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#4446, 19 May 2014

Dhaka Discourse

Bangladesh-US: Towards New Engagements?
Delwar Hossain
Professor, Department of International Relations, Dhaka University

The third round of the 2014 Bangladesh-US security dialogue was held in Dhaka on 22 April. It focused on issues such as peacekeeping, counter-terrorism, disaster-management, maritime security and regional security. The security dialogue is part of a larger dialogue process that encompasses defence-to-defense dialogue; military-to-military dialogue; security dialogue; and partnership dialogue between Dhaka and Washington. This security dialogue has been taking place annually since 2012.

The first two-day meeting to bolster bilateral and regional cooperation between the two countries under the Joint Declaration of the Bangladesh-US Partnership Dialogue took place in Washington, in September 2012. On the economic front, the first meeting of Trade and Investment Cooperation Forum Agreement (TICFA) between Bangladesh and the US was held in April 2014. The TICFA seeks to further bolster the annual bilateral trade – that exceeded $6 billion in 2013 – between the Dhaka and Washington.  

Amid conflicting positions of Bangladesh and the US over several domestic, bilateral and global issues, one may interpret these meetings as puzzling developments. In the post-election period, at the bilateral level, both the countries have continued with old discords on issues such as labour rights, the Yunus factor, the duty-free, quota-free market access, and the suspension of Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) facilities to Bangladesh, among others. From a Bangladeshi perspective, the US’ stance on domestic political changes in the former is a major irritant to smooth bilateral relations. The US’ insistence on holding credible and inclusive general elections in Bangladesh afresh – after the January 2014 elections – has created a diplomatic challenge for the incumbent Sheikh Hasina government. Globally, the Kosovo and the Crimea questions clearly demonstrate Bangladesh’s different foreign policy priorities.

However, despite the continuing discord, Bangladesh and the US have remained engaged – as demonstrated via the dialogue process and the maiden meeting of TICFA. A strong view prevails in the policy community that these meetings will put US –Bangladesh relations on the path to recovery.  Unlike in the past, the US has made it clear that preventing the spread of global terrorism and strategic understanding are its foremost agendas vis-à-vis Bangladesh. Both countries have developed three structured fora for mutual engagement. They are: the US-Bangladesh Dialogue on Security Issues; the Bangladesh-US Partnership Dialogue; and the US–Bangladesh TICFA. The US recognises that Bangladesh has a vital role in ensuring security and stability regionally and globally.

As the head of the US delegation to the Security Dialogue, Tom Kelly, observes, “A strong bilateral partnership and improved defense ties between Bangladesh and the United States are in both of our interests…. In a broader perspective US values Bangladesh's geographical location. It sees an important role for Bangladesh in the overall security context of the Middle East, and Indian-Pacific-Oceans region. This is why US wants Bangladesh by its side in its strategic pursuits.” Thus, for the US, geostrategic developments in the South Asian and the Asia Pacific regions have accorded Bangladesh a degree of importance. This is also linked to the shift of the 2010 US defence strategy, that the US cannot go solo, and in its attempt to address primary security issues, countries like Bangladesh matter.

Interestingly, Bangladesh appeared to be shy of expressing much optimism and enthusiasm, specifically regarding the outcomes of the meetings, and on bilateral ties in general. The head of the Bangladesh delegation mentioned that the dialogue was “very fruitful” and appreciated the US for the institutionalisation of the process of talks for intensive bilateral cooperation. The apparent lack of buoyant attitude on Bangladesh’s part reflects frustration about the US for its continuing emphasis on holding fresh elections in Bangladesh. It is also a reflection of Washington’s denial of the GSP facilities and duty free-quota free access. However, in reality Bangladesh shows a degree of pragmatism while dealing with the US in the current context. The benefits of Bangladesh-US bilateral ties – from trade to investment, and from culture to development – are substantive for both the nations.  

Although the rules of engagement for Dhaka and Washington have been crafted in a new regional environment in South Asia, the issue of the security dialogue may generate disquiet among regional powers such as China and India. Simultaneously, the US may also find it little troubling when Bangladesh joined the naval exercise with China along with India and Pakistan. In April 2014, ships from Bangladesh, Pakistan and India reached the Chinese port of Qingdao to partake in a rare naval exercise. On the Sino-Bangladesh naval cooperation, Tom Kelly asserts that the US fully respects Bangladesh's sovereign right to establish cooperation with any other country. Similarly, the Indian High Commissioner to Bangladesh, Pankaj Saran, maintains that “It is up to you [Bangladesh] to choose a strategic partner. India has nothing to say in the matter.”

The first TICFA meeting may vindicate the critics that the US would use the platform to create a new regime for protecting its economic interests in Bangladesh, thereby undermining the latter’s development needs. Bangladesh’s opposition to form a women’s economic empowerment committee and a labour affairs committee in the first Meeting is an example. The TICFA and/or the Security Dialogue may open new avenues of bilateral talks, but Dhaka and Washington need to deal with major issues of mutual discord. Under the Westphalian order, attempts to use domestic politics as a diplomatic instrument may undermine gains of bilateral cooperation between the two nations.

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