Bangladesh in Washington’s Strategic Gaze: Ushering Into a Truly Strategic Partner?

Recently, US State Department official Afreen Akhter has stated that the U.S. perceives Bangladesh as a “truly important strategic partner”. The statement is striking since the U.S. remained restrained in categorically asserting the strategic significance of Bangladesh. Even some scholars have lamented the lack of strategic gaze of the United States toward Bangladesh. In the present multiplex global order, Bangladesh-U.S. strategic relationship remains as significant as the great power relations, and the power configurations shape the bilateral ties.

Headwinds and the China Factor

China factor had intermittently troubled U.S.-Bangladesh relations and often led to strategic misperception and miscalculation. The resurgence of China has unsettled the status-quo configuration of the global geopolitics and injected turmoil that permeated across the world. Likewise, the confrontation between the U.S. and China has a bearing on the bilateral relations between U.S.-Bangladesh. Recently, in line with its model of “development diplomacy”, China deepened its engagement with Bangladesh through a mix of investment and trade.

Economic Engagement

Bangladesh is a fledgling developing country with a thriving economy. The country requires ample investment and trade to maintain the celerity of economic growth. Economic engagement often draws developing countries such as Bangladesh to the great powers. Strategic ties are often sustained by robust economic partnerships.

The engagement between Bangladesh and China often unnerves the United States and manifestations are sporadic cautionary statements of the U.S. officials and heightened spree of bilateral engagement. However, the strategic assessment often misses the economic factors that drive Bangladesh and China closer. Thus,  coercion is futile in decoupling Bangladesh from China’s axis. Rather, the economic cooperation between Bangladesh and United States needs to be ramped up, to fill the vacuum left by China. Otherwise, only strategic assessment will spur hostile actions, rather than deepening bilateral ties.

Human Rights and its discontents?

Human rights are the bedrock of international norms. The United States has championed human rights across the world and contributed to the diffusion of norms across the world. Bangladesh has also been subjected to much scrutiny by the United States allegedly due to the country’s dismal human rights practices. However, while the strategic interest is at stake between the two countries, it is convenient to overlook the irritant that drives wedges between the two countries.

Oftentimes, the representation of human rights violations is overblown to undermine the success of a country. Likewise, the allegation of the gross human rights violation against Bangladesh was guided by flawed and exaggerated reports. While Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) had come under scanner, the contribution of RAB in safeguarding peace and security in Bangladesh can’t be defied. The problematic portrayal often incurs unsolicited and disproportionate reprisal, tainting the image of the country. Thus, the United States should be wary of alienating Bangladesh through pettifogging regarding human rights issues.

Of Reciprocities and Sensitivities in bilateral relations

The trappings of strategic partnership are that strategic partnership is underpinned by reciprocal ties and accommodation of sensitivities. However, both reciprocity and sensitivity are wanting in U.S.-Bangladesh bilateral relations. The U.S. had slapped sanctions on Bangladesh, and at times issued stern caution to curtail engagement with Bangladesh. However, when the bilateral ties elevate to strategic footing, such rash foreign policy decisions are counterproductive. Such actions send wrong signals and torpedoes improvement in bilateral ties.

Bangladesh’s alignment with China is detrimental to the U.S.’s strategic interests in the region. However, this doesn’t translate to the fact that the U.S. will engage in dominating behavior to deter Bangladesh. In contrast, the U.S. should woo Bangladesh into the fold of its Indo-pacific framework, by offering compelling economic and strategic incentives. Such a partnership will be grounded on strategic pragmatism.

Likewise, given the strategic salience of the United States in the Indo-pacific and the convergence between the ethos between Bangladesh and the United States, engaging with the United States is rather convenient for Bangladesh for effectively navigating evolving geopolitical ferment in the Indo-Pacific region.

Bangladesh and U.S.: “Interests” runs both ways

The repeated assertion of the U.S. policymakers indicates the significance of rallying Bangladesh in the U.S. Indo-Pacific framework to secure the regional interest of the United State. The failure to forge a harmonious partnership might undermine U.S. interest in the region. Bangladesh’s interest lies in securing robust trade and economic ties with the United States, which will contribute to its incipient growth. Thus, the U.S.-Bangladesh bilateral relationship is set to move into new terrain, in a marked departure from the unilateral dominance of the United States. In this historical conjuncture, whereby intensifying geopolitical conflicts are on the cards, the interest of Bangladesh and the United States converges in promoting bilateral relations. Moreover, the interests of engagement between Bangladesh and the United States “runs both ways”, in a marked departure from the earlier center-periphery ties.

[Photo by the White House, via Wikimedia Commons]

*Kazi Asszad Hossan is a Researcher at Central Foundation of International and Strategic Studies (CFISS). The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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