Bangladesh-US relations : Where next?
At present, the bilateral relationship between USA and Bangladesh is going through a rough patch centered on non invitation of Bangladesh to a conference devoted to democracy in Washington. Despite that, the US is unlikely to ignore Bangladesh due to the geostrategic location of the country in the New Silk Road envisioned by Washington – that will connect Central Asia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar and China.
Bangladesh is also an active partner country in the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Forum for Regional Cooperation and other multilateral groupings in the areas of energy, connectivity, and security. As Tom Kelly, a former Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, US, stated , “Bangladesh is located in a vital region, which requires it to play an important role in maintaining security in the Bay of Bengal.”
Furthermore, Bangladesh is a role model for many Muslim-majority countries as a moderate Muslim democratic country. Additionally, the US needs Bangladesh more than the other way round to uplift its image among the Muslim nations – especially now, given its declining stronghold in West Asia, post the Arab Awakening, and its disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Bangladesh too wouldn’t want anydeterioration in the bilateral, relations because the US is the single biggest export destination for its goods, by being responsible for 30 per cent of Dhaka’s export revenue. Bangladesh gets preferential treatment from the US for its tobacco, sporting equipment, porcelain china and plastic products. In fact, approximately 5000 Bangladeshi products are accorded duty-free access to the US markets.
To improve their image in global market, the Bangladesh readymade garment sector has agreed on the manual of global standard to handle issues of workers safety. An updated labour law was adopted to protect the rights of the workers; Dhaka has facilitated the registration of trade unions for the same purpose. Additionally, Bangladesh will not take risk of losing grants and foreign aids by invoking the US’s wrath.
Following the conclusion of the April 2014 Trade and Investment Cooperation Framework Agreement (TICFA) meeting in Dhaka, Dan Mozena, former ambassador of the US to Bangladesh, stated that the bilateral relationship “was never stronger, deeper and broader than now.” In fact, the TICFA meeting was the first of its kind to be held to review bilateral trades and investment between the two countries. However, the US has shown no interest in providing duty-free market access to Bangladesh-manufactured readymade garments, and has given no positive indication on reinstating the suspended GSP, which has been a long-pending demand of Dhaka. Nonetheless, the holding of TICFA meetings continue to be very regular events featured by much mutual eagerness and cordiality.
Although bilateral relations cover wider socio-economic issues as well, the main focus of strategic dialogue is defence and security-oriented. The US has an interest in maintaining security in the South Asian region as US troops withdraw from Afghanistan , and the further rise of China is perceived as risky for Washington’s influence in this region.
Therefore, in the midst of all controversial remarks by some cabinet ministers in the Bangladeshi government, and the ongoing ruffle related to the Washington democracy conference, both the countries would come back to existential realities and make moves to improve political and economic ties through partnership in: joint military exercises and exchanges, developmental projects, counterterrorism, and security initiatives. The Bangladesh-US relationship will stand the test of time. It is unlikely that the US will be too obsessed with practice of its own brand of democracy in Bangladesh. It is unlikely to be too bothered by authoritarian governance of Bangladesh if the same enjoys mass support.
The bilateral relationship between USA and Bangladesh is manifested in co-dependency. Both countries realize that they need each other equally : Bangladesh for trade and USA for geo-strategy. Neither side can quite afford to go to extreme over any issue even for the elusive one like democracy. Both sides appreciate the need for preserving a balanced relationship in real terms.