From the Midnight Stopover to the Visit of Donald Lu: What Does It Mean for Bangladesh?

From the Byzantine Empire to the present-day Westphalian nation-state, diplomatic visits are the cornerstone of formulating and shaping foreign relations. Governments can facilitate cooperation and signal the gravity of their relations with other states through high-level diplomatic visits.

Recently, after visiting India, Donald Lu arrived in Dhaka for a two-day visit on Jan. 14, 2022. Reaching the Shahjalal International Airport, he accompanied US Ambassador to Dhaka Peter Haas and rushed to Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen’s Iskaton residence. On the next day, Donald Lu had a busy time from morning until he left Dhaka.

In the morning, his program began with a courtesy meeting with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s adviser on private industry and investment, Salman F. Rahman, and afterwards, he visited the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. There he met with Foreign Secretary Masood bin Momen, Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen, and State Minister of Foreign Affairs Md. Shahriar Alam. At night, he attended a dinner with some civil society representatives at the residence of US Ambassador Peter Haas in Dhaka. What is the significance of this hasty visit to Dhaka just a week after the visit of the US National Security Council’s senior director for South Asia, Rear Admiral Eileen Laubacher?

Bangladesh is currently in a critical strategic period. The rising economic uncertainties after the Covid-19 new normal, the enduring US-China rivalry, and the upcoming general election in Bangladesh—this trio of separate issues is provoking the recent trends of diplomatic visits in Bangladesh, from the midnight stopover of the Chinese ambassador to the number of high-level US officials’ visits to Dhaka.

China and the United States are vying for superpower status in the region, and both are interested in forming a strategic alliance with Bangladesh. On his way to an African tour, newly appointed Chinese foreign minister Qin Gang recently made a stop in Dhaka. He made his first stopover in Dhaka, which was a significant foreign policy move for the country. Interestingly, Rear Adm. Eileen Laubacher also visited Dhaka at the same time to discuss “joining Bangladesh to the Indo-Pacific Strategy.”

Bangladesh has not had the best relationship with the United States in recent years, owing primarily to US Ambassador Peter Haas’s Shaheenbagh visit to the residence of Sanjida Islam, who leads an organization of relatives of victims of enforced disappearances, and the US State Department’s request to increase security for the US embassy in Dhaka.

Since December 2021, when the United States imposed sanctions on Bangladesh’s elite security force, the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), over alleged human rights abuses like enforced disappearances, relations between Washington and Dhaka have been strained. With an added phenomenon, relations deteriorated further after US diplomats’ comments from time to time in 2022 to ensure free and fair elections.

On the other hand, the Chinese ambassador to Bangladesh, Li Jiming, warned in May 2021 that Bangladesh’s participation in any Quad alliance-led initiative could “substantially damage” relations between the two nations. In response, Bangladesh stated that it was a sovereign state and would determine its own foreign policy. Later, however, the Foreign Minister of Bangladesh, Abdul Momen, assured Bangladesh’s neutral stance in the rivalry between Beijing and Washington in terms of geopolitics.

The US is concerned that China may take advantage of its recent tensions with Bangladesh to move closer to it. For example, US-Myanmar relations were largely dominated by the China factor. When the West put numerous sanctions on Myanmar, it helped China lean Myanmar towards it.

The sanction on RAB is another area that raises concern for Bangladesh. As expected, Mr. Lu responded positively to Bangladesh’s growing human rights situational report from Human Rights Watch (HRW). In a joint press conference at the ministry with Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen and Foreign Secretary Masood Bin Momen by his side, Donald Lu said, “There has been a positive discussion between the two sides regarding RAB.” He added that “RAB can work to counter terrorism and maintain law and order while respecting human rights.”

Democracy and human rights are the cornerstones of US foreign policy goals. Donald Lu had clear and open discussions with his Bangladeshi counterparts on matters of mutual interest, from trade to investment, labor rights, sanctions, human rights, democracy, and development, and most significantly on the Indo-Pacific.

Donald Lu said his country can help improve the labor rights situation in Bangladesh. There is always room for improvement in this area. Regarding the reinstatement of Bangladesh’s GSP facilities, he said, “His government is still waiting for the decision of the Congress to approve the GSP.” And when it gets approved, Bangladesh will be first on the list.”

The United States considers Bangladesh an essential partner in its Indo-Pacific Strategy. It’s an open secret that the USA’s grand policy in Asia is primarily concerned with the containment of Chinese dominance in the region. Bangladesh is not an exception here. With the rising Chinese investment in Bangladesh and their accelerated engagement in development partnerships, it is making things uncomfortable for the “offshore balancer.”

The position of Bangladesh is clear: it wants to keep friendly ties with both China and the US, though that is a difficult task. Bangladesh needs to take careful steps to avoid becoming a “playground” in the forever “emerging vs. emerging” battle game.

[Photo by U.S. Department of State, Public Domain]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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