USA’s Latest Great Game East – OpEd


Why is the US so hell-bent on pushing Bangladesh on democracy and human rights? Is Bangladesh any worse than Pakistan or many other Middle Eastern sheikhdoms on these issues? Why is the US even threatening to sanction police officers who battle Islamist radicals on the streets? 

The answer can be found in an unfolding strategy that the US is putting in place to block China’s land-to-sea access routes that Beijing wants as a way to avoid, what many Chinese geo-strategists call, the “Malacca chokepoint”. 

China’s two main exits into Indian Ocean are through the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (Yunnan-Rakhine) and China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (Xinjiang Balochistan) and understandably,  the US would seek to block both up. 

No wonder, the American agencies are backing both Baloch and the Rakhine insurgencies, covertly supplying them weapons and even drones through kissing-the-coast operations involving visiting US warships on port of call to Bangladesh and India dropping the consignment by quietly going close to the Rakhine (Myanmar) and Makran (Pakistan) coast. 

Top Bangladesh sources say the US has ratcheted huge pressure on the Hasina government on human rights issues and pushed for fair elections basically to push PM Hasina to sign two military-related pacts GSOMIA and ACSA and may now add more pressure to provide logistics support for a possible no-fly zone in the Bay of Bengal. 

If Hasina does not play ball, which is likely for practical and historical reasons, these sources say, the US may go all out to promote violent Opposition agitations and other forms of interventions like wide-ranging sanctions to effect  regime change.  The back-to-back visits earlier this year to Bangladesh by Rear Admiral Eileen Laubacher, Senior Director for South Asia in the US National Security Council and the State Department’s Assistant Secretary (South-Central Asia) Donald Lu have been interpreted in Dhaka as part of Washington’s mounting pressure on Bangladesh to go along with its plans on Myanmar. 

 But if winter comes, can Spring be far behind? The new Chinese foreign minister Qin Gang (now removed) made a sudden “technical stopover” in Dhaka on his way to Africa just after taking over and met Bangladesh foreign minister Abdul Momen for two hours at the airport on a day Rear Admiral Laubacher was nearing the end of her trip. A high-level delegation of the Communist Party of China (CPC) led by the deputy head of the CPC’s International Department Chen Zhou also visited Bangladesh and extensively interacted with major political parties and government functionaries to “interpret the spirit of the 20th CPC National Congress for improving bilateral relations.” In fact, Chinese special envoys have rushed to Dhaka to brief foreign minister Momen just before his trips abroad to meet foreign ministers of western countries like US.

It is possible that the Chinese would have got the wind of US plans in Rakhine and would like to checkmate them. They have a few cards to play in Bangladesh — specially the huge development assistance for key infrastructure projects, many of which are yet to materialize. Foreign Minister Momen is said to have raised the issue with his Chinese counterparts and Dhaka is likely to leverage the situation to get what it wants from China to expedite its crucial projects in the election year for all the mileage it brings to the table. The Chinese have also assured Hasina of firm support in UN forums and otherwise to ward off US pressure and Beijing’s foreign office spokespersons have called for “non-interference in internal affairs of Bangladesh.” 

But the Chinese would oblige Bangladesh only if they were sure Dhaka would resist the temptation of supporting the US and its allies who may plan to hit the Burmese military junta hard enough. The US has signalled to Hasina during multiple high-level visits that a decisive victory for the Arakan Army rebels in Rakhine would pave the way for repatriation of one million Rohingya refugees who the Awami League government is keen to send back.

Hasina’s diplomatic skills (her foreign minister is better known for gaffes than adroit diplomacy) will be put to huge test in an election year as her country risks getting drawn into the larger Sino-US rivalry. She will also have to do a tight ropewalk because getting too close or dependent on China is bound to upset India. 

The US strategy is to deny Myanmar air force (now beefed up by induction of Sukhoi fighters) the dominance of the sky above Rakhine State, where the Arakan Army rebels now control 2/3rd of state’s land area and cannot go for the final push because they cannot neutralise Burmese air power. 

On December 23, 2022, President Biden signed into law the James M. Inhofe National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2023 (NDAA 2023; P.L. 117–263). Included in the NDAA 2023 was a modified version of the Burma Unified through Rigorous Military Accountability Act (BURMA Act; H.R. 5497) that was passed by the House of Representatives on April 6, 2022. A similar companion bill, S. 2937, had been introduced in the Senate and referred to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, but received no further action.

The inclusion of the BURMA Act in the NDAA 2023 was praised by many interested parties in Myanmar and around the world, based on the assumption that it would result in increased U.S. pressure on Myanmar’s military junta, the State Administrative Council (SAC), and provide more aid to the people of Myanmar

Washington is “seriously considering” imposing a Bosnia-type no-fly zone over Rakhine State. For it to deploy aircraft carriers in the Bay of Bengal to impose the no-fly zone , the US would need logistical support from coastal nations like Bangladesh, which explains the American pressure on Hasina’s government. 

China worries that if Rakhine secures independence with American support, it will scuttle the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor and may even hand over the China-funded Kyaukphyu deep sea port to the US. An independent Rakhine could open western Myanmar states of Chin and Kachin, where ethnic rebellions are just as strong as Rakhine, to covert  US military assistance to boost the cause of secession.  India may be circumspect about the breakup of Myanmar and three or four independent states on its borders with the Pagoda Nation, but it would surely not mind disruption of the two Chinese corridors through Pakistan and Myanmar.  

Pakistan has alleged Indian backing for Baloch rebels who have attacked Chinese nationals as much as Pakistani security forces. India may not be as yet willing to see Myanmar fall apart but can Delhi shield Hasina from US pressure which is mounting by the day. Modi may set up Hasina with Biden for a photo-op at the recent G20 meeting but will India check its temptations to join the US in a block-Chins effort and back Hasina despite Delhi’s nagging apprehensions that the Bangladesh PM has drifted too close to the Chinese.

Subir Bhaumik

Subir Bhaumik is a former BBC and Reuters correspondent and author of books on South Asian conflicts.

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