GP Short Notes

GP Short Notes # 677, 14 May 2023

Bangladesh: Sheikh Hasina visits the United States of America, United Kingdom and Japan
Priya Gahlot

What happened?
On 25 April, the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina, started her tri-nation tour to Japan, USA and UK. On the 26 April, she met Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, signed multiple deals on instruments on agriculture, rail, industrial upgrade, ship recycling, customs matters, intellectual properties, defence cooperation, ICT and cyber security cooperation. Four Japanese nationals were also handed Friends of Liberation War honour for their contribution to the liberation war of 1971. 
On 29 April, Hasina visited the US, to attend a programme marking 50 years of the Bangladesh-World Bank partnership. Though no official meeting with the US government took place during the US visit, she met top business leaders. 
On 04 May, she visited the United Kingdom. On 6 May, Hasina attended the coronation of King Charles III. During the UK visit, she also met other heads of state - Prime ministers of Gambia, Namibia, Sierra Leone, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Uganda, and presidents of Egypt and Rwanda, among others. Though she had no official meeting with Britain's Prime Minister, she interacted with British Prime Ministers Rishi Sunak and King Charles III.

What is the background?
First, Bangladesh’s pitch for secular development and addressing human rights concerns. Sheikh Hasina's visit comes after Western countries questioning her government's credibility over human rights violations and the decline of democracy in Bangladesh. In the past, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has faced severe criticism from Western media and institutions over the authoritarian tendencies. The visit to the USA comes after December 2021 sanctions Bangladesh faced from the USA government on top security officials of Bangladesh's elite rapid action battalion over human rights violations, with USA ambassador Peter Haas getting heckled at Dhaka and the Hasina government facing criticism from US media houses made the visit the all more relevant.

Second, the post-pandemic economic crisis. Bangladesh faced crises at foreign reserves where Bangladesh direly needed support from West-backed institutions like World Bank and IMF. At the same time, Bangladesh has been engaging with China in Belt and Road initiative along with Russia. 
Third, upcoming elections the need to get global support. With the general election of Bangladesh taking place in January, these multinational trips bring more credibility for the Hasina government domestically. Hence, despite not being an official bilateral visit, this visit to USA and attendance at 50 years Bangladesh -World Bank programme becomes more significant. Sheikh Hasina's government in the past had faced issues with World Bank; the best example is the Padma Bridge case. In 2012 World Bank pulled out of a $1.7 Billion loan pledge towards Padma Bridge, citing corruption. Padma Bridge is considered a dream project of the Hasina government, which was later completed using domestic funds and Chinese cooperation to construct the Bridge within the time frame. Hence the attendance of Prime Minister Hasina might help Bangladesh mend ways with World Bank further. 

What does it mean?

Third, power balancing by developing states in the global south. Current global shifts and power games across the world puts Bangladesh at crossroads; whereas a developing economy, Bangladesh cannot ignore the West while it also needs funding from China and Russia. While in Japan, Prime Minister Hasina took a stand against the Russian invasion of Ukraine, calling it a violation of international law and the UN charter. This statement in Japan comes at a juncture when recently Hasina herself approved a USD 318 million loan repayment in Yuan to a Russian nuclear power developer, in turn bypassing US sanctions on Russia. Her visit to Japan, the USA and the UK appears to be a power-balancing strategy. On the one hand, Bangladesh engages Russia in building a nuclear power plant in Rooppur while also balancing it with vocal criticism in Western countries. 
Second, developing economies will prioritise infrastructure investments over ideological divide. Prime Minister Hasina's US visit might not have resulted in something substantial in Bangladesh-US relations, but it did ensure a World Bank pledge to provide a USD 2.25 billion loan for infrastructure projects. Japan is Bangladesh's most prominent developmental partner, further promising support in developmental work and pushing for regional connectivity under the Bay of Bengal Industrial growth corridor. Sheikh Hasina's visit to Japan, the USA and the UK might help her build her image and credibility domestically while ensuring that Bangladesh balances the Indo-Pacific power politics by leveraging the power on both sides.

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