Why is the US Getting Closer to Bangladesh?

President Biden stated earlier this year that he believed the Dhaka-Washington relationship would endure for the next 50 years and beyond.

By Yumiko Fumada: The USA is getting closer with Bangladesh day by day. The USA wants more engagement with Bangladesh now in the region. Although the two countries’ diplomatic ties began on 4 April 1972, when the USA recognized the newly formed Bangladesh. However, the USA’s current focus on Bangladesh reminds us that it desires a strategic partnership with 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. After 2016, this collaboration grew even further. Bangladeshi items have a large market in the USA. The trade balance between the two countries favors Bangladesh, and the USA 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. Meanwhile, Bangladesh exported $6.7 billion to the USA, up 9.5 percent from 2018. The USA has made a significant contribution to the vaccine. Bangladesh is the third-largest recipient of US aid in South Asia. The USA praised Bangladesh for providing sanctuary to Rohingya refugees, noting that it had not only met its obligation but also continued to provide support and collaboration. The implementation of sanctions by the USA has fallen numerous times in the context of such a relationship.

The year 2021 was a trying one for relations between the USA and Bangladesh. On 10 December 2021, the USA 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 same month by the Biden Administration.

In 2022, the USA produced a report on the situation of human rights in 198 countries. and the State Department has accused Bangladesh of human rights violations.

The US decision to apply sanctions on Bangladesh, which include ideals like democracy and human rights, is considered as a strategic move by the Biden Administration in shifting geopolitical objectives and US foreign policy. For different causes, there are ongoing discussions, criticisms, and analyses of US-Bangladesh ties.

Bangladesh held the 8th US-Bangladesh Partnership Dialogue on March 20, after a one-year hiatus due to the Corona pandemic. The US undersecretary for political affairs, Victoria Nuland, the third highest ranking official in US State Department, visited Dhaka on March 19 and participated in the dialogue as the US delegate.

The Bangladesh team, on the other hand, was led by Foreign Secretary Masud Bin Momen. Those two delegates came together primarily to strengthen the US Bangladesh 50 years bilateral connection and establish a “robust relationship.” It is surprising that the USA  is more interested  about Bangladesh and has included it in its strategic calculations today. Though, in the past, the USA did not do so, instead classifying Bangladesh as an underdeveloped country similar to Niger and calculating Bangladesh on humanitarian grounds.

However, the dialogue took place in two stages at the same location: first, Undersecretary Nuland met with Momen; Bangladesh raised US sanctions against Bangladesh’s elite force Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), calling them “unjustified,” and the USA sought Bangladesh’s support in the Russia-Ukraine conflict. The primary debate of the dialogue was then commenced in the second stage in order to close the gaps in bilateral ties.

President Biden stated earlier this year that he believed the Dhaka-Washington relationship would 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 were 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.

On the heels of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Undersecretary Nuland said the USA wanted to work together with Bangladesh on global security.

“Bangladesh and the USA 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,” Victoria Nuland said at the start of the eighth Partnership Dialogue, which discussed all aspects of bilateral relations. To enhance US investment in Bangladesh, Dhaka will have to work more.

Newly appointed US Ambassador to Dhaka Peter Haas praised Bangladesh’s contribution in promoting peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region recently, saying the USA wished 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 USA can “move faster together” in expanding trade and investment connections, according to Ambassador Haas at an event titled ‘US-Bangladesh Business Forum: Building on 50 Years of Friendship’ held in Dhaka on May 08, hosted by HSBC Bangladesh, in partnership with the US-Bangladesh Business Council (USBBC).

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

The USA’s 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 USA  has a larger role for the country in its Indo-Pacific strategy.

Bangladesh favours regional peace. Bangladesh still believes in the Non-Aligned Movement’s “importance” (NAM). The USA must recognize that Bangladesh is allied with it.

Bangladesh believes the US sanctions are motivated by geopolitics, while the USA` claims the Rapid Action Battalion is harming the rule of law, human rights, fundamental freedoms, and economic prosperity of the Bangladeshi people. Finally, the US sanctions against Bangladesh are nothing more than a South Asian geopolitical plan. Because of China’s overwhelming domination in South Asia, the USA will have no friendly states (except India) in the region. Of course, Bangladesh will be able to help solve this diplomatic dilemma.

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed has asked the USA to consider Bangladesh a prospective partner for increased trade and investment, claiming that the two nations’ trade volume will double. The prime minister made the remarks during a meeting with the US-Bangladesh Business Council’s inaugural executive business delegation in Dhaka on May 10.

While Bangladesh’s top concerns are sanctions and investment, the USA wants to ensure its security in the region. It must maintain its security in the Indo-Pacific area amid the current great power rivalry. In order to accomplish so, the USA plans to sign two defense agreements with Bangladesh: General Security of Military Information Agreement and Acquisition Cross-Servicing Agreement. Through these accords, the USA 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 ‘Mutual Understanding’ with the USA and become a trustworthy ally. Because the USA is Bangladesh’s single largest export market for ready-made garments, accounting for 83 percent of total exports. The USA was also Bangladesh’s top source of foreign direct investment ($3.5 billion in 2019). Bangladesh should retain strong connections with the USA for two reasons: 1) investment and 2) the Rohingya Crisis. In the Partnership Dialogue, Bangladesh had followed the strategy. According to the most recent data, there are 213,372 Bangladeshis living in the USA, contributing to the country’s economy. Last but not least, through numerous scholarship and study programs, the USA 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 USA has reaffirmed its commitment to working with Bangladesh to improve the country’s human rights situation.

Bangladeshi garments are primarily exported to the USA. Bangladesh supports the US Indo-Pacific strategy of freedom and openness. Bangladesh requires the USA for its development. It’s worth noting that Bangladesh aspires to be a South Asian economic miracle. Its financial success is now commendable. As a result, it is dependent on the USA and the EU to maintain the current rate of rapid economic growth. Bangladesh is not a threat to the USA. Bangladesh is a firm believer in international friendship. Bangladesh may be one of the trusted allies of the USA in the region.

The writer is a research fellow in Bangladesh Studies at the University of Melbourne, Australia.