite of the future uncertainty, the case of Bangladesh shows that authoritarian states that are fiscally solvent have a lot of leverage in today’s geopolitics. If they have their house in order, they can play the great powers against one another and remain in power indefinitely. Smaller, authoritarian regimes can seek Sheikh Hasina’s counsel on how to survive and thrive in a multipolar world.
Arif Rafiq is the editor of Globely News. Rafiq has contributed commentary and analysis on global issues for publications such as Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the New Republic, the New York Times, and POLITICO Magazine. He has appeared on numerous broadcast outlets, including Al Jazeera English, the BBC World Service, CNN International, and National Public Radio.