Bangladesh and U.S. Pursue Post-Election Reset

A U.S. delegation to Dhaka reflects a fresh approach to bilateral ties after a criticized Jan. 7 vote.

senior U.S. government delegation visited Bangladesh this week with an agenda that included strengthening diplomatic ties and advancing shared interests in the Indo-Pacific region. The group comprised the National Security Council’s Eileen Laubacher, the State Department’s Afreen Akhter, and the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Michael Schiffer. Their discussions also focused on climate change, trade, the Rohingya refugee crisis, and labor rights. The delegation met with senior officials, business executives, civil society organizations, and top opposition leaders.

Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina speaks as she is sworn in for a fifth term in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on Jan. 11.
Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina speaks as she is sworn in for a fifth term in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on Jan. 11.

The visit came amid an apparent shift in bilateral relations, especially in terms of tone and messaging. In the months ahead of Bangladesh’s Jan. 7 elections, the United States took strong steps to promote human rights and democracy, including through sanctionsvisa restrictions, and public criticism. The State Department characterized the vote as not free or fair. However, on Feb. 6, U.S. President Joe Biden sent a letter to Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina that welcomed the “next chapter” in the U.S.-Bangladesh relationship; it did not mention rights or democracy.

During the U.S. delegation’s visit this week, Bangladeshi officials, including Foreign Minister Hasan Mahmud, underscored the fresh start theme. Salman Rahman, an advisor to Hasina, said the “election is now a thing of the past.” Messaging from both sides was warm and effusive, with plenty of references to the partnership’s strength. This makes for quite the contrast from last April, when Hasina stood before the Bangladesh Parliament and accused the United States of attempting regime change.

What accounts for the turnaround? One possibility is Washington’s desire to distance itself from the highly charged political environment in Dhaka. The more U.S. officials publicly opine about human rights and democracy in Bangladesh, the more they risk getting dragged into it. Last November, for example, the U.S. Embassy expressed deep concerns about violent threats directed at Peter Haas, the U.S. ambassador to Bangladesh.

Strategic considerations are also likely at play. Repeated U.S. public pressure on Bangladesh to hold free and fair elections emboldened both China and Russia, giving them pretexts to accuse the United States of meddling in Bangladesh’s domestic affairs. That pressure also upset India, a key U.S. partner that is closely aligned with Bangladesh’s ruling party. The previous U.S. approach effectively gave Beijing and Moscow an advantage in Dhaka and rankled New Delhi.

Geopolitical factors also play a role in the new U.S. approach. The conflict in neighboring Myanmar is intensifying, and Bangladesh hosts hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees but seeks to repatriate them. Washington wants to ensure that it has sufficient diplomatic space to engage with Dhaka on these sensitive issues. Additionally, with U.S. foreign-policy attention increasingly focused on instability in the Middle East, the United States wants to reduce diplomatic headaches elsewhere.

The shift in U.S.-Bangladesh relations isn’t as sharp as it may seem. Despite tensions over the election, ties were already deepening, especially in the areas identified by Biden as priorities in his letter: trade, defense, climate change, and humanitarian issues. Furthermore, the focus on human rights and democracy will continue. During this week’s visit, Akhter met with leaders of Bangladesh’s main opposition party and discussed the “thousands of opposition members in prison,” according to a U.S. Embassy readout.

Dhaka remains a test case for Washington’s values-based foreign policy, but the experiment is now being conducted with less rigor. The relationship’s tone and messaging are emphasizing positivity and potential, not public pressure. Ultimately, this reflects that, for now, the United States has concluded that smooth relations with Bangladesh are a strategic imperative.

Pakistan’s gas pipeline to Iran

For more than a decade, an envisioned natural gas pipeline from Pakistan to Iran has gone nowhere, with critics dismissing the initiative as a pipe dream. Iran constructed its part several years ago, but Pakistan has struggled to find partners to fund the project on its side. It also fears international sanctions. However, last Friday, Islamabad approved plans to start construction on its part of the pipeline, which will eventually stretch 50 miles from the port of Gwadar to the border with Iran.

Pakistan plans to cover the $158 million cost through taxes and possibly through revenues from payments from energy consumers. Significantly, a new government investment unit influenced by Pakistan’s powerful army chief has also approved the project. If completed, it would be a major boon for the economically stressed country, which has acute energy needs and a long-standing reliance on expensive oil imports.

On one level, the timing is curious: Pakistan-Iran relations are still recovering from a crisis last month after each side traded cross-border strikes. Iran is deeply vulnerable to growing instability in the Middle East. And amid soaring U.S.-Iran tensions, the sanctions risks for Pakistan are especially high. What likely prompted Pakistan to move forward is Iran’s threat of a $18 billion fine for Islamabad not meeting its contractual obligations—a penalty that it can’t afford.

For Pakistan, the challenge is to get a sanctions waiver from Washington. The costs of possible sanctions and a potential crisis in relations with the United States should be prohibitive for Pakistan, but so is Iran’s penalty threat. Islamabad will bank on its currently cordial relations with Washington and the Biden administration’s precedent in not threatening sanctions after Pakistan began importing oil from Russia last year.

India’s social media tensions. 

India and the social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter, are embroiled in a fresh spat. X’s Global Government Affairs account posted a message last week noting that India had issued executive orders calling on the platform to take down accounts and posts. X said it withheld the content from India and that it remains viewable elsewhere but also that it rejected India’s demands on free speech grounds and plans to appeal.

No details were provided about the restricted accounts and posts, although they likely relate to ongoing farmers’ protests. India is a critical market for X: It has more than 30 million users in the country. But the platform has long had a difficult relationship with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government. It has previously sued New Delhi and accused the government of threatening to shut down the site to get content it objected to removed.

hasn’t received much support from Indian courts. Its earlier litigation was dismissed, and it has been saddled with fines. In a country where space for dissent is rapidly shrinking, online freedoms are the prime casualty.

Pakistan close to forming new government

After no single party won an outright majority in this month’s election, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) announced last week that they had reached an agreement to form a coalition government. The news hasn’t eased Pakistan’s political turmoil. The PML-N and the PPP won the second- and third-highest number of seats in parliament, respectively. Independents backed by Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), the party of former Prime Minister Imran Khan, took the most seats.

PTI has rejected the results of the election, alleging that vote-rigging deprived the party of more seats that would have given it a majority and an opportunity to form a government on its own. It has published election documents that it alleges show discrepancies between final vote tallies at polling stations and the official results that came later. After a top official overseeing Rawalpindi, a city in northern Pakistan, made a stunning admission to helping to manipulate results, Pakistan’s Election Commission promised to investigate.

PTI will sit in the opposition, but it is contesting the election results in court and plans to hold protests this weekend. Post-election arrests of prominent government critics have exacerbated tensions, as have intensifying crackdowns on social media. Political instability could be a distraction for a new government, likely to take office next week, that is keen to prioritize economic stabilization.

Under the Radar

This month, Sri Lanka’s Tourism Development Authority issued a notice that it will no longer let Russian and Ukrainian tourists remain in the country with expired visas. After Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Sri Lanka allowed tourists from both countries to overstay their visas, acknowledging the difficulties of returning home during a conflict. The new guidance stipulates that those without valid visas must leave Sri Lanka by March 7.

According to Sri Lankan media reports, the country’s immigration department pushed for tourism officials to make the move. But then came a twist. Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe said on Sunday that the decision was made without cabinet approval, and he has ordered an investigation. It’s unclear if this is true or if he is trying to appease Russia and Ukraine. Sri Lanka, like most South Asian countries, has taken a neutral position on Russia’s war in Ukraine.

The next day, the announcement was abruptly taken down from the Tourism Development Authority website, amid reports that Sri Lanka’s internal security ministry had not signed off on the move. It is not known how many Russians and Ukrainians are in Sri Lanka on expired visas, but official figures indicate that nearly 300,000 Russians and 20,000 Ukrainians have traveled to the country since the war began.

Sri Lanka benefits from the extra revenue, but there are concerns that some tourists are running unregistered businesses—worries that were likely in part behind the aborted visa move. A sensitive policy challenge has now become overshadowed by an interagency tussle, bureaucratic confusion, or some combination of both.

Excerpts: FP

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