Why the US wants more engagement with Bangladesh

The US plans to sign two defense agreements with Bangladesh: GSOMIA and ACSA and, through these, the US hopes to strengthen military ties by enhancing intelligence sharing and exchanging logistical and technological support, writes Fumiko Yamada for South Asia Monitor 

Fumiko Yamada May 20, 2022
US-Bangladesh Business Summit (Photo: FBCCI)

The two countries' diplomatic ties began on April 4, 1972, when the United States recognized the newly formed Bangladesh. Both countries have had cordial relations for the past 50 years, strengthening collaboration in areas such as development, climate change, counter-terrorism, democracy and human rights.

Over the last decade, cooperation in trade, investment and security, particularly in counter-terrorism, has strengthened. Bangladeshi items have a large market in the US. The trade balance between the two countries favours Bangladesh. The US is the largest single market for garments produced in Bangladesh. By 2019, bilateral commerce had reached $9 billion, with US exports to Bangladesh totaling $2.3 billion, up 12 percent from 2018. Bangladesh exported $6.7 billion to the US, up 9.5 percent from 2018. Bangladesh is the third-largest recipient of US aid in South Asia. The US has praised Dhaka for providing sanctuary to Rohingya refugees.

The year 2021 was a trying one for relations between the US and Bangladesh. On December 10, 2021, the US sanctioned Bangladesh's Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and numerous current and former officers for a long history of human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings. Bangladesh was not invited to the virtual Summit for Democracy that month by the Biden administration.

The US decision to apply sanctions on Bangladesh is considered a strategic move by the Biden administration in shifting geopolitical objectives and US foreign policy. 

Bilateral dialogue

Bangladesh held the 8th US-Bangladesh Partnership Dialogue on March 20, 2022 after a one-year hiatus due to the Corona pandemic. The US Undersecretary for Political Affairs, Victoria Nuland, the third highest ranking person in the State Department, visited Dhaka on March 19 and participated in the dialogue. The Bangladesh team was led by Foreign Secretary Masud Bin Momen. The delegates came together primarily to establish a "robust relationship." It is surprising the US has included Bangladesh in its strategic calculations today. In the past, it did not do so, merely classifying Bangladesh as an underdeveloped country similar to Niger.

The dialogue took place in two stages. Bangladesh raised US sanctions against the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), calling them "unjustified". The US sought Bangladesh's support in the Russia-Ukraine conflict. The primary debate of the dialogue commenced in the second stage in order to close the gaps in bilateral ties.

US President Joe Biden stated earlier this year that he believes the Dhaka-Washington relationship will endure for the next 50 years and beyond.

"Our defense cooperation is stronger than ever," the US president wrote to Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, adding that the Bangladesh Coast Guard and Navy are vital allies in ensuring a free and open Indo-Pacific region as well as contributing to the regional fight against human and illicit drug trafficking.

US courts Dhaka

On the heels of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Victoria Nuland said: "Bangladesh and the US will work together to protect democracy and human rights at a time when Russia is invading Ukraine in the changed world situation and international law and human rights are under threat," 

The newly appointed US Ambassador to Dhaka, Peter Haas, praised Bangladesh's contribution in promoting peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region, saying the US wishes to work with Bangladesh to achieve their common goals.

"Bangladesh and the US have opposing but remarkably similar views for the Indo-Pacific area. We can – and do – collaborate to enhance areas where our visions intersect," he remarked.

Bangladesh and the US can "move faster together" in expanding trade and investment connections, according to Peter Haas.

During Nuland's visit to Dhaka, she signed a draft defense cooperation agreement, which represents that endeavour. However, Washington may continue to view Dhaka as a regional security partner. The US now seeks to establish a strategic engagement and relationship with Bangladesh.

Human rights

The US' recent increasing attention on democracy and human rights in Bangladesh raises the question of why the US is taking this action now. There are several options. One possibility is that the US has a larger role for the country in its Indo-Pacific strategy.

Bangladesh still believes in the Non-Aligned Movement's "importance". The US must recognize that Dhaka is allied with Washington.

Bangladesh believes the US sanctions are motivated by geopolitics, while the US claims the Rapid Action Battalion is harming the rule of law, human rights, fundamental freedoms and economic prosperity of the Bangladeshi people. Dhaka believes the US sanctions are nothing more than a South Asian geopolitical plan.

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has asked the US to consider Bangladesh as a prospective partner for increased trade and investment, claiming that their trade volume will double. The Prime Minister made the remarks at a meeting with the US-Bangladesh Business Council's inaugural executive business delegation in Dhaka in May 2022.

Long-term ties

While Bangladesh's top concerns are sanctions and investment, the US wants to ensure its security in the region. The US must maintain its security in the Indo-Pacific area amid the current great power rivalry. In order to accomplish this, the US plans to sign two defense agreements with Bangladesh: GSOMIA and ACSA and, through these, the US hopes to strengthen military ties by enhancing intelligence sharing and exchanging logistical and technological support.

Bangladesh should pursue its policies and maintain its soft demands in order to enhance its understanding of America and become a trustworthy ally of the US. The US is Bangladesh's single largest export market for ready-made garments, accounting for 83 percent of total exports. The US was also Bangladesh's top source of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) ($3.5 billion in total investments as of 2019). Bangladesh should retain strong connections with the US for two reasons: 1) investment and 2) the Rohingya Crisis. According to recent data, there are 213,372 Bangladeshis living in the US, contributing to the country's economy. 

Last, but not least, through numerous scholarship and study programme, the US has made important contributions to Bangladesh's knowledge space. 

Both countries have been showing signs of progress for some time, with Bangladesh establishing human rights cells and sending out human rights reports. At the same time, the US has reaffirmed its commitment to working with Bangladesh to improve the country's human rights situation.

Bangladesh supports the US' Indo-Pacific strategy of freedom and openness. It requires the US for its development. Bangladesh aspires to be a South Asian economic miracle. As a result, it is dependent on the US and the European Union to maintain the current rate of rapid economic growth. Bangladesh is not a threat to the US; it may become one of the trusted allies of the US in the region.

(The author is a graduate of South Asian Studies, University of Toronto, Canada, and currently a Research Fellow in Bangladesh Studies at the University of Melbourne, Australia. Views are personal. She can be contacted at fuyamada14@gmail.com)

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