WASHINGTON — Christopher Van Hollen, a career State Department officer who became an authority in Southeast Asian affairs and a leading diplomatic voice during the volatile birth of Bangladesh, died Jan. 30 at the Washington Home hospice.
He was 90 and had complications from Alzheimer’s disease. His son, US Representative Chris Van Hollen Jr. of Maryland, confirmed the death.
Christopher Van Hollen joined the State Department in 1951 and spent much of the next decade as a political officer in India and its arch-rival Pakistan. The assignments were a significant launching pad to a Foreign Service career during the early Cold War, when those countries were viewed as political and military counterweights against the Soviet Union and Communist China.
Dr. Van Hollen served from 1969 to 1972 as deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern and South Asian affairs. The Vietnam War was continuing, but the matter that most consumed Dr. Van Hollen’s energy was the secession of East Pakistan from Pakistan to form Bangladesh in 1971.
Hundreds of thousands of Bengalis reportedly died and millions more were languishing as refugees during the tumult. In much of the world, there was overwhelming public sentiment for Bangladesh because of atrocities committed by the Pakistani Army, including killing and mass rape.
A 1971 benefit concert for Bangladesh at New York’s Madison Square Garden — featuring such entertainers as George Harrison, Bob Dylan, and Eric Clapton — helped galvanize mass opinion in the United States on behalf of the new country of 75 million.
The Nixon White House moved gingerly toward diplomatic recognition of Bangladesh, and Dr. Van Hollen was left to explain why before an often hostile Congress.
Decades later, Dr. Van Hollen said his personal judgment was that the creation of Bangladesh was inevitable because of ethnic, cultural, and linguistic differences in the region. Publicly in the early 1970s, he presented the US case for continuing economic and military aid to Pakistan in order to maintain political leverage over Pakistan’s president, Agha Mohammad Yahya Khan.
At the time, Henry Kissinger, then serving as President Nixon’s national security adviser, was participating in an elaborate ruse to slip into China via Pakistan to restart US-Chinese relations.
‘‘Because Pakistan was seen as a key intermediary in this process, Nixon and Kissinger were very reluctant to take any action against Pakistan which might upset the evolution of the US-Chinese relationship through the good offices of Pakistan, which had at that time a good relationship with China,’’ Dr. Van Hollen said in a 1990 oral history.
The United States formally recognized Bangladesh in 1972, the year Dr. Van Hollen was appointed ambassador to the Indian Ocean countries of Sri Lanka and the Maldives.
The United States and the Soviet Union were competing for influence in the region, and he described the Sri Lankan government as ‘‘left-center Socialist’’ with ‘‘a fairly strong streak of anti-Americanism.’’
Dr. Van Hollen said he enjoyed cordial relations with President Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the world’s first female prime minister.
He said their smooth rapport was likely because as deputy assistant secretary of state, he had approved of US military support against a short-lived insurrection against Bandaranaike.
After four years in Sri Lanka, Dr. Van Hollen returned to Washington and ran the State Department’s senior seminar before retiring in 1979.
He was later a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and director of the old American Institute for Islamic Affairs.