The 8th Bangladesh-U.S. Partnership Dialogue – A Mere Formality Amid Big Expectations

The 8th Bangladesh-U.S. Partnership Dialogue was held in Dhaka on Mar. 20, 2022. As it was the first face to face interaction between the two sides after the sanction imposed by the U.S. department of treasury on Rapid Action Battalion (RAB)’s seven officials, there was an expectation in Dhaka that the dialogue in question would show a way out for lifting of the sanction. However, no joint communiqué was issued at the conclusion of the dialogue to signal any visible progress. Instead, the heads of both the delegations held a joint press meet.

To my mind, the dialogue was a mere formality for the following reasons. First, the duration of the dialogue was rather short in contrast to the previous dialogues held between Bangladesh and the United States. When the dialogues were launched a few years ago, the duration was generally for two days. The first day used to be dedicated to focused discussions by three focus groups, namely, development and governance; trade and investment; and security cooperation. The second day was kept for a plenary session. This time, reportedly the dialogue continued for only ninety minutes. Given the multifaceted nature of Bangladesh-U.S. bilateral relations a dialogue of only ninety minutes can hardly do any justice to the issues in hand.

Second, if Bangladesh side considers the issue of sanction on RAB officials the major area for discussions (which of course is an important issue for discussions), neglecting the wide range of issues under the three focus groups, the scope of discussions in a way narrows down. Let us not forget that the process of lifting off of the sanctions imposed by the U.S. department of treasury is a complicated process; therefore, placing the issue as the core issue of the partnership dialogue undermined the spirit of the dialogue. Instead, I consider that it would have been judicious to raise the issue, along with other important issues, at a tête-à-tête between the two heads of the delegation, or it could have been dealt with, for example, when the U.S. undersecretary paid a courtesy call on the foreign minister of Bangladesh. That way Bangladesh could raise the issue with all the seriousness without compromising the structure of the dialogue which evolved over the past years.

According to a news report by the Daily Star, published on Jan. 16, 2022 Dhaka is yet to give its consent to the Leahy Law, and requested the U.S. to grant for more time to study it. The U.S. side asked for Dhaka’s consent to the law in the first week of December 2021 and initially set a deadline of Dec. 15, 2021. It seems that any positive response from the U.S. side on the possible withdrawal of sanction is linked to Bangladesh’s consent to the law. If Bangladesh’s favorable response to the law stands as a stumbling block, then perhaps, Bangladesh side raised the issue of RAB’s sanction at the partnership dialogue to satisfy the domestic audience, fully knowing that mere raising of the issue would not make any headway.

Third, as the other discussion platforms between the two countries, i.e. the security dialogue, the business dialogue, the defense dialogue – are all scheduled to take place after the partnership dialogue, this dialogue missed the opportunity to consider the possible decisions and feedbacks from those platforms.  

Fourth, given the state of affairs between the two countries particularly at this stage when the Americans came down heavily on Bangladesh in the area of Bangladesh’s human rights record the latest Dialogue could have been utilized to make some headway. A joint communiqué, a document to signal agreement on issues, could have cleared the air. The fact that no agreed upon document could be produced speaks of the lack of any substantive progress. Given all these, the take away here is that the dialogue failed to produce any concrete results and the deadlock remains a deadlock.

Bangladesh’s gains

Having said that let us also not conclude that all were in vain and the dialogue was a complete failure. If we put aside the expectations, an engagement of this nature is usually an opportunity for possible gains in one form or the other. On that count, Bangladesh has gained from the dialogue. First, this was the first dialogue held after a pause of two years which could not be held due to the pandemic. Second, a high-level interaction with the U.S. side was necessary for the Bangladesh side to raise the issue of RAB’s sanctions which also demonstrates to the domestic audience that hope is not lost. Third, Bangladesh received some words of appreciation from Undersecretary Victoria Nuland when she recognized during the joint press that progress has been made “with regard to remediating these things (RAB’s abuse of human rights).”

U.S.’ gains

Replying to a question during the press briefing at the U.S. Department of State on Mar. 22, 2022, Ned Price, the spokesperson, said, the visit “. . . underlines our partnerships with the people of Bangladesh.” During the brief visit to Dhaka, Undersecretary Nuland indeed met an important segment of Bangladesh’s civil society, and exchanged views with them.

The larger gain lies elsewhere. The press release of Bangladesh’s foreign office of Mar. 20, 2022 reads, “The two governments agreed to continue to cooperate closely to advance a shared vision of a free, open, inclusive, peaceful, and secure Indo-Pacific region.” The press release further states that Bangladesh’s foreign secretary “. . . underscored the need for economic component in the IPS (Indo-Pacific Strategy, I hope!)”. In diplomacy, we use jargons which carry specific meaning. Jargons like ‘Indo-Pacific Region’ or ‘Indo-Pacific Strategy’ have been coined by the U.S. Department of State. Using these jargons is tantamount to endorsing the concept latent in these especially when we speak about inclusion of economic component in the IPS the assumption here is that Bangladesh does accept IPS as an idea worth considering. The U.S. may see in such formulation a conditional endorsement of their idea.

On U.S.’ part they availed the platform to clearly articulate their position on issues that featured in the dialogue. The press release issued by Bangladesh’s foreign office mentioned that Ukraine, Afghanistan and Palestine were discussed. It did not elaborate the discussions, but it does not need much hard work to find out where the Americans stood on this. As the Daily Star reported on Mar. 20, 2022, Victoria Nuland said that the US wants Bangladesh on its side in the context of Russia-Ukraine’, a remark made in her introductory comments during the dialogue. On the question of sanction on RAB, Nuland said during the joint press briefings, “U.S. is never going to be silent when we see human rights abuses and when we see violations of basic law.” These remarks are unambiguous.

There is no good alternative to dialogue because they provide opportunities to discuss areas of cooperation, and thrash out differences. In the context of Bangladesh’s current relations with the U.S., holding the dialogue, whatever has been the outcome, is a welcome development.

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

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