Derek Chollet’s Recent South Asia Visit: Key Takeaways

The Counselor of the US Department of State, Derek Chollet, and a senior interagency delegation from both the US Agency for International Development and the State Department paid a six days official visit from Feb. 14 to 18 to the South Asian region, particularly to Bangladesh and Pakistan. Having met with senior government officials, members of civil society, and representatives from diverse organizations in both countries, the visit was very fruitful and worthwhile for the extant and future trajectory of the US-Bangladesh and the US-Pakistan bilateral relations.

During his visit to Bangladesh, Counselor Chollet met with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen, and other senior officials of the Bangladeshi government. Among others, the high officials from both parties notably discussed a wide array of issues including the coordination and response to the Rohingya crisis, enhancing cooperation in international fora, the state of human rights, the upcoming national election, the predicament of climate change, the importance of a free and open Indo-Pacific, and developing the overall bilateral relationship between the United States and Bangladesh. Throughout the discussion, Chollet made clear the need for continuing U.S. assistance to Bangladesh in resolving the aforementioned issues. 

In respect of Pakistan, it has been discerned that Chollet and other officials spoke about extending the people-to-people connection between the United States and Pakistan, bolstering economic ties, and working together to alleviate the upshots of the climate catastrophe. The US envoys also expressed sympathy for the recent terrorist attack at a mosque in Peshawar and reiterated their solidarity for the Pakistani people as they strive to reconstruct the country coming out from the consequences of the devastating floods of 2022. However, for the last few years, the US-Pakistan relationship has been graded toward a down status due to the lack of sound cooperation between the US and the PTI regime. 

After the ousting of the Khan administration, the US was blamed as the actor behind the incident which further brought about more complications in this regard. With that development, the recent flood predicament, and the political crisis were the focal agendas that were boldly addressed in the bilateral meetings between Derek Chollet and Pakistani Foreign Minister, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari and Pakistan’s army chief, General Asim Munir. On the other hand, Bangladesh relished a diverse advancement with the visit of the high officials led by Chollet. The geopolitical and geo-economic importance of Bangladesh to the US foreign policy has always been exigent that has been reiterated through recent bilateral discussions. However, while the prior lens of the US to see the South Asian region was highly based on the Indian perspective, the contemporary development suggests the growing geopolitical importance of the area particularly Bangladesh is pushing the US to reweigh the region with distinctive attention. 

Bangladesh, Pakistan and Overall South Asia in the US Foreign Policy: Recent Visit and Impetus 

For many years, South Asia has been considered one of the core facets of the grand policies and strategies of the United States. By the time of the Obama administration, the significance has grown larger and wider as the Indo-Pacific region was one of the central priorities of his administration’s foreign policy. Over the years, with the ongoing emergence of China as a considerable great power and peer competitor in world politics, particularly in the region with its robust Belt and Road Initiative and other politico-economic leverages, the substantial vitality of the region to the US has caught grave attention being the indispensable part of the Indo-Pacific strategy. 

Consequently, to thwart the influence of China in the Indo-Pacific region, especially in resource-rich South Asia, the US has put up with major military and economic initiatives like the Quad and Indo-Pacific Economic Forum (IPEF) and persuasively expanded its diplomatic and strategic engagements in the last few years. However, to talk about the geostrategic dynamics in this respect, both Bangladesh and Pakistan hold a crucial place in the US foreign policy formulation. Not only from a geostrategic perspective but also from the viewpoint of geo-economic interest, the region is highly substantial for the US. According to the data for 2022, the South Asian region holds a $15.1 trillion GDP in PPP terms and    $4.47 trillion in nominal terms which market the US never want to lose. 

However, despite its lagging because of the recent political crisis and economic catastrophe, Pakistan still has tremendous potential for the US due to its geostrategic locus and importance in the growing US-China rivalry. During the bilateral summits, Counselor Chollet warned the country of the high debt (trap) volume from China. He also reiterated upholding the commitment of the United States to strengthening the bilateral relationship. He further reaffirmed the United States’ solidarity and support for Pakistan’s people. On the other hand, Bangladesh nowadays relishes a stronger position than Pakistan in the US foreign policy. Some critical issues like the Rohingya refugee crisis, the geopolitical proximity of the Bay of Bengal and a volume of US $465 billion economy of Bangladesh made the country more vital to the US in the region. Chollet argued that “….Dhaka…is a symbol of the importance that we place on this relationship in growing our relationship politically in terms of security as well as economically.”

Cohllet’s Visit to Dhaka: A New Elevation in the Bilateral Relationship 

In contemporary times, Senior American officials such as Donald Lu, Victoria Nuland and so many others visited Bangladesh which marks that the US gauges Bangladesh from a diverse array of policy interests. Correspondingly, the recent visit of Counsellor Chollet has brought a new impetus to the bilateral relationship. During his visit to Dhaka from 14-15 February, Chollet relished bilateral meetings with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen. Per his remarks, the rapport between the US and Bangladesh, which is strengthening day by day, is very crucial to the US in the region. He expressed his hope for having a stronger partnership in the next 51 years like the previous 51 years. 

Chollet, moreover, argued that ‘although both parties have many common challenges, we have many more shared opportunities as well’ that might bring about positive changes for both countries leveraging the progressive bilateral relationship. In this regard, Bangladeshi Foreign Minister, Abdul Momen asserted that ‘keeping all the challenges aside, Bangladesh is looking for better days. He also mentioned that ‘the US is Bangladesh’s biggest investor. We have asked the US to contribute to one hundred of our economic zones. If they invest, we’ll be happy.’

Key Discussions: Rohingya Crisis, National Elections, and Geostrategic Aspects

Regarding the Rohingya crisis and repatriation of the 1.2 million refugees, Cohllet marked that the US is continuously working and endeavoring to support Bangladesh making serious efforts to unveil the root causes of the conflict and to establish the pacific environment for safe repatriation. Chollet added that “we are deeply concerned about the situation in Myanmar which is only getting worse.” He also reaffirmed ensuring “coordination and response” to resolve the Rohingya crisis. Along with the facet of the discussions, Chollet also urged Bangladesh to organize a free, fair and participatory elections. Bangladesh clearly mentioned that it is the priority of the government to hold elections in a free and fair environment. However, importantly, the geostrategic support of Bangladesh in securing the free and open Indo-Pacific has also been reiterated and lauded during the discussions. Chollet said that the US sees ‘huge potential’ and ‘room to grow’ in the bilateral relationship.

Pakistan Saga: Politico-economic Instabilities and The U.S. Viewpoints 

Pakistan is undergoing the worst-ever political and economic crises in recent years. After the fall of the PTI regime, the crisis has downgraded to a lower status. Particularly, only the floods in different provinces from June 2022 to October 2022 have caused a death toll of 1739 people. Along with that, for the last few years, Pakistan has been enduring deadly terrorist attacks. Last month, at a mosque a huge blast in Pakistan’s northwestern city of Peshawar killed more than 100 people, of which the most were police personnel. Marking the attack as very significant, Chollet bypassed putting any judgments regarding Pakistan’s security. In this concern, he claimed that Washington was “trying to wrap its head around” how the threat had been developing in Pakistan and was “very much following their [Pakistan’s] lead in terms of both the investigation and where it leads and ensuring that those who conducted these attacks are held accountable.” 

In this aspect, Chollet also expressed his sole support for his Pakistani counterparts regarding their necessities and the help from Washington against counter-terrorism measures. However, along with the security matter, both parties have also discussed a wide array of issues such as climate change, energy transformation and economic cooperation. Chollet exhibited his thoughts that ‘through the Green Alliance, the two countries will help each other to facilitate inclusive economic development, education, security, climate change, people-to-people connection, and clean energy cooperation.’ Besides, both countries underwent a successful defense dialogue which gives rise to prospects of defense cooperation. However, despite the political instability, the recent economic crisis, and the worsening security situation, Chollet argued that ‘ties with Pakistan matter to a considerable extent.’ He said, “not every ally, or partner, is equal, but all of our relationships matter.”

[Photo by U.S. Embassy Dhaka, via Wikimedia Commons]

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect TGP’s editorial stance.

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