How will Bangladesh address ‘American concerns’?
Relations between the United States and Bangladesh, which had been relatively smooth, have witnessed a few hiccups in recent years, especially after the US ban on RAB, the new visa policy, and various statements of US diplomats about human rights, internal politics, and elections in Bangladesh. Although Dhaka consistently told Washington that it will address its internal issues on its own and asked Washington not to interfere, the US State Department's principal deputy spokesperson, Vedant Patel, has said the US will not hesitate to act and engage in issues and areas that are in its interests. In such a reality, how Bangladesh responded to the US's actions deserves analysis.
Since 1971, when the US was one of the first to recognize Bangladesh as an independent nation, the two have maintained good ties. Over the last 53 years, amicable relations between the two nations have enhanced collaboration in economic growth, environmental preservation, terrorist prevention, democratic government, and human rights.
It's important to note that Bangladesh benefits economically from trade with the US, Bangladesh's third-largest trade partner. Trade between the US and Bangladesh increased by over 32% from 2021 to 2022. The value of bilateral trade has steadily grown to USD 13 billion by 2022. Bangladesh's share of the US garment market is about 10 percent, and in 2022, the country's clothing exports increased by 36.4% year over year to $US9.75 billion.
Again, the US is the top investor in Bangladesh's energy industry and the greatest source of foreign direct investment (FDI). Bangladesh receives the third-most US assistance in South Asia. Over the previous five decades, the US has contributed more than $8 billion in aid to Bangladesh, leading to outstanding growth in numerous sectors. US firms have also made important contributions to the Bangladeshi economy. Renowned firms like Chevron, Metlife, Elicott Dredges, Visa & Mastercard, and Citi N.A. have developed a strong presence in Bangladesh, strengthening bilateral economic cooperation even further.
The cooperation between the two countries went well beyond simple economic exchange and aid to encompass many other areas of growth, development, and friendship. With a donation of approximately 115 million vaccine doses to aid Bangladesh's immunization campaigns, the US has been instrumental in the country's response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Furthermore, the US has provided Bangladesh, Myanmar, and the region with approximately $2.1 billion since 2017, making it the top foreign contributor to the Rohingya crisis response.
The two nations have maintained "cordial diplomatic relations" and collaborated on a variety of security issues, including maritime security, counterterrorism, peacekeeping, defense trade, and the development of defense institutions.Training cooperation between the armed forces of the two countries takes place routinely at the Bangladesh International Peace Support Operations Center in Rajendrapur, near Dhaka. Bangladesh and the United States began their defense discussion with a joint declaration in 2012. Since then, the debate has been held annually in both Bangladesh and the United States. All of these interactions reflected the two nations' strong cooperation over the last decade and a half.
Discontent has surfaced on both sides amid these deepening relationships. The United States looks to be dissatisfied with Bangladesh's human rights and democratic status, and Bangladesh appears to be upset with the United States' stance on its politics and economy. Government representatives asserted that the US had strained relations by denying Bangladesh access to GSP facilities for ten years, attaching strings to aid, pressing the country on matters like human rights, and failing to appropriately resolve bilateral problems.
Bilateral relations between the two countries have deteriorated to levels not seen in the previous 50 years ever since the United States imposed sanctions on Bangladesh's elite security force, the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), and some of its former and current security officials on December 21, 2021. Bangladesh has often voiced concern about this issue and warned that by implementing sanctions, the US risks undermining the trust and cooperation between the two nations, potentially hindering their ability to effectively address common security threats.
Derek Chollet, US State Department Counselor, warned in February 2023 that Bangladesh's democracy collapse would restrict US cooperation. Then, in May 2023, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken declared a visa ban on Bangladeshi individuals if they were found to be involved in the "undermining of the democratic election process". These US actions have further rekindled anti-American sentiments in the Bangladesh administration and widened the gap between the two governments.
In most cases, when the United States applies sanctions, the targeted countries respond in ways that aggravate the situation. But Bangladesh handled the US penalty on RAB diplomatically. Initially, Bangladesh used diplomatic channels to connect with the US administration and clarify its position on the allegations. Dhaka expressed its views on human rights and democracy during the security dialogue between them. It formed a Human Rights Cell under the United Nations to monitor the human rights situation in Bangladesh. In order to dispel misunderstandings, Dhaka has also facilitated increased diplomatic exchanges and state-level visits in recent months.
While visiting Dhaka, US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Donald Lu observed the human rights situation in the country and praised RAB for its role in reducing extrajudicial executions, providing some relief to the government. He had noted the "tremendous progress" achieved by RAB, as described in a Human Rights Watch report. This suggests that the Biden administration views Bangladesh's reactions to the US sanctions favorably.
Some political circles believed that Bangladesh moved to China as a result of the US's overwhelming pressure. It was incorrect, though, as time passed. It was understood when Dhaka issued its first official policy on the Indo-Pacific, calling for the establishment of "rules-based multilateral systems" to promote "equitable and sustainable development", contradicting China's warning against the Initiative.
Under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, the administration firmly informed Beijing that they would pursue their own foreign policy. Bangladesh's comprehensive view of the Indo-Pacific is an important step towards presenting Dhaka as a proactive, engaged, and accountable player in the region. Because of this, there are no longer any questions about Bangladesh's IPS posture, which is critical for the United States in the present climate of world politics.
The tenets of neutrality, non-alignment, and multipolarity have always served as Bangladesh's guiding principles in its foreign policy decisions. Bangladesh abstained twice, along with other South Asian countries, to denounce Russia at the UN after the Russia-Ukraine war. Bangladesh, however, supported Ukraine on human rights.
Notwithstanding the fact that Dhaka maintained political neutrality in the Ukraine crisis, the US had concerns about Bangladesh-Russia relations.Bangladesh shipping authorities refused to let Ursa Major, a Russian ship, dock in Mongla port to deliver supplies for the Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant because US sanctions applied to the ship, allaying the worry. Despite Russian pressure, the Bangladesh government has maintained its decision to deny the ship admission.
The ongoing tension between the United States and Bangladesh calls for a constructive approach to finding common ground. Engaging in open and meaningful dialogue is the first step towards resolving any misunderstanding. So, both the US and Bangladesh should initiate diplomatic talks to overcome challenges and forge a more productive and constructive relationship. Both countries should endeavor to understand each other's points of view, resolve issues, and collaborate toward common goals.
While Bangladesh should make it clear that it is open to discussing US concerns, complaints, and potential solutions in an open and honest manner, the US shouldn't exploit democracy and human rights to intrude in Bangladesh's internal affairs. In short, by adopting a collaborative and constructive approach, the US and Bangladesh can seek a mutually beneficial relationship.
The writer is strategic affairs analyst