Set to blossom

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Image: Collected

With the Biden administration firmly in place now, relations with Washington are set to take off.

Experts on international relations depicted the brighter prospects for more consistent and deeper engagement between Dhaka and Washington under the Biden Administration, with cooperation in the global fight against climate change presenting the most obvious theatre of cooperation between the two countries.

They hoped to see the US takes a greater role over the events in Myanmar and address the Rohingya issue, noting that the US needs to do more inside Myanmar with actors on the ground.

Experts from both countries were brought together virtually for a symposium hosted by the Cosmos Foundation to assess the Dhaka-Washington relationship in its present context and identify the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.

The keynote address at the event was delivered by Michael Kugelman, Deputy Director of the Asia Programme and Senior Associate for South Asia at the Wilson Centre in Washington, DC.

Chairman of Cosmos Foundation Enayetullah Khan delivered the opening remarks at the event, which premiered Saturday on the Facebook page of Cosmos Foundation, and is now available for viewing at the convenience of viewers.

Renowned scholar-diplomat and adviser on foreign affairs to the last caretaker government Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury chaired the session.

It was the latest instalment in Cosmos Foundation’s flagship ‘Dialogue’ series, in which a high-level expert panel was tasked with tackling pressing issues of the day that has continued through the pandemic.

Former Ambassador Tariq Karim, Distinguished Professor of political science at the Illinois State University Dr Ali Riaz, Bangladeshi-American scientist-turned-politician Dr Nina Ahmad, and former Ambassador Serajul Islam joined as discussants.

Kugelman in his keynote speech offered some thoughts on perceptions of Bangladesh in the US, the current state of US-Bangladesh relations and discussed what to expect for the relationship in the Biden era.

He said there is scope for the US-Bangladesh relationship to grow in the Biden years and beyond, especially through opportunities for stepped up cooperation on climate change and through Bangladesh’s inclusion in the US Indo Pacific policy.

No matter how things ‘shake out’, Kugelman, an increasing presence across mainly Indian-owned media across platforms, said driven in particular by economic cooperation, the relationship between Dhaka and Washington should continue to be cordial and stable on the whole.

Kugelman said Washington knows that Bangladesh is a key theatre for Sino-India competition.

“Now, one can argue that Dhaka’s ties to Delhi are warmer and more multifaceted than they are with Beijing, but clearly there’s a competition playing out here,” he said adding that the Biden administration has an opportunity to try to shift the balance away from China and more towards India by stepping up its own engagements with Bangladesh through more maritime cooperation, more investment, more efforts to partner with Bangladesh on trans-regional connectivity projects, such as those within the BIMSTEC rubric.

Ambassador Tariq Karim said how the US addresses its relations with India, in relation to India’s relations with the other neighbours is going to send a key message to everybody.

He said Bangladesh is between a rock and several hard places and specifically in between two major powers - India and China. “It’s strategically placed.”

The former diplomat said Bangladesh maintains a good relationship with India and China who are competing with each other. “We’re also part of the Indo Pacific and Belt and Road Initiative.”

He said Bangladesh developed its relations with India which is natural while China continues to engage in economic projects apart from defence cooperation.

Tariq Karim said the US will have to chart its course carefully noting that Bangladesh is not an inconsequential country anymore.

Enayetullah Khan said they hope to see that the US take a greater role over the current events in Myanmar and address the Rohingya issue to ensure stability in the region.

Dr Iftekhar said the US will need to be engaged with the smaller global actors as there are issues like climate change and Covid-19 pandemic.

He said Bangladesh’s focus is development and Bangladesh expects support from the US as Bangladesh is set to graduate from the list of Least Developed Countries. “We’ll require market access and we believe positive results will come out.”

Prof Ali Riaz said how the US deals with India has an implication for the Bangladesh-US relationship.

Dr Nina Ahmad recalled the sacrifice of people behind Bangladesh’s emergence as an independent country and how Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman inspired them.

She laid emphasis on investing in the poor, continuing helping the women to play their role effectively and look into labour conditions to help make Bangladesh stronger. “Bangladesh has arrived, now at 50 years, after starting from nothing.”

Kerry’s visit

John Kerry, the United States Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, is scheduled to arrive here on Friday on a brief visit during which Bangladesh will convey its priority issues on the climate front.

Kerry, now in India on a four-day visit, will hand over the US president’s invitation to prime minister Sheikh Hasina in person to attend the “Leaders Summit on Climate” to be held on 22 and 23 April virtually.

Kerry is looking forward to “meaningful discussions” with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen and others during his stay in Dhaka on how to tackle the climate crisis.

“In Dhaka, Special Presidential Envoy Kerry will meet representatives from the government of Bangladesh and key development and international partners,” a State Department spokesperson told UNB.

As the president of the Climate Vulnerable Forum and the Vulnerable Twenty Group of Finance Ministers, Bangladesh plays a leading role in combating climate change, the spokesperson said. Marcia Bernicat, US senior official for economic growth, energy and the environment, has said Bangladesh’s leadership in addressing climate change offers the United States – and the world – a great partner to tackle this climate crisis.

As president of the Climate Vulnerable Forum and the Vulnerable Twenty Group of Finance Ministers, she said, Bangladesh can make irreplaceable contributions towards a successful COP26.

As a climate vulnerable country, Bernicat said, Bangladesh will require significant climate adaptation and resilience, especially in view of its increasingly ambitious climate goals.

US companies are well placed to deliver many of the solutions Bangladesh will need to sustainably grow its economy, she said.

“Yes, we’re happy that he’s coming. We worked with him before, too,” foreign minister Momen told UNB.

US President Joe Biden has invited 40 world leaders, including Prime Minister Hasina, to the “Leaders’ Summit on Climate” that he will host. The virtual summit will be live-streamed for public viewing.

The “Leaders Summit on Climate” will underscore the urgency – and the economic benefits – of stronger climate action. It will be a key milestone on the road to the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) this November in Glasgow.

‘We’ll be happy to convey our priority issues. We’ll also share the steps that Bangladesh has taken so far,’ Momen said.

He said Bangladesh believes that adaptation is not enough and there has to be mitigation and Bangladesh needs support as promised by others. ‘It should be Kerry’s special target.’

Momen said Bangladesh did not create the problem and those responsible countries should share responsibility of rehabilitating and protecting people from the river erosions.

President Biden emphasised the challenge of climate change, stating, ‘The United States and the world face a profound climate crisis and by placing climate change at the centre of our foreign policy, diplomacy, and national security.’

During his recent meeting with presidential envoy on climate John Kerry, Momen discussed the global issue of climate change, and the possible US-Bangladesh collaboration in this connection.

The foreign minister recollected the vital contribution of Kerry towards the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and welcomed the decision of the US to return to the Paris Agreement.

He described various actions taken by the government of Bangladesh under the prudent leadership of prime minister Sheikh Hasina on mitigation, adaptation and resilience.

Momen also briefed John Kerry on all current and future activities of the Climate Vulnerable Forum and the Global Centre on Adaptation regional office in Dhaka.

Kerry recognised the extraordinary challenges faced by Bangladesh due to climate change and frequent natural disasters.

Agreeing that the international financial institutions could do more for the issue of climate change, he also opined that displacement due to climate change would be a vital security issue for everybody.

They agreed to work closely in the COP26 and other multilateral platforms in order to fulfill commitments under the Paris Climate Agreement and even go beyond Paris.

President Biden took action on his first day in office to return the US to the Paris Agreement.

Days later, on January 27, he announced that he would soon convene a leaders’ summit to galvanise efforts by the major economies to tackle the climate crisis.

A wider commitment

Both President Biden and Secretary of State Antony J Blinken are "committed to strengthening" the Dhaka-Washington relationship as the two countries address common challenges, according to Bernicat.

The two countries address some of the most pressing regional and global challenges together, including the Rohingya humanitarian crisis and global challenge to tackle climate change, said the official.

"Bangladesh's impressive economic sector provides a solid platform on which to expand and deepen our relationship," said Marcia Bernicat, senior official for economic growth, energy and the environment.

She made the remarks while addressing virtual launching of the US-Bangladesh Business Council on Tuesday.

Bernicat, former US ambassador to Bangladesh, said the United States is proud of the partnership that they have built with the Bangladeshi people since Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman led a proud and determined people to achieve their independence 50 years ago.

"How fitting that we honour that important anniversary today by launching the US-Bangladesh Business Council," she said.

She further said the US continues to look for ways to help make Bangladesh more attractive for investment, which in turn provides for the transparency and rule of law that all companies thrive in.  

Similarly, Bernicat said, they look forward to welcoming Bangladeshi investment into the United States from the country's increasingly internationally competitive companies.

She said president Biden has emphasised the challenge of climate change, stating that "the United States and the world face a profound climate crisis" and by placing climate change at the center of our foreign policy, diplomacy, and national security. 

The US official said Bangladesh's leadership in addressing climate change offers the United States - and the world - a great partner to tackle this climate crisis.

As president of the Climate Vulnerable Forum and the Vulnerable Twenty Group of Finance Ministers, Bangladesh has a leading voice and can make irreplaceable contributions toward a successful COP26, she said.

As a climate vulnerable country, Bangladesh will require significant climate adaptation and resilience, especially in view of its increasingly ambitious climate goals, Bernicat said.

The US companies are well placed to deliver many of the solutions Bangladesh will need to sustainably grow its economy, she said.

Bernicat, the ex-ambassador in Dhaka, said this is an exciting time in US-Bangladesh relations, and it is a particularly timely moment to inaugurate this organization to support closer US-Bangladesh economic cooperation.

The US-Bangladesh Business Council and the American private sector will be invaluable partners to help Bangladesh reach the ambitions laid out in its Bangladesh Vision 2041, including to become a high-income country, she said.

The two countries have already seen some of this cooperation in action. 

US companies operating in Bangladesh are bringing sustainable best practices and making unique contributions, such as local community economic development and innovative AI-powered flood alerts, she said. 

A US-Bangladesh partnership achieved Bangabandhu's extraordinary vision by launching Bangladesh into space with the Bangabandhu-1 satellite, Bernicat said.

And in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, it was Bangladeshi companies who stepped up to play a critical role in establishing more diverse and secure global supply chains, exporting valuable PPE to the United States, she recalled.

The launching featured inaugural remarks by prime minister Sheikh Hasina, as well as special addresses by prime minister's ICT affairs advisor Sajeeb Wazed Joy, commerce minister Tipu Munshi and prime minister's principal secretary Ahmad Kaikaus, US ambassador to Bangladesh Earl Miller and Bangladesh ambassador to USA M Shahidul Islam.

Myron Brilliant, executive vice president and head of international affairs for the US Chamber of Commerce said the United States is one of Bangladesh's most important trading partners, and over the past decade they have seen an impressive growth trajectory that they are confident will create new opportunities for US companies.

"We believe the Council will serve as the premier bridge between business and government leaders in both countries," said Myron Brilliant.

The Council will be led by Nisha Biswal, President of the US-Bangladesh Business Council and US Chamber of Commerce Senior Vice President for South Asia, and Sidhanta Mehra, Director of the US-Bangladesh Business Council.

"Under the leadership of Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Bangladesh has seen tremendous growth and so too has its partnership with the United States," said Biswal, who served as assistant secretary of state for south and central Asian affairs under president Barack Obama.

She said the US-Bangladesh business Council will work to strengthen trade and investment between our two countries, promote transparency, inclusion and market-based reforms so that we can ensure that the coming decades continue to build prosperity and opportunity for the people of Bangladesh.

"The US-Bangladesh Business Council is a reflection for the need of a dedicated platform to understand and partner with the Bangladesh of the Future," said Jay R Pryor, vice president, business development for Chevron and the inaugural chair of the Council's board of directors.

Reflecting on Bangladesh's growth, Pryor noted its future will be "one that is sustainable, helps Bangladesh reach its economic development goals and by doing so, creates a business environment that empowers Bangladeshi women, enables small business growth, and strengthens communities through better access to healthcare, employment, and also energy.

  • Set to blossom
  • Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry
  • Dhaka and Washington
  • Bangladesh and Myanmar
  • Biden Administration
  • Rohingya Crisis
  • Climate Change

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