US, Bangladesh Edging Closer: Reflecting Better Mutual Understandings – OpEd

The US-Bangladesh relations have taken a positive turn after Bangladeshi Minister of Foreign Affairs AK Abdul Momen visited Washington, D.C. and met his US counterpart Antony Blinken on April 10, 2023.

This meeting comes after a series of trips by high-ranking US officials to Bangladesh and the hosting of bilateral dialogues and joint military exercises over the previous year that indicate a positive turn in US-Bangladeshi relations. Additionally, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s successful visit to the US has further strengthened the ties between the two nations.

Overview of Bangladesh-US relations

Since its independence in 1971, Bangladesh and the US have usually maintained extensive political, economic, military, cultural, and humanitarian relations with each other. While Dhaka has carefully pursued a non-aligned and relatively well-balanced foreign policy during and after the Cold War, it has sometimes demonstrated a ‘tilt’ in its foreign policy towards the US. On its part, Washington has maintained cordial relations with both the military dictatorships in Dhaka in the late 1970s and 1980s and the democratic governments in the post-1990 period. So far, Dhaka and Washington have held eight partnership dialogues and eight security dialogues to bolster their political and security ties.

Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s visit to the United States has resulted in several agreements and commitments, including support for future development projects. The visit has showcased the progress and potential of the country in various sectors, and the meetings and events during the visit demonstrated a significant diplomatic effort towards strengthening bilateral relations between the two countries. The following paragraphs will discuss some of the key outcomes of the visit.

Cooperation under the framework of ‘Indo-Pacific’ strategy

The US wants to see its presence in the Indo-Pacific on a larger scale and wants Bangladesh as a partner in the region. As a host country of the recent Indian Ocean Conference, Bangladesh has proved again it really wants work together with all the stakeholders. that it really the overarching goal of Bangladesh’s recent Indo-Pacific Outlook is to enhance country’s ties with the USA and West, engagement in this region, accelerates economic growth, and addresses common issues shared by the other nations. For instance, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Bangladesh had announced a fresh Indo-Pacific Outlook to highlight Bangladesh’s geopolitical standpoint on the region as well as its objectives to move forward as a nonalignment foreign policy. In other words, Bangladesh will likely to clarify on its own stance in the Indo-Pacific region through Indo-Pacific Outlook to take the position of regional leader, rather joining any political bloc. Bangladesh’s Indo-Pacific outlook hews closely to that of the USA. Bangladesh also orients its Indo-Pacific outlook on the economic core, while security remains subservient to economic interests.

In this way, USA-Bangladesh relations would reach a new level. Bangladesh could gain trust from the US government because USA is an active member of the Indo-Pacific alliance. It aims to strengthening regional economic cooperation, guaranteeing the security of maritime commerce, combating climate change, investment opportunities and introducing new strategic alliances with other countries. Through upholding norms of international order, the freedom of trade and commerce, prosperity and the sovereign equality of all countries, their outlook aims to help advance the goal of an open, free and fair Indo-Pacific region. In addition, Bangladesh aspires to boost economy through increasing investment and trade; particularly in the areas of public investment and technological networking. The past years witnessed a flurry of USA delegation to Bangladesh and heralded a new epoch of bilateral partnership. In such context, the visit foregrounded the issues of Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS) to the spotlight. Against this backdrop, the issue of prioritizing Indo-Pacific Strategy in the bilateral ties of Bangladesh and United Sates has been underscored. The visit had widely been framed as a historical conjuncture to solidify strategic engagement.

Trends of US-Bangladesh relations

Bangladeshi citizens needn’t spark any new controversy and worry based on the recent human rights report. US-Bangladesh bilateral relations wouldn’t affect. This is not the first time the US produces a study like this in recent years. There isn’t much of a difference between those and the latest report. Many hoped that the Biden administration was going to impose more sanctions on Bangladesh government. But US hasn’t imposed new sanctions on Bangladesh. Bangladesh has recently had the US-Bangladesh Partnership dialogue, Donald Lu, Victoria Nuland’s recent Bangladesh visits, the praiseworthy comments of the President Joe Biden regarding US willingness to engage with the current Bangladesh regime.

Increasing cooperation among the countries can be easily identified through several dialogues and joint training programs that have taken place in the last two years. Bangladesh and the US held the Partnership Dialogue and Security Dialogue in 2022 after a pause due to the pandemic. The dialogues are annual arrangements between the countries and have taken place every year since 2012. The US Navy also attended Bangladesh’s International Fleet Review in December 2022.

Joe Biden’s comment is very important in this regard. It is clear that Joe Biden has keen interest in engaging, cooperating with the Hasina regime in Bangladesh. US president Joe Biden said Bangladesh prime minister Sheikh Hasina has set an example of compassion and generosity for the world. In his letter to Sheikh Hasina wishing the great Independence Day, he wished for the progress and development of Bangladesh. In the letter, the US president said, Bangladesh has opened its borders and welcomed nearly 1 million Rohingya refugees.

BD PM seeks US partnership to build smart Bangladesh

During her virtual meeting with US Senators, Prime Minister Hasina highlighted the importance of a long-term partnership between Bangladesh and the United States to build a “smart Bangladesh.”

Bangladesh has enormous potential in technology, and the Prime Minister requested the United States to provide support in this sector.

The Prime Minister emphasized the need to increase global competitiveness and expand the export base to achieve the goal of becoming a “developing” country by 2026. During a business roundtable held at the US Chamber of Commerce in Washington DC, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina expressed Bangladesh’s desire for a long-term and fruitful partnership with the United States. She said, “We shall need support to increase our global competitiveness and expand the export base. I am optimistic that the United States would become our long-term productive partner in this challenging venture through trade, investment, technology transfer, and by creating a smooth and predictable supply chain for mutual benefits.”

Special economic zones for US investors

During a meeting with US businessmen, Prime Minister Hasina offered special economic zones to encourage investment in Bangladesh. She invited US investors to explore opportunities in the country and called for greater US investment in the country’s infrastructure and other sectors. The prime minister urged the US business community to explore opportunities and make investments in Bangladesh, citing the country’s vibrant and high-potential sectors, including renewable energy, shipbuilding, automobile, pharmaceuticals, and ICT. She reiterated her previous offer of a special economic zone exclusively for US investors. She said, “I invite you to invest in our many vibrant and high-potential sectors.”

Economic ties

The US had been the topmost provider of economic assistance to Bangladesh in its initial years, and currently, the US is the largest source of foreign direct investment for Bangladesh. The US is the single largest destination of Bangladeshi exports, and it is Bangladesh’s 3rd largest trading partner. Export of Ready-Made Garments (RMG) products and remittances constitute the backbone of Bangladesh’s rapidly growing economy, and since Bangladesh has a positive balance of payments with the US, its partnership with the US is crucial to its continued socio-economic development.

Security and military ties

Dhaka and Washington have cooperated closely on the security and military fronts. Washington has provided Dhaka with considerable military aid, helped the latter in bolstering its border and maritime security, assisted it in equipping and upgrading its UN peacekeeping contingents, and conducted a number of joint military exercises with it on a regular basis. Moreover, US-Bangladeshi cultural relations are strong and multifaceted, exemplified by regular cultural exchanges, joint cultural programs, and the presence of nearly 800,000 Bangladeshi immigrants in the US.

Humanitarian assistance

The US has been a very important partner for Bangladesh in terms of humanitarian assistance. During the Covid pandemic, Bangladesh had been the largest recipient of US vaccine donations, receiving more than 100 million doses that comprise more than 70% of all vaccine donations to the country. Moreover, Washington has provided Dhaka with nearly $2.1 billion since 2017 to manage the 1.2 million Rohingya refugees currently residing in south-eastern Bangladesh.

Areas of friction

There also exist some areas of friction in the US-Bangladesh relations. Washington has expressed its reservations about the fairness of elections in Bangladesh, the human rights records of Bangladeshi security agencies, and the conditions of media freedom and labour rights in the country. On the other hand, Dhaka is seeking from the US the reinstatement of GSP facilities for itself, the removal of sanctions on Bangladeshi security force Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), the extradition of Rashed Chowdhury (a former Bangladeshi military officer involved in the assassination of Bangladesh’s founding father Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman), and the increased involvement of the US in the repatriation of Rohingya refugees.

Non-interference in Bangladesh’s internal affairs

US Ambassadors’ Comment on Bangladesh’s Internal Affairs Shocked Countrymen. USA is country’s development partner. The USA-Bangladesh ties are eternal. Bangladeshi people like UK. The ambassadors of America, Britain, and Canada talk directly about the internal affairs of Bangladesh. The expectations of Bangladeshi people from all our development partners including their representatives in Dhaka not to interfere in its own internal affairs. As they should respect its own values, choices.

Bangladesh-US ties amidst global and regional transformations

The growing importance that the US is attaching to Bangladesh has to be understood in the context of global and regional transformations. Bangladesh is a rising power in South Asia, and its strategic location, population, and economy make it an important player in the region. Moreover, the US is seeking to maintain its strategic presence in the Indo-Pacific region as part of its broader strategy to counterbalance China’s growing influence in the region. Bangladesh is an important partner for the US in this context, as it shares a border with India, which is a critical player in the region, and is also a member of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) and the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA).

In conclusion, US-Bangladeshi relations are on a positive track, as evidenced by the recent high-level visits, joint exercises, and dialogue mechanisms. While there are some areas of friction in the relationship, the growing strategic importance of Bangladesh and the US’s interest in maintaining its strategic presence in the Indo-Pacific region are likely to drive the relationship forward in the coming years.

Consolidating Ties in Post-LDC Era

As Bangladesh is poised to graduate from the LDC, cooperation in the realm of investment, ease of doing business, higher education, intellectual property protection, taxation, and pharmaceutical needs to be reassessed. In the post-LDC scenario, the USA needs to ensure a trading agreement to harmonize trade procedures between the two countries by signing new and more favorable trade pacts. Given Bangladesh’s comparative advantage in the global supply chain due to cheap and affordable products, the USA can harness this by maintaining undiminished linkages even in the post-LDC era.

Bangladesh needs more US investment

The bilateral relationship between USA and Bangladesh is rooted in favorable of investment and trade relationship that enables both economies to thrive. Bangladesh had witnessed remarkable infrastructural advancement and mushrooming economic zone and increasing benefits granted to foreign industries point to the conducive business environment in Bangladesh. Given Bangladesh’s market comprising a colossal 170 million people, and due to its relative proximity to both South and South-East Asia, the United States can tap into Bangladesh’s market through the inflow of investments. This can aid Bangladesh’s development trajectory since the infusion of investment results in a set of macro-economic dividends for the nascent developing country. The historic ties between Bangladesh and USA rest on common values and mutual interests. Through enhancing economic and trade cooperation, the mutual partnership can be further amplified.

Take a comprehensive approach

As global geopolitics verges on the critical junction, and as Bangladesh thrives economically — the USA needs to reorient its stance towards Bangladesh. A “reset” in bilateral ties needs a broadening and deepening of partnership on a gamut of bilateral issues in the friendly spirit.

Moreover, a “reset” in bilateral relations is necessary, to take account of the global strategic shifts and economic ascent of Bangladesh. Harnessing the fruits of bilateral partnership needs frequent engagement and enhancing the people-to-people ties between two countries. The bilateral ties need to explore the functional issues and through frequent bilateral engagement, a booming bilateral partnership will materialize.