U.S. Visa Curbs on Bangladesh: Counting Chickens Before They Hatch

Since the United States imposed unilateral sanctions on Bangladesh’s elite security force — the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and some of its former and current security officials on Dec. 21, 2021, the bilateral relations between the two countries began to aggravate to an extent not seen in the last 50 years. During the span of almost one and half years in the aftermath of the imposition of sanctions, the Bangladesh government left no stone unturned in its efforts to get the Biden administration to withdraw the sanctions — from intense official communications to substantive actions taken toward improving the security force’s enforcement mechanism. 

Moreover, over the last six months or more, we have seen a flurry of diplomatic visits by high-profile U.S. officials to Bangladesh, rendering our hope that Bilateral relations between the two countries would back on a healthy track. At least, the United States would not go for taking further official restrictive actions against Bangladesh. But, in a blow to our hope, the United States, on May 25, announced a new visa policy purportedly “to support Bangladesh’s goal of holding free, fair, and peaceful national elections” which are scheduled to be held in Bangladesh during the first week of January 2024.

According to the U.S. State Department’s press statement, under this policy, the United States will “restrict the issuance of visas for any Bangladeshi individual, believed to be responsible for, or complicit in, undermining the democratic election process in Bangladesh” an oblique reference to the upcoming national elections of Bangladesh. The actions that could lead individuals to be subject to such visa curbs include “vote rigging, voter intimidation, the use of violence to prevent people from exercising their right to freedoms of association and peaceful assembly, and the use of measures designed to prevent political parties, voters, civil society, or the media from disseminating their views.” 

This announcement has come at a time when Bangladesh, on its part, has been striving to do as much as it can to mend the mutual distrust between the two parties and reiterating its sincere willingness to address the issues causing roadblocks to the relational way forward. The latest visa curbs move is undoubtedly a preemptive measure aimed at Bangladesh’s next parliamentary elections which are at least seven months away. It seems the United States moves to count the Chickens before they hatch — acting on plain assumptions that the upcoming elections might be rigged or wouldn’t be free and fair by Western standards.

The incumbent government, however, has long been reiterating its commitment to holding free and fair elections, even seeking impartial assistance from international stakeholders to this end. By preemptively imposing such restrictive measures, with an ostensible purpose “to advance democracy in Bangladesh,” the United States is, rather, likely to complicate the largely polarized electoral politics in Bangladesh. Such a move from the world’s most powerful country risks being misinterpreted by already politically bankrupt opposition parties and embolden them to resort to chaotic means to make their way forward to the electoral process as the U.S. actions appear to be intent on the incumbent regime and its party.

The Biden administration’s latest announcement is unfortunate but no surprise at all, given human rights and democracy being the centerpiece of his administration’s foreign policy and its increasingly intensified “China Containment” strategy. The United States is in a de facto cold war with China. Unlike the previous one the US fought against the former Soviet Union, the new cold war cannot be earmarked with outright ideological aspects, except the electoral process characterized by universal suffrage. In this context, the Biden administration, with an aim to bandwagon countries against China, has been pressing hard on its “autocracy vs. democracy” ideological warfare against China.

Bangladesh, having a significant geographic location in South Asia, holds an important geostrategic leverage with respect to the U.S. “pivot to Asia” strategy. For several years now, the United States has constantly been conveying its desire that Bangladesh would play a more active role in its Indo-Pacific strategic assertions. But, with an economy at a take-off stage and national interests evenly distributed among the regional and global powerhouses, Bangladesh cannot afford to take sides with a particular power bloc, being embroiled in any geopolitical gambit.

Its principled commitment to neutrality has been reflected in its recently announced “Indo-Pacific Outlook,” which underpinned its long-stated aspiration to maintain equidistance between power blocs, with a robust emphasis on regional peace, stability, security, and cooperation. Such an obviously neutral outlook toward the U.S. grand strategic agenda in the Pacific region might have, as some analysts pointed out, led to its dissatisfaction. If it is so, this Visa curbs announcement could be the latest form of geopolitical coercion to exert more pressure on Bangladesh to draw it much closer to its strategic orbit.

Bangladesh has always shown embracing gestures to the US’s increased focus on its upcoming elections, of course, within the limit of the universal principle of respecting a country’s political sovereignty. However, the United States, and the West as a whole, need to recognize the entrenched nature and ground reality of the country’s electoral politics, while policing its electoral process. And in a country like Bangladesh, where political stability is indispensable to economic prosperity, the United States should shoulder the onus within the limit to facilitate the political consensus among parties, other than unilaterally exerting pressure, presumably toward its own geostrategic end.

[Photo by Mostaque Chowdhury, via Flickr, is licensed under CC BY 2.0]

*Ali Akbar Rouf is a PhD researcher on South Asian Politics and Political economy in Boston University, UK. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. 

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