US-Bangladesh relations: A little less pious talk, please

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US Ambassador to Bangladesh Earl R. Miller Photo: Courtesy

The US Ambassador to Bangladesh Earl R. Miller, in an interview with UNB, has expressed his confidence that Dhaka-Washington ties would grow stronger. The election of Joe Biden has created such an opportunity. He told UNB, relations between the two countries will only get stronger with no major changes under the new Biden administration

Link: https://unb.com.bd/category/Special/dhaka-washington-ties-to-get-stronger-under-biden-administration-ambassador-miller/63422

There are obvious reasons for such optimism. There are enormous differences between Trump and Biden. One is a world-class ignoramus, the other a seasoned pro with over four decades of experience in global politics. I remember, two years ago, at a hastily organized meeting of human rights advocates at the White House, a representative of Bangladesh’s Hindu minority implored President Trump to help her and other imperiled Hindus in her home country. An incredulous Trump looked up at the woman and asked, where is Bangladesh?

It may have been an act, Trump enjoyed putting up such acts. He clearly knew where Bangladesh is. After all, his company imported ties emblazoned with his name from that country. In 2016, sometime before his surprise election victory, Trump appeared at a late-night TV show, where he argued for focusing on producing stuff in the US, instead of outsourcing them overseas. ‘But your ties are made in Bangladesh,’ the host quipped, pointing at Trump’s excessively long red tie. ‘Well,’ the would-be president attempted a response, ‘they need jobs in Bangladesh, don’t they?

Sure, Bangladesh does need jobs, lots of them, and indeed, the USA has been a great contributor to its job creation. With nearly $6billion worth of imports of ready-made garments including ties, Bangladesh clearly owes a huge debt of gratitude to the USA. Another reason for Bangladesh’s gratitude: The Trump Administration had more or less left the Hasina Government on its own, not bothering to make those pesky demands for creating space for the democratic opposition.

That, however, may change now that Joe Biden hast aken over and has asked old pro Tony Blinken as his point man on foreign relations. Mr Blinken has been to Bangladesh and knows the region well. He, like his former boss John Kerry, loves talking about the virtues of democracy. If Mr Blinken decides to visit Bangladesh now, he will find a much different country and not many patient listners.

Bangladesh’s remarkable economic progress and political stability has earned it the moniker, ‘model of development,’ from the United Nations. If in the past the country had its hands outstretched with an empty topi, now major countries rush to offer it gifts, be they in the form of loans, investments or free COVID vaccines, unsolicited. There are reasons to believe that the USA will pay closer attention to this new Bangladesh. One particular reason is its growing bonhomie with China.

Clearly, China’s increasing naval presence in the waters of the Indian Ocean and its hot pursuit of countries like Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sri Lanka through its Brick and Belt Initiative and generous multi-billion dollar loans and investments has caused so much headache that the Trump administration felt the urgent need to come up with a plan to counter it.  The so-called Indo-Pacific Strategy, an updated version of Obama’s Asia-Pacific Rebalancing Strategy, was just that, another strategic plan, to contain the next world #1.

The Trump administration made no secret of its desire to see Bangladesh included in the IPS. In Trump’s dying months, the US State Department began assiduously courting Bangladesh, mostly with carrots, to get it on board. In September and October of 2020, there was a flurry of activities that culminated in the signing of an Open Sky Agreement, paving the way for the renewal of direct airlinks between the two countries. A whole lot of good things will happen in the coming days, Keith Krach, U.S. undersecretary of state for economic growth, energy and the environment, assured his Bangladesh counterparts in a virtual dialogue.

Those goodies were not without strings. The Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun, during a three-day visit to Dhaka, made the US’s intentions clear. “The United States sees Bangladesh as a key partner in the Indo-Pacific region and we’re committed to growing our partnership in this regard to advance a free and open Indo-Pacific. Bangladesh will be a centerpiece of our work in the region,” he said. No need to further dissect the statement to read between the lines.

Always transactional, the Trump Administration religiously adhered to the principle Quid Pro Quo. That was made amply clear in October 2016 during a phone conversation between Prime Minister Hasina and US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper. The official readout of the conversation spelled out the carrots the US had left dangling. Here are the highlights:

The two leaders discussed their shared commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific that ensures the sovereignty of all nations, and specific bilateral defense priorities including maritime and regional security, global peacekeeping, and initiatives to modernize Bangladesh’s military capabilities. Both leaders expressed their commitment to continue building closer bilateral defense relations in support of shared values and interests.

These developments –open sky agreement, high-level visits and a telephone conversation that promises lots of olive-colored carrots – have left Dhaka’s chattering class pondering how best to respond to the US’s ‘new enthusiasm’ towards a country that it had called “basket case”. Tread carefully, they advise, lest you get embroiled in an inter-continental feud involving the USA and China, with India thrown in as aperitif.

Michael Kugelman, liberal-leaning Wilson Center’s South Asia experts, thinks while Biden may engineer a full-scale foreign policy reset, his administration’s likely South Asia policy will be an anomaly — a rare example of considerable continuity with Trump. “The attention it does garner will largely be framed through the lens of US-China rivalry and, increasingly, India–China rivalry amid Beijing’s deepening footprint across the region, fueled by its Belt and Road Initiative,” he writes.

There could be one difference though, Kugelman cautions. “Biden will likely go relatively easy on India for strategic reasons, but Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka could find themselves subjected to sharp and frequent criticism.” In other words, like in Obama years, the US could retreat to its old habit of lecturing lesser South Asian nations about the value it attaches to democracy, creating space for democratic opposition and ensuring free and fair elections.

To which Bangladesh could politely advise Washington to oil its own charka first.

The writer is a journalist and author based in New York.

  • US-Bangladesh Relations
  • US Ambassador to Bangladesh Earl R. Miller
  • US Election
  • Joe Biden
  • Donald Trump

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