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OP-ED: Between two superpowers

  • Published at 02:30 am February 9th, 2021
Biden Xi
Their relationship will bear consequences for Bangladesh REUTERS

Joe Biden’s stance on China makes life difficult for Bangladesh

The core message of President Joe Biden’s first big speech on foreign policy was that America is back.

“America cannot afford to be absent any longer from the world stage,” he told his audience, before pledging to invest in diplomacy and recommit to international alliances.

For most countries in Asia, including Bangladesh, this friendly and cooperative speech sounds like a welcome development. 

President Abdul Hamid recently described the relationship between Bangladesh and the United States as “excellent” and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has invited Mr Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris to visit the country at the earliest opportunity.

The problem for Bangladesh is that Mr Biden’s speech also contained some very sharp criticism of China, thus creating the uncomfortable feeling that America’s more gentle approach towards international relations does not include much cooperation with China -- or its friends. 

There is physical evidence of the strong Sino-Bangladeshi relationship in Purbachal on the outskirts of Dhaka, where the Bangladesh-China Friendship Exhibition Centre opened recently.  

It is a classic example of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, focussed on investment in infrastructure projects, designed to foster long-term trade.

Meanwhile, the United States says it is interested in development plans for the port of Chittagong, due to its role as gatekeeper for Bangladesh’s export economy.

These developments show the pragmatic reasons for Bangladesh to nurture its ties with both countries. Mr Biden said in his speech: “We’re ready to work with Beijing when it’s in America’s interest to do so.”

However, he added that the US would confront China over its “economic abuses,” “coercive actions,” and “attack on human rights, intellectual property, and global governance.”

The Chinese were not taken aback by this. In fact, they had used their own top diplomat to try to push their narrative through the international media before Mr Biden’s address.

Yang Jiechi, who sits on the Communist Party’s Politburo -- and is entrusted by President Xi Jinping to explain China’s outlook to the world -- said that the US and China “stand at a key moment.”

He reminded his audience of the huge amount of business which American companies do with China and of the vast sums of money the US borrows through the Chinese financial system.

Referring to the US-China trade war, Mr Yang said: “For the past few years, the Trump administration adopted misguided policies against China, plunging the relationship into its most difficult period since the establishment of diplomatic ties.”

A few days later, Mr Biden said in his speech that America needs to recover “credibility and moral authority, much of which has been lost.”

This reference to the decline in America’s international standing under President Trump, echoed Mr Yang’s carefully chosen words of criticism.

As the new US president works on a strategy of building alliances and containing China, the Chinese Communist Party continues to present itself as a force for progress, which drives the country’s unstoppable development.

Some economists predict the Chinese economy will grow by 8% this year, while the rest of the world struggles with recession. 

The Chinese are confident that they can outspend and outsmart the Americans with money and diplomacy to gradually chip away at US influence in Asia. 

Bangladesh and other developing countries do not relish the prospect of being forced to choose between the great powers. The challenge is somehow to join the US in addressing global problems, while also accepting China’s offer of “coexistence, harmony and respecting diversity.”

Duncan Bartlett is the Editor of Asian Affairs Magazine and a Research Associate, SOAS China Institute, University of London.

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