South Asia shows holes in Biden’s values-based foreign policy

Modi's India rides high while Bangladesh is on the naughty step

The South Asian map shows up the gaping holes in America’s supposedly values-based foreign policy.

The Biden administration is at odds with Bangladesh, with which the US has had amicable relations since 1971, when America became one of the first countries to recognise it as an independent nation. Last year, the US ambassador to Dhaka, Peter Haas, publicly voiced criticism of the human rights situation in the country and said that the environment of political violence would make it difficult to conduct “free and fair elections”. In February this year, Derek Chollet, a senior policy advisor at the US State Department, said the decline of democracy in Bangladesh could affect cooperation with the US.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration’s hosannas to India’s prime minister Narendra Modi are getting louder. Just days ago, the US National Security Council’s Kurt Campbell said he hoped for “escape velocity” in the US-India relationship. In April, Mr Biden’s Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo declared that Mr Modi is “the most popular world leader…unbelievable, visionary and his level of commitment to the people of India is just indescribable and deep and passionate and real and authentic.” She added breathlessly: “India has arrived, India has more than arrived”.

Bangladesh has been left out of both of President Biden’s Democracy Summits, the first being in December 2021 and the second in February 2023.

India was on the list of invitees to both despite the marked decline of political freedoms under Mr Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). At the risk of parroting well-known facts and that too from NGOs and research institutes based in the West, Freedom House from the US downgraded India from “free” in 2021 to “partly free” now. V-Dem Institute, which is based in Sweden, regards India as an “electoral autocracy”, along with Russia and Turkey.

What is the point of the Biden administration’s grumpy approach to Bangladesh? Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government has claimed the situation in her country is being deliberately misrepresented by some groups. True or not, there is a lot to be said for being less caustic with Dhaka. Bangladesh, after all, has not only taken American criticisms on board by establishing a UN-overseen Human Rights Cell, it has loyally adopted a neutral position on the Ukraine conflict. Some months ago, it  prevente a US-sanctioned Russian ship from docking.

Foreign policy pundits are warning that an aggrieved Bangladesh might start to tilt away from the US and towards China, as happened with South Africa.

In any case, rapping Bangladesh on the knuckles and praising Modi’s India in embarrassingly purple prose makes a mockery of Mr Biden’s democracy and values-based foreign policy agenda. But then as American Indian journalist Fareed Zakaria said in a recent Washington Post op-ed (paywall), US “foreign policy today usually consists of grand moral declarations that divide the world into black and white, friends and foes…all too often an exercise in making demands and issuing threats and condemnations”. In fact, the US now makes very little effort to understand the other side’s views or actually negotiate, he added.


Also read:

How the Uighur issue is affecting the geopolitical West

‘Global China’ conceit is only possible because of America’s rising inability to do diplomacy

Think of war-torn Yemen and cheer China-brokered deal between Saudi and Iran

What to make of Mike Pompeo’s ‘crusade’ against China