1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites
PoliticsBangladesh

Is Bangladesh edging closer to China and Russia?

Arafatul Islam
June 15, 2023

PM Sheikh Hasina has downplayed Washington's importance and suggested making friends on other continents. Her comments may not help ease Western pressure over rights violations and Bangladesh's poor democracy record.

https://p.dw.com/p/4SbFN
Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina with her hand perpendicular to her forehead
Hasina has kept tight control of Bangladesh since becoming prime minister in 2009Image: Anupam Nath/AP/picture alliance

Bangladesh's prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, said recently that it didn't matter at all if people from her country don't fly to the United States, adding that "there are other oceans and other continents in the world."

"We will not be dependent on others, who will not give us visas," she said.

Her comments came in response to a warning from Washington that it would slap visa restrictions on Bangladeshi citizens who undermine the democratic election process at home.

The new US visa policy was announced ahead of national elections that are due to be held in the South Asian country by January 2024.

The last two general elections, held in 2014 and 2018, were marred by allegations of massive vote rigging and intimidation of opposition activists, charges denied by Hasina's government.

Can Bangladesh move away from the US?

The United States is the largest importer of Bangladeshi products, importing $8.3 billion (€7.65 billion) worth of goods in 2021, according to the US Department of State. And US companies are among the largest foreign investors in the Muslim-majority country.

Observers believe that Hasina's remarks on the United States sound like an "attempt to be defiant," but it comes across as "mere bluster."

"Given how so much of the Bangladeshi political class — including Hasina herself — has family members in the US, it would be misleading to suggest that not having the capacity to fly to the US is no big deal," Michael Kugelman, the director of the South Asia Institute at Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, told DW.

Jasmin Lorch, a South Asia analyst and guest lecturer at the Humboldt University of Berlin, echoed Kugelman's sentiments. She told DW that members of Bangladesh's ruling Awami League party have a strong connection with the United States.

"Sheikh Hasina has increasingly been relying on anti-American rhetoric. At the same time, many high-ranking Awami League officials and sympathizers of the party travel to the US for holidays or have their children study in US universities and colleges," Lorch said.

Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping, their flags behind them
Bangladesh plans to join the five-nation BRICS bloc, where China and Russia dominateImage: Alexei Druzhinin/AP/picture alliance

Bangladesh 'could benefit' from joining BRICS

Bangladesh plans to join BRICS in August. Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen confirmed the decision during a press briefing in Geneva Wednesday after a meeting between Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa.

The acronym began as a somewhat optimistic term to describe what were the world's fastest-growing economies at the time. But now the BRICS nations — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — offer a diplomatic forum and development financing outside of Western-dominated global financial institutions.

Bangladesh announced its BRICS plans when it faced a shortage of US dollars to import coal and other fuels to meet its energy needs.

Kugelman said joining BRICS could benefit Bangladesh if it were done correctly.

"If Dhaka plays its cards right, it could gain a lot from participating in BRICS while also continuing to scale up trade and diplomatic ties with the West," Kugelman said out. "It would be wrong for Dhaka to join BRICS as a tactic to defy the West. But it can certainly help advance its foreign policy interests."

China vows to safeguard Bangladesh's sovereignty

The announcement comes as China has expressed support for safeguarding Bangladesh's sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity.

Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said on Wednesday that China stands ready "to work together with Bangladesh and other countries to oppose all forms of hegemonism and power politics ... and build a community with a shared future for mankind."

Lorch said Bangladesh's government had been distancing itself from the United States and European Union and moving closer to China and Russia for several years.

"China and Russia have intensified their economic cooperation with Bangladesh without criticizing the Awami League's growing authoritarianism. Unlike economic support from the US and Europe, Chinese investments in Bangladesh's infrastructure come with no conditionalities for human rights, good governance or democracy," Lorch said.

"This has allowed the Awami League to significantly decrease its dependence on so-called Western donors," Lorch added.

An increasing reliance on authoritarian countries, Lorch said, could have a negative effect on Bangladesh's democratic future.  

Though it remains to be seen how Prime Minister Hasina might defy Western pressure, political observers say Bangladesh needs a free, fair, inclusive and participatory national election to stay on the democratic path.

Edited by: Keith Walker