Economy First, Geopolitics Second: A Case for Future US-Bangladesh Engagement

The past year has witnessed vigorous engagement between Bangladesh and the United States. The sanction imposed on Bangladesh by the United States undermined the bilateral ties. However, the goodwill in bilateral relations rebounded — with U.S. representatives dispatched to Bangladesh in moderate frequency and Bangladesh reciprocating on US’s overture — ushering into an era where the United States gazes Bangladesh as a “truly strategic partner.”

An assessment of the US-Bangladesh ties in the past year needs to take into account the milestone interaction between the two countries. Observers were gloomy concerning the prospects of Bangladesh-US ties at the outset of the year, since the atypical imposition of sanctions had profoundly disrupted the bilateral ties and foiled the momentum that had been injected into bilateral ties.
A striking element in the bilateral interaction between Bangladesh and the United States is the ascendance of the strategic dimension of bilateral ties over economic ties. Hitherto, Bangladesh-United States bilateral engagement was anchored on economic diplomacy, trade negotiation and security partnership. The agenda of bilateral interactions demonstrates that there has been a steady turnaround of the narrative of bilateral ties, with strategic facets garnering oversized attention, while the economic issues have been overlooked.

Albeit belatedly, the United States has acknowledged the strategic partnership that links Bangladesh and the United States. The myriad bilateral engagement admittedly attests to the strategic turn in the bilateral ties. In the context of evolving and intensifying geopolitical rivalry at the heart of the Indo-Pacific, Bangladesh-United States ties are shaped by the broader strategic shift that characterizes global geopolitics. Bangladesh has gained traction in contemporary geopolitics owing to both intrinsic and extrinsic factors. The robust performance of Bangladesh’s economy, coupled with the economic fluorescence that Bangladesh witnessed in the preceding years, consolidates the intrinsic potential of the country, and boosts the appeal of Bangladesh as an economic powerhouse in the Indo-Pacific. This explains the great power tussle concerning Dhaka, as both the United States and China are vying for leverage over Bangladesh. Due to its colossal market and economic prospects, the country is an economic bull case that Western countries seek to tap.

Extrinsically, there has been a decisive change in global geopolitics—as the geopolitics anchored on Asian shores, abandoning its conventional Euro-Atlantic heartland. Termed as the “Asian Century”, a string of policies by the United States indicates the conspicuous geopolitical shift in favor of the Indo-Pacific region. Within the broader framework of the Indo-Pacific narrative, Bangladesh is the lynchpin, considering its geopolitical position adjacent to the Bay-of-Bengal and other strategic chokepoints, which writ large in the event of future conflicts. Owing to this strategic importance, Bangladesh has become the centerpiece of the Indo-Pacific strategy, evident as great powers continue to wrest power to subsume Bangladesh within their axis.

The extrinsic and intrinsic factors both present Bangladesh with considerable geostrategic and geoeconomic heft, offering Bangladesh competing choices based on its economic, geopolitical and strategic inclination. In an era characterized by deepening interdependencies, a strong-arm tactic reminiscent of the Cold War will flounder miserably. Coercion has been rendered obsolete in the strategic arena, as terminologies such as “soft power” and “compellence” have become both fashionable and desirable. Against such a backdrop, crafting a great power strategy concerning Bangladesh needs to take into account the tapestry of interests, rather than being overtly fixated on the strategic dimension of the bilateral ties, at the detriment of other arenas of vigorous bilateral interaction.

Strategic ties are not “self-evident”, and don’t come into effect after an abrupt discursive turn in the bilateral ties. Rather, strategic ties need to be carefully calibrated through long-term engagement on the economic front. The durability of strategic ties hinges on economic interdependence. Ideological asymmetries and profundity of universal ideals hold little significance, if the US fails to deliver concessions to Bangladesh to woo the latter into its own camp by offering compelling economic inducements. The US strategy regarding Bangladesh, as a subset of its broader strategy in the Indo-Pacific – has thus far hinged on a strategic pulpit. Anchoring upon the strategic dimension makes room for coercion in bilateral ties, making bilateral ties hostage to unilateral whims.

China is a case in point as to how bilateral ties can be made durable through economic inducements. The deep inroads that China charted in Bangladesh need to be attributed to the prudent economic strategy that wooed Bangladesh to the generosity of China. Blatant coercion doesn’t offer strategic dividends but rather spoils the bilateral goodwill. China understood this geopolitical axiom when its browbeating tactics in chiding Bangladesh for its coziness with the US had yielded counterproductive results. China has shown laudable restraint since then, restoring harmony in bilateral ties, far from hegemonizing Bangladesh. Likewise, US strategic ambitions need to be tempered by a realistic appraisal of Bangladesh’s extrinsic and intrinsic competencies. Thus, overt coercion will be counterproductive, rather bilateral ties need to be grounded on the “Economy First, Geopolitics Second” tenet.

*Nanziba Mahmood is a graduate of International Relations, University of Delaware. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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