Aftab Ahmed: Canada has a role to play in the Indo-Pacific, and we need to pick a strategy
Bangladesh is a test of, and an opportunity for, Canadian and Western foreign policy objectives
By: Aftab Ahmed
Bangladeshis went to the polls on January 7 for an election in which the outcome was predetermined. The main opposition party, the BNP, boycotted the election. This enabled Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of the ruling Awami League to secure her fourth consecutive term — and a fifth term in total — as the leader of a nation of 170 million people.
The circumstances surrounding Hasina's victory posed a setback for President Joe Biden and the West. The Biden Administration has made Bangladesh a centrepiece of its Indo-Pacific Strategy. Labelled a sham, the election unfolded amidst violence, crackdown on political dissent — resulting in over 20,000 BNP leaders being thrown in prison weeks before the polls — and a notably low voter turnout.
This was not entirely new.
The absence of credible opposition also tainted the two previous elections. Election day has become synonymous with rigging, intimidation and ballot stuffing. The latest election introduced a new twist with "independent" candidates, composed of the ruling party's backup team, contesting against the party's official candidates. This created an illusion of competition, but it was a form of internal party democracy presented on a national scale, akin to how China conducts local elections under its authoritarian one-party system.
For the West, the country's election was a litmus test. Internationally, Hasina is expected to continue fostering strategic ties with regional powers like India, China and Japan, parallel to maintaining strong working relationships with Russia and the Arab world. The West's ambitions to promote democracy are unappealing to incumbent regimes with anti-democratic proclivities in countries — including Bangladesh — that are aligned with and financially backed by China. This is a diplomatic complexity that the West has not fully grasped to the extent that it must.
Bangladesh's is also relevant to Canadian interests. Similar to the United States, the country has a central role in Ottawa's Indo-Pacific Strategy. Published to great fanfare, the strategy was Canada’s response to the growing economic and strategic importance of a region home to 2 billion people, 65 per cent of the world’s population, and 40 per cent of the world’s combined gross domestic product.
This region is touted as the linchpin for ensuring global economic expansion and development. The five objectives of Canada’s strategy — along with the extensive "to-do list" under each — collectively represent a values-based foreign policy goal of promoting democratic engagement as a contrasting theme to what China offers in the Indo-Pacific. In this regard, Canada is expected to dispatch official observers to the election-bound countries of the Indo-Pacific throughout 2024.
Under Hasina's leadership, Bangladesh has emerged as one of the world's fastest-growing economies. Dhaka is exactly the kind of partner — purely from an economic perspective — that Ottawa should engage vigorously with to expand trade, investment, and enhance supply chain resilience in South-East Asia. Both countries also share a commitment to addressing the Rohingya refugee crisis. Bangladesh is, to the surprise of many, home to the world's largest refugee population, hosting over one million Rohingya from neighbouring Myanmar.
Canada is a principal contributor of international development assistance to these refugee camps. Based on these trends, Ottawa has increasingly viewed Dhaka as a strategic ally on three fronts: economic cooperation, regional security concerns, and humanitarian commitments.
Importantly, the relationship extends beyond the notion of shared values between both countries. It is inherently about shared interests as well. Similarly, Canada has shared interests with many countries in the Indo-Pacific that are economically sound but are on a clear path towards democratic erosion, including the likes of Cambodia and the Philippines.
Ottawa's success in achieving the goals of its Indo-Pacific Strategy hinges not only on its dealings with China and India but, given its middle-power status, on its ability to achieve its strategic objectives through partnerships with smaller developing nations in the region. Canada needs these countries as active partners for its own interests, rather than viewing them as undemocratic adversaries, if it intends to establish a tangible influence in the Indo-Pacific.
The bottom line: Canada would be better off engaging with such countries if they maintain a degree of democracy without necessarily being Western-styled liberal democracies. Bangladesh specifically finds itself at a tricky juncture, torn between the Western-backed democratic model and the allure of China's autocratic governance system — which it has increasingly embedded within its own regulatory architecture.
Canada needs to make an important decision: whether to focus exclusively on economic diplomacy — engaging with fast-growing economies like Bangladesh, that are backsliding democratically — or to demand democratic reforms as an element of economic diplomacy. Choosing the latter option requires defining what that commitment entails, assessing the policy levers at Canada's disposal, and determining how to implement such measures without triggering backlash.
We do have some options. To promote democracy in Indo-Pacific countries facing authoritarian trends, Canada can adopt a two-fold strategy. Firstly, Ottawa could provide technical assistance and expertise in election management, drawing upon standards set by Elections Canada. Such assistance can promote reforms to establish independent, non-partisan, and transparent electoral bodies in countries with weak election administrators.
Secondly, Canada could promote its public-service model — recognized as the third-most effective civil service body in the world — while focusing on enhancing state capacity, governance accountability, and professionalism. This would offer many Indo-Pacific countries a prototype to strengthen their public sectors, which are often riddled with corruption.
However, Ottawa cannot simply impose these improvements by fiat. Whether competitive authoritarian countries are receptive to Canada' efforts is an important consideration. Canada's diplomats must take the lead in nurturing this receptivity. This demands addressing staffing shortages within the Foreign Service, a challenge that a recent Senate report has identified as a pressing issue that Ottawa needs to resolve immediately.
Whatever path Canada picks — whether it hangs back and secures economic benefits from these developing nations, or engages more aggressively to ensure these nations develop along a path more akin to Canada's democratic journey — one can be sure that other more authoritarian states, particularly China and Russia, are watching, investing, and interfering to align countries like Bangladesh to their own interests.
Prime Minister Hasina is now at the helm of a labor-intensive, fast-growing economy, which has the potential to be an important frontier in the production of goods and services demanded by Western populations. Neither she, nor we, can ignore this reality.
Aftab Ahmed recently completed his Master of Public Policy degree from McGill University's Max Bell School of Public Policy and is an Urban Fellow Researcher with the City of Toronto. With more than 100 published articles, he serves as a regular columnist for Canadian and Bangladeshi media outlets and policy publications. He can be reached at email@example.com. The views expressed in this article are his personal opinions and do not reflect those of any organization, institution, or entity with which the author is associated.
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