Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s broadly successful eight-day visit across Asia directly cemented India’s dominance as the regional power hub in South Asia, while also giving Bangladesh its due as an important regional ally.
Bangladesh was Clinton’s gateway into India, a figurative and literal go-between in the political jockeying that has pit India against China. The trip, starting in China and culminating in New Delhi, has been prominently political. It has all been a signaling game for straight-forward political exchange of goods and good will for broader U.S. support of the status quo.
The Secretary’s visits have mapped the Obama administration’s political calculus to first hold its strategic competitive friend China close while holding closer allies who are more important for holding Pakistan (and therefore, Afghanistan) at bay while the administration figures out a way to leave Afghanistan with both dignity and certain assurances. The rough gambit has been that things are going well between the U.S., China, Bangladesh and India and there’s no reason to mess with a good thing. The U.S will hold steady during tumultuous times that have shaken the Asian economy down to its roots; in exchange China, India and Bangladesh, each suffering slower growth, are being cajoled to stay set on the status quo.
This gambit is carries the most risk in South Asia.
Secretary Clinton’s political signaling game extends the political calculus of President Obama’s recent night-cloaked visit to Afghanistan. No doubt Iran’s leaders have noticed as has Pakistan’s military. Pakistan, an ally on rather more unfriendly terms with the U.S. since 2011 or so, notably, was not offered the public relations bonanza that a Clinton visit confers to any locale, any political leader. Indeed, far from an olive branch, Pakistan was first reminded that Osama bin Laden had successfully found refuge in Abottabad, one of Pakistan’s most militarily guarded, strategically outfitted cities when on the first anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s killing, President Obama signed a deal with President Hamid Karzai to throttle down the war in Afghanistan. Before ending her trip, on Indian soil, Secretary Clinton reminded her audience in every city and town in every country in South Asia that the alleged mastermind of the 2008 Mumbai attacks is even now squired in Pakistan.
Consider, then, the political significance of Secretary Clinton’s visit to Dhaka. There can be little doubt that the U.S. wants to frame Bangladesh as an exemplary friendly, moderate Muslim country that values the rule of law on liberal grounds and conducts its affairs in accordance with the political and sociological aspirations of human rights. This, while both Pakistan and Afghanistan seemingly go off the rails into Islamist, ethically fundamentalist territory. The visit signaled that the ruling Awami League had better shape up on those grounds. This, even if the moves are insincere. This, even if the ruling party is taking an authoritarian turn away from doctrines that support greater political freedom.
Clinton’s later visit to Kolkata en route to New Delhi and her discussions with Mamata Banerjee, the right-leaning chief minister of West Bengal featured conversation about foreign direct investment and partnerships of an undefined and unremarkable sort. Bangladesh’s water rights disputes with India and the border clashes that have defined Bangladesh’s relations with its neighbor to the West were hardly discussed. And then, onto a chat in New Delhi with the leaders of India’s ruling Congress Party; quite likely about precisely the same bland discussion about cooperation, without defining what cooperation entails.
The signal that both President Obama and Secretary Clinton are eager to send is that everything geo-political and strategic that the administration has worked up for South Asia remains steadfast just six months away from the November presidential elections and that an Obama re-election would ensure the status quo that broadly favors each one of those countries: steady as she goes! (In no small way candidate Romney strengthened President Obama’s signal by earlier offering some strange views on Asia and the U.S. government’s political and strategic calculus there.) More importantly the various visits massage a signal that each one of the visited countries, chosen as friends, would do well to refrain from making moves that might scare off investors in their markets and lead to a global sell-off; all other shores are turbulent; the final view: that no move be made that might hurt the pocket books of voters back home in the United States.
Nevertheless, quite apart from weighty talk about specific political and economic issues, the arc of Secretary Clinton’s visit bent toward the aspirations of justice and equality in China, and more so in Bangladesh. Clinton’s defense of human rights and women’s’ empowerment in places where such concepts are little more than cheap talk, was a helpful turn. A joint statement signed by Clinton and Bangladeshi Foreign Minister Dipu Moni affirmed:
“Leveraging the values of tolerance, respect for human rights, inclusion and resilience of Bangladesh society, including a robust civil society, we intend our broader collaboration to be anchored in a strong bilateral development partnership focused on joint development priorities, including food security, maternal and child health, family planning, climate change, strengthening democracy, youth and women’s empowerment, among others.”
That was the good bit of the story. Secretary Clinton ‘s visits show the purely accommodationist nature of the U.S. alliances with ruling parties in Bangladesh and India. Clinton’s visit with the opposition BNP leader Begum Khaleda suggests that the government’s political disappearances cannot and should not (must not is perhaps too strong an admonition, here) continue. Secretary Clinton’s visit with Begum Zia suggested that if the need should arise the Obama administration could just as well work with the opposition BNP. As expected, Clinton affirmed her support for her friend and founder of Grameen Bank, Dr. Muhammad Yunus.
Could it be that the Secretary’s visit with India’s ruling Congress’ opposition implies that the BJP might be an equally agreeable partners if and when Congress gets too complacent in the way it delivers goods and opportunities to India’s growing middle-class and, therefore, through globalizations supply chain and demand functions, America’s middle-class?
I don’t doubt it.