The U.S. Ups the Ante in Bangladesh

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.

The highlights this week: The United States doubles down on its values-based foreign policy in Bangladesh, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurates a new Parliament building, and Pakistan inches closer to a deal with the International Monetary Fund.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced a policy last week that reserves the right to deny visas to individuals in Bangladesh determined to be involved in efforts to hinder free and fair elections in the country and undermine the democratic process. Bangladesh’s national elections are scheduled for next January.

In recent years, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has cracked down hard on the political opposition, the free press, and broader dissent. Bangladesh’s two previous elections, in 2014 and 2018, were marred by allegations of rigging.

Although harsh, the new U.S. measure isn’t surprising. Many members of Bangladesh’s political class travel regularly to the United States; some, including Hasina, have family members there. The Biden administration has made Bangladesh an example of its values-based foreign policy, which emphasizes promoting human rights and democracy overseas. U.S. officials have applied this approach selectively—Washington has said little publicly about democratic backsliding in New Delhi, for example. But in Bangladesh, the policy has been robust and consistent.

The Biden administration has sought to strengthen its relationship with Bangladesh, in part to reduce the country’s reliance on Chinese economic support. But the United States has put democracy at the forefront of all bilateral engagement with Bangladesh. U.S. officials have criticized democratic backsliding in Dhaka, and Washington hasn’t been afraid to back up its criticism with a big stick: In 2021, it sanctioned the Rapid Action Battalion, a Bangladeshi paramilitary force, for human rights violations.

Biden administration officials speak of the importance of free and fair elections in Bangladesh, but in private add they don’t want to have to decide if U.S. policy toward the country changes in the event of a rigged vote. The new visa policy, a strong incentive for Bangladesh’s political leaders to ensure free and fair elections, is likely aimed at avoiding that decision.

U.S. efforts to promote democracy in Bangladesh have been shaky, and Dhaka hasn’t responded kindly to Washington’s implied criticism. Some contacts in Bangladesh suggest the United States is fed up with Hasina’s ruling Awami League party and would prefer that the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party win in January. In a parliamentary speech last month, Hasina indirectly accused Washington of trying to oust her government.

The visa policy pointedly applies to “any” individual that hinders free and fair elections. Government and opposition leaders in Bangladesh have both reacted favorably to the policy, with each suggesting the other side is in the crosshairs. Values-based foreign policy may provoke U.S. tensions with Bangladesh, but this latest measure could defuse them.

U.S. Ambassador to Bangladesh Peter Haas depicted the policy as a success for public diplomacy, showing that both Washington and Dhaka agree on the need for free and fair elections. Still, it’s worth asking why the Biden administration has made Dhaka a focus of its democracy promotion, especially given the risk of friction in a relationship that Washington is keen to strengthen. Bangladesh is neither a competitor like China nor a pariah state like Myanmar.

The answer may be simple. The United States believes that Bangladesh has not addressed its long-standing concerns about human rights and democracy, which predate the Biden administration. Recent actions could merely reflect policy continuity—and a tightening of the screws.

It’s also clear that one of the risks of pushing the democracy agenda in Bangladesh—driving it closer to China—may be exaggerated. In recent years, the United States was Bangladesh’s top export destination and its biggest source of foreign direct investment. Dhaka may value Chinese infrastructure support, but its commercial partnership with Washington is also critical. Moreover, Hasina and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi enjoy close relations; Dhaka seeks to balance relations with all three powers.

Geopolitical considerations aside, a potential policy conundrum looms for Washington: What if Bangladesh’s 2024 election is not free or fair, despite the new U.S. visa measure? At that point, Washington may have to do what it hopes to avoid and reassess its policy toward Dhaka.

Modi inaugurates new Parliament building. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi formally opened India’s new Parliament complex last Sunday. The structure will replace New Delhi’s colonial-era facility. The project seems rooted in Modi’s efforts to promote Hindu nationalism: It’s part of a larger plan to distance India and its infrastructure from its colonial past. Last year, for example, the government changed the name of a major boulevard in New Delhi from Rajpath (“Kingsway”) to Kartavya Path (“road to duty”).

The new Parliament project was already controversial. It cost around $120 million and involved construction amid India’s major COVID-19 wave in 2021. Modi’s opponents have criticized the cost and the threats to India’s colonial heritage.

When Modi chose to host the inauguration instead of according the honor to India’s president, Droupadi Murmu, many opposition parties boycotted. India’s presidency is a ceremonial role, but opposition leaders said Murmu would have been a more suitable host than Modi—who they criticize for rarely attending parliamentary sessions, ramming through legislation with little debate, and cracking down on opposition legislators.

New hope for Pakistan-IMF talks. Pakistan’s struggling economy received some rare good news this week. The country still has a chance at relief from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Islamabad has sought to unlock more than $1 billion in funds from a $6.5 billion IMF assistance package—aid it badly needs to ease a balance of payments crisis. Pakistan is perilously close to a debt default, and the current IMF program expires on June 30.

The IMF has so far held back, not convinced that Pakistan is pursuing the austerity plans required to unlock the funds. But in an apparent acknowledgment of how dire the country’s economic situation has become, Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif contacted IMF Director Kristalina Georgieva last weekend to try to push talks forward. The IMF director for Pakistan, Nathan Porter, then indicated that IMF staff are in touch with Islamabad to “pave the way” for a meeting of the IMF board before the end of June.

On Monday, Porter reiterated the IMF’s conditions for unlocking funds: assurances of financing from top creditors and austerity measures that generate more government revenue. He also made a rare reference to Pakistan’s political crisis, calling for a “peaceful solution” in accordance with the rule of law. Veering into political territory may irritate Islamabad, but Porter’s comments, together with the Sharif-Georgieva call, suggest that all hope isn’t yet lost—and that a default can still be averted.

Rahul Gandhi visits U.S. Rahul Gandhi, a leading figure in the opposition Indian National Congress party, is in the United States this week. His trip began in San Francisco, with additional stops planned in Washington and New York. According to Indian reports, his engagements include a lecture at Stanford, meetings with business leaders and members of Congress, and a large gathering with Indian Americans in New York.

Gandhi’s trip notably comes just a few weeks before Modi’s state visit to Washington on June 22—as well as at a moment when Gandhi and the Congress party are experiencing some political momentum. Modi and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are strongly favored to win national elections next year, given the prime minister’s immense popularity. But Gandhi likely aims to challenge that perception of BJP invincibility during his U.S. visit.

The Congress leader also hopes to court Indian Americans. Modi has strong support within the diaspora in the United States, but recent surveys also find concern about the direction India is headed. The Modi juggernaut will be tough to overcome: Those who planned Gandhi’s trip claim that 10,000 people are expected at the gathering in New York, but when Modi hosted his own event at Madison Square Garden in 2014, nearly 20,000 people showed up.

Border clashes killed at least two Iranian troops and one Afghan soldier last week. The trigger for the violence is unclear and each side has blamed the other, but it came amid tensions over water. A 1973 agreement requires Afghanistan to share 850 million cubic meters of water from the Helmand River with Iran annually. Tehran has accused Kabul of holding back river flows. The stakes are especially high for Iran, with most of the country facing drought conditions.

Both countries have tried to de-escalate and no further border violence has followed, but the skirmish is a reminder that water is a major tension point—not just between Afghanistan and Iran but also across South Asia. Disputes over water are an often-overlooked factor in border tensions. With climate change contributing to water shortages, the issue could become an even bigger tension point in the future.

Countries dependent on river water flowing downstream like Iran will be especially vulnerable. To make matters even worse, some of the region’s biggest rivals share rivers: India and Pakistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan, India and China. There are scant effective transboundary water agreements in the region, and one of the few success stories—the Indus Waters Treaty signed by India and Pakistan in 1960—has recently shown signs of strain.

In the Print, former Indian military advisor Lt. Gen. Prakash Menon argues that Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh’s goal of making India a leader in developing technologies won’t be easy. New Delhi “will have to rely mostly on its own finances while leveraging its R&D infrastructure and human capital that reside in large measure outside the government,” he writes.

Banking executive Ram Neupane writes in the Kathmandu Post about the promise of digital payment transactions in Nepal. “The tremendous growth in the frequency of digital commerce and the amount transacted … reflects the recent growth of the digital payment system in Nepal,” he argues.

In the Daily Mirror, journalist Kamanthi Wickramasinghe reports on the crisis in public parking in the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo. “Apart from being charged exorbitant rates, the unavailability of parking slots and the unruly behavior of parking attendants have caused much inconvenience to the public,” she writes.

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