U.S. Strategic Engagement in the Bay of Bengal: Navigating Superpower Rivalry

Over the past two decades, the geopolitical landscape of the Indian Ocean has undergone a profound transformation. China,  once viewed the Indian Ocean as the “Far Sea”  has enhanced its influence in East Asia and expanded its reach as far as Europe. India has emerged as a dominant maritime force in the Indian Ocean. Meanwhile, to contain India, China has invested billions of dollars in South Asian nations, including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar. This strategic maneuver, coupled with China’s strong presence in the South China Sea has left the Bay of Bengal as a focal point for Washington’s ambitions to assert dominance in the Indo-Pacific region. 

The preceding half of the century saw the United States and its allies primarily focused on the Middle East and Africa. Their approach often involved aggressive tactics like regime changes, intimidation, and, in some instances, the elimination of perceived threats. In contrast, China adopted a “soft power” strategy in East and South Asia with non-interference in domestic affairs and economic and infrastructural developments. However, as the new century dawned, Beijing’s relations with South and East Asia began to expand and deepened significantly in line with its broader efforts to ‘Go Global’.

This transformative shift has placed Beijing in a formidable position to compete with Washington at a time when Indo-Pacific nations increasingly lean towards China. Consequently, a significant strategic maneuver has unfolded by the US, centering the Bay of Bengal, particularly in Bangladesh. 

For nearly two decades, Washington’s priorities in South Asia were significantly influenced by the conflict in Afghanistan. Concurrently, a strategic partnership with New Delhi was evolving within the geopolitics of the Asia-Pacific, later the Indo-Pacific. President Donald Trump first introduced Washington’s ” Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP)” vision. Washington’s Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS) is marked as the beginning of a US-led alliance aimed at containing China.  However, China’s soft power tactics have ensnared and indebted nations along the Indo-Pacific shorelines.

China’s strategic infrastructure projects, including seaports like  Gwadar in Pakistan, Hambantota in Sri Lanka, and Kyauk Pyu in Myanmar, as part of the “String of Pearls” strategy mark to contain India and secure a strategic advantage in the Indo-Pacific region. China’s relations with  North Korea, Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Bangladesh, and Myanmar have successfully counterbalanced the  US and Indian geostrategic maneuvers. Beijing forced New Delhi to devote time and resources to its neighbors rather than extend influence into East Asia. Subsequently, India’s Bharatiya Janata Party(BJP) government could not substitute China’s role in its neighbors. That is why, Washington’s supremacy in the Indo-Pacific is now at stake and necessitates a more robust,  action-oriented approach with the Bay of Bengal as a prime theater to establish its hard presence.  

In response, the United States has reevaluated its geostrategic approach towards the region to make its policies less about influencing the allied governments and more about engaging with people-to-people in South Asian nations. While, the United States sought to make the BJP  see  China through its eyes, and BJP also tried to showcase Indo-Pacific nations through its eyes. But, in the end, Washington has not gained any geopolitical leverage from India’s BJP.  While the USA was engaged with countering extremist groups in South Asia and sought to increase the capability of those nations to fight against terrorism, at that time, China was enhancing cooperation, low-cost consumerism, and people-to-people engagement in the Indo-Pacific region. 

India’s historical ties with Russia, its non-alliance membership, and its inability to prevent the expansion of BRICS have irked the US. In the last G20 summit, India’s diplomatic maneuvering on the Russia-Ukraine conflict further strained its relations with Washington. Furthermore, internal issues within India, such as BJP’s handling of human rights, and freedom of expression have dampened Washington’s enthusiasm for partnership with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.  The unfolding events exposed India’s vulnerability when sandwiched between the Chinese and Russian blocs from all sides.

Bangladesh, a South Asian nation sharing borders with India and Myanmar has long maintained a balanced foreign policy. So far, Bangladesh has also maintained balanced relations with India, China, and the USA. But,  over the past decade, substantial Chinese investments in multi-billion-dollar projects have converged with Prime  Minister Sheikh Hasina’s development agendas.  It has raised the eyebrows of US  policymakers and they have found China’s massive influence over Bangladesh. Moreover,  Sheikh Hasina’s proposal to China for building a deep sea port in Sonadia made skeptical India, Japan, and the US. According to PM Hasina,  the US expressed the intention of establishing a naval base in the Bay of Bengal and this proposition met with rejection by her government caused discontent among the  Western powers. Hasina’s government stance is also not aligned with the US’s approach in Arakan of Myanmar. 

Washington has dissatisfied with the BJP’s approach towards China. When Barack Obama questions India’s territorial integrity that means Washington is taking an assertive posture toward South Asia.  The US-backed Canada’s accusation of the BJP government for Hardeep Singh’s murder has tarnished the diplomatic relations with the Western powers. Once India became preoccupied with domestic issues would create an opportunity for the West to destabilize  Bangladesh. The US seeks to establish an independent and puppet government in Arakan to contain China’s ascent.

China is always one step ahead of the USA in Indo Indo-Pacific region. Sino-Myanmar bilateral relations are very warm, in terms of economic and military cooperation. China’s influence in Myanmar is further evident by the Rohingya crisis. China considers Rohingya Muslims as its potential threat. The China-backed military junta in Myanmar is facing widespread civil protests, armed resistance from ethnic insurgent groups, and civil defense forces backed by the National United Government(NUG). NUG has acknowledged and accepted the arms struggle of the Arakan Rohingya  Salvation  Army (ARSA), which has a deep-rooted connection with the ISI( Pakistani espionage agency). Both NUG and ISI have strategic ties with the US. Hasina’s government stance on ARSA may not align with US expectations.

The Western powers have a keen interest in the golden triangle of Bangladesh Hill track, Mizoram, and Arakan areas, which are very rich in mineral resources. So, Beijing has worked to destabilize this region with the support of the Myanmar military and the Kuki-Chin nationalist front, a banned ethno- nationalist and separatist political organization. The strategy yields geostrategic advantages for China over India and the US.

PM Sheikh Hasina has openly lambasted the intention of the USA which does not want the Bangladesh Awami League in power. That is why we can see proactive measures taken by Washington to oust the ruling government. The USA emphasizes human rights, freedom of expression, and fair electoral practice, then what about Saudi Arabia, Syria, Egypt, and Israel? Washington previously used a Visa restriction policy for fair elections in Nigeria and Uganda, after the election was held.  But, in Bangladesh, it was executed before the election. That means a fair election is not an issue for the Western powers. PM Hasina also refused to join the military alliance in QUAD. To contain China, Washington needs bold strategic maneuvers in the Bay of Bengal, necessitating reliable partners in India and Bangladesh. 

Bangladesh and other South Asian nations find themselves at the crossroads of superpower rivalry. A crucial time is ahead for these nations. To survive this crisis, national unity and political acumen are required to navigate this turbulent era. Last but not least, no Superpower will go against the local populace’s support. History attests that without it, Superpowers cannot remain in foreign lands, despite the presence of the fifth columnist. This historical lesson is evident in Bangladesh’s struggle for independence in 1971 and Afghanistan recently.  

M A Hossain
M A Hossain
M A Hossain, political and defence analyst based in Bangladesh.