Bangladesh is getting more international attention for two very different reasons. Domestically, Bangladesh’s tumultuous political situation ahead of the January 7 parliamentary elections has elicited global scrutiny. The United States, through its rhetoric and actions, has led international actors pushing Bangladesh to improve its democratic processes and calling for dialogue to resolve the current political impasse, which has often received harsh retorts from the Awami League (AL) government. Countering Western pressure, Russia and China have condemned U.S. “meddling” while India has called the upcoming polls an “internal matter.”

A billboard features Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina (center) on the streets of Dhaka, Bangladesh, on June 14, 2023. (Atul Loke/The New York Times)
A billboard features Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina (center) on the streets of Dhaka, Bangladesh, on June 14, 2023. (Atul Loke/The New York Times)

Global Powers Woo Bangladesh

In contrast to its domestic situation, Bangladesh has in recent years drawn positive and solicitous attention in the realm of geopolitics. In 2020, then-Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun said the United States was committed to growing its partnership with Bangladesh as “a key partner in the Indo-Pacific region.” The U.S. Agency of International Development’s 2023 Country Development Cooperation Strategy cites Bangladesh’s strategically important “geographic location connecting South and Southeast Asia.” A 2023 U.K. development report calls Bangladesh “a key player in upholding the Rules-Based International System” in the Indo-Pacific. In 2022, the Japan’s then-ambassador in Dhaka, Ito Naoki, called Bangladesh a “vital country in geopolitical terms,” and last year French President Emmanuel Macron visited Bangladesh to “consolidate” France’s Indo-Pacific Strategy in the face of China’s “new imperialism.”

As direct regional competitors, India and China are also courting Bangladesh. Bangladesh has long been a key part of India’s “Look East” and now “Act East” policies, which emphasize regional transport and digital connectivity, trade and investment, and energy cooperation. India also has concerns about Islamic extremism and cross-border militancy emanating from Bangladesh. On these issues, India sees Bangladesh’s ruling AL as an ally and therefore favors the political status quo. China, which has called Bangladesh a “strategic development partner,” finds appeal in Bangladesh’s proximity to India and strategic location on the Bay of Bengal and has sought to build close economic relations with the AL government, occasionally warning Bangladesh against Western ties. 

Under the Hasina government, Bangladesh has tried to balance these outside influences, accepting aid and partnership from different foreign powers while endeavoring to avoid dependence. Despite the planned election boycott by Bangladesh’s primary opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the elections on January 7 present an opportunity for citizens and leaders to litigate Bangladesh’s place in the region and world. Yet in Bangladesh’s fractious and violent political environment, the foreign policy distinctions between the AL and BNP are rarely discussed. What is the AL’s foreign policy vision if reelected? Out of power since 2006, what is the BNP’s foreign policy agenda for a rising Bangladesh? 

To answer these questions, USIP asked the AL and BNP to prepare a succinct overview of their party’s foreign policy platform as well as critiques of the other side, which are presented below with minimal substantive edits. The essays illuminate a similar vision for Bangladesh’s role in international affairs, but profoundly different views on which party is best to achieve it.

The Awami League’s Foreign Policy Vision for Another Five Years (Written by the AL)

Guided by the Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s foreign policy dictum of “friendship to all, malice to none,” the Awami League’s (AL) foreign policy is predicated on democratic values, economic dynamism, multilateral engagement and upholding international law and institutions while protecting our national interests.

As outlined in Bangladesh’s Indo-Pacific Outlook, the AL aims to advance regional stability through peaceful coexistence and multilateral partnership. We support a rules-based order to preserve freedom of navigation and maritime safety and security in the Indian Ocean region. Current and past AL governments have demonstrated a commitment to addressing regional challenges through diplomacy and peaceful arbitration, including the maritime boundary resolution with Myanmar (2012) and India (2014), the Chittagong Hill Tracts Peace Accord (1997), the Ganges water sharing agreement (1996) and the Land Boundary Agreement with India (1974; India ratified in 2015).

Under the AL’s stewardship, Bangladesh is now South Asia’s second-largest economy, with the region’s highest per capita income. Bangladesh’s stability, economic openness and digital adaptation will spur foreign investment and advanced technology development in semiconductors, artificial intelligence and renewable energy. With the AL in power, Bangladesh will reach a near trillion-dollar economy by 2030, transforming Bangladesh into an economic epicenter that enhances regional economic balance and stability.

The AL will also prioritize transnational issues in foreign policy. We believe that internationally supported repatriation of all displaced Rohingyas to Myanmar is the only sustainable solution. In pursuit of gender equity, we will work to advance the rights of women, girls and transgender people at home and abroad.We will mobilize and lead international actors to address the challenge of climate change. Finally, as a secular democratic country, the AL believes Bangladesh is uniquely positioned to serve as a bridge between the Muslim world and the international system. We will promote religious pluralism, sustain efforts to defeat terrorism and extremism at home, and collaborate with regional and international partners to thwart terrorist groups abroad. 

The BNP’s Critique of the Ruling Party (Written by the BNP)

The foreign policy of the current AL government is an extension of its undemocratic domestic policies through which it has captured key levers of the Bangladesh state, including the police, security apparatus, civil bureaucracy and judiciary, with the goal of creating a one-party and one-family government.

On the surface, the AL government still promotes its leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s philosophy during the early 1970s of “friendship to all, malice to none.” But in reality, the AL’s foreign policy is aimed at appeasing authoritarian powers through lucrative deals in exchange for legitimizing Prime Minister Hasina’s 2014 and 2018 elections, which fell seriously short of international democratic and human rights standards.

Bangladesh has lost dignity and credibility at home and abroad. Instead of securing foreign investment and negotiating deals that will cement Bangladesh’s progress, the country's diplomats have been busy fending off criticisms from respected international groups over the country’s human rights record, extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances and press restrictions during the AL’s 15 years in power. These gross violations of constitutional, democratic, political and human rights have led to sanctions from the international community. In its isolation, the AL has declared an Indo-Pacific policy that is nothing but diplomatic juggling to hedge between authoritarians and the democratic world.

The Rohingya crisis demonstrates a key policy failure. More than six years into the crisis, Bangladesh is hesitant to call the Rohingyas by their ethnic nomenclature and instead calls them an invented epithet: “Forcibly Displaced Myanmar Nationals.” The AL’s rudderless Rohingya policy has given dominant weight to China, which is reluctant to condemn the genocide against the Rohingyas and has consistently vetoed any attempt to hold Myanmar accountable. In 1978 and 1992, BNP governments successfully repatriated all refugees from earlier refugee waves. In contrast, the AL government has failed to repatriate a single Rohingya refugee back to their homeland.

An Alternate Vision: Bangladesh’s Foreign Policy Under the BNP (Written by the BNP)

The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) has consistently pursued a liberal, pluralistic, market economy-oriented and people-centric foreign policy since President Ziaur Rahman, the BNP’s founder, brought Bangladesh out of the Soviet bloc in the mid-1970s and laid the foundation for a free economy through privatization. 

If elected, the BNP’s foreign policy outlook would be pragmatic and adaptable, shaped by the spirit of the country’s 1971 liberation war, domestic political situation, changing regional and geo-strategic environment, and the world economic order. Our policy will reflect the “Vision 2030” platform, outlined by Khaleda Zia in 2017, and the 31 structural reforms unveiled in July 2023 by acting Chairman Tarique Rahman, which prioritize sovereignty, national interest and national security based on equity and justice while protecting Bangladesh’s core values and fostering friendly relationships with all.

Globally, the BNP wants a Bangladesh that is a key member of the community of democracies, continuing to strengthen democracy domestically while advocating for a rules-based international order and multilateral global system. We would embrace an Indo-Pacific strategy for a free, open, prosperous, liberal, democratic and secure Indo-Pacific region to ensure safe maritime navigation, free trade and investment, and private sector-led, transparent and sustainable growth.

To solve the Rohingya crisis — in contrast with the AL’s biased, futile and noncommittal current path — the BNP will utilize multilateral approaches and international bodies to ensure a safe, voluntary, dignified and sustainable Rohingya repatriation while protecting the dignity and security of the refugees living in the camps in the meantime.

On transnational and regional issues, the BNP will keenly work for stability, security, peace and economic prosperity in its neighborhood. We will maintain a robust counterterrorism policy, promote international cooperation in tackling corruption and enhance our contribution to U.N. peacekeeping efforts. As Bangladesh is one of the countries most vulnerable to climate adversity, the BNP seeks to take a leadership role in combating global climate change as well as address other key transnational threats like pandemics.

The AL’s Warning on the BNP’s Return (Written by the AL)

Undermining Bangabandhu’s secular and democratic vision, the BNP’s founder, Gen. Zia, fundamentally altered Bangladesh’s foreign and domestic policy toward religious fundamentalism. Zia repealed secularism from the constitution, added Islamic language to the preamble and other articles, and amended the constitution to emphasize Islamic solidarity. This ideological shift laid the groundwork for the BNP’s radical foreign policy in the early 1990s and early 2000s, which had severe consequences.

In contrast to the AL’s policy of peaceful coexistence and respect for sovereignty, the BNP struck a defense agreement with China in 2002 and allowed anti-India militants to transfer illicit weapons to rebels in India’s Northeast region. Such brazen disregard for another state’s sovereignty by sponsoring proxy forces for disruptive ends gravely imperiled regional security.

Under the BNP, Bangladesh transformed into a hub for militant extremism that weakened regional counterterrorism efforts. In 2001, the BNP formed a governing coalition with Islami Oikya Jote (IOJ) and Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), which had links to al-Qaeda affiliates like Harakat ul-Jihad-i-Islami, Bangladesh (HUJI-B) and Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB). Bangladesh saw its first ever suicide attack during this period. In this enabling environment for extremism, HUJI-B attempted to assassinate then-opposition leader Sheikh Hasina in 2004, killing 24, and JMB carried out 500 explosions across 63 of 64 districts in synchronized terror attacks.

During the BNP’s undemocratic rule, corrupt governance opened avenues for exploitative global actors. Systemic corruption metastasized, with Bangladesh ranked as the world’s most corrupt country for nearly all five years under its rule from 2001 to 2006. Weak institutions and venality enabled unfair trade practices and corrupt investors to capture projects through graft.

The return of the BNP’s revisionist foreign policy — grounded in religious extremism and proxy conflicts — would undermine the rules-based international order and regional territorial integrity. Furthermore, a domestic reversion to the BNP’s undemocratic tactics, poor governance and endemic corruption would halt Bangladesh’s economic progress and risk making it a fragile, failed state that destabilizes the region.

A Consensus on Bangladesh’s Foreign Policy Vision, but Not Who Should Lead It

Appealing to a Western audience, there are clear areas of convergence in the AL and BNP’s foreign policy visions, including their geopolitical orientation and focus on transnational issues. Unsurprisingly, each party believes it is best positioned to steward Bangladesh’s rise, but their mutual hostility is glaring, with each party presenting the other as a nearly existential threat to the country’s future.

Bangladesh’s geopolitical instincts lean toward the West. There is a broad consensus between the AL and BNP on Bangladesh’s desired international image and its place in its region and the world. Both parties are rhetorically committed to global precepts of free trade, multilateral cooperation, a rules-based international order and the international institutions that maintain them. While strategic balancing will require Bangladesh to hedge its relationships between the United States, India, China, Russia and others, the foreign policy platforms of both parties advocate international liberalism, which will resonate with the West.

Transnational issues are key. Transnational challenges such as climate change, conflict-driven migration and extremist ideologies have negatively impacted Bangladesh, but the country has also demonstrated leadership and resilience on these issues. Both parties see climate adaptation, solving the Rohingya crisis, countering Islamic militancy and promoting pluralism as key goals of domestic policy as well as international diplomacy. 

India and China are fraught topics. Despite their importance in Bangladesh, India and China receive few mentions in these foreign policy statements. India’s outsized role in Bangladesh’s economy and politics is politically sensitive for both parties. The AL’s close relationship with India has drawn allegations of political patronage while the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s controversial rhetoric and actions toward Muslims in India has inflamed anti-India sentiment in Bangladesh. For the BNP, it has toned down its traditional criticism of Indian influence as it navigates geopolitics in an election year. Similarly, both the AL and BNP appear cognizant of the economic and political perils of overreliance on China, consequently emphasizing geopolitical independence while still wooing China’s financial investments. Bangladesh’s delicate balancing act between these two regional powers is represented in the parties’ carefully crafted foreign policy language.

The parties’ hold deeply critical views of each other. The AL and BNP present almost mirror image critiques of each other. According to each party, the other is undemocratic, corrupt and placates autocrats. Both parties similarly claim that the other’s depraved ethos will lead to domestic collapse and international failure. To the BNP, the AL’s undemocratic character has inevitably produced an unprincipled and co-opted foreign policy. To the AL, the BNP’s past coddling of extremism portends a Bangladesh regressing toward instability and illiberalism that will cascade across its borders. 

With the BNP set to boycott the elections this month, the AL is all but certain to retain power in the new year. But Bangladesh’s political crisis won’t end on Election Day. The opposition will likely continue to wage a campaign of protests and strikes after the polls in hopes of undermining the legitimacy of the AL government and opening a path to power. Amid Bangladesh’s geopolitical ascent, India, China and the United States will be watching closely to see how this domestic tumult could change its international posture.

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