U.S.-Bangladesh Ties and Track-I Diplomacy: Enroute to “Truly Strategic Partnership”

The last few years have witnessed a resurgence of engagement in U.S.-Bangladesh relations. The United States perceives Bangladesh as an “important country” due to its geostrategic position in the Indo-Pacific region. As such, the United States had boosted bilateral engagement with Bangladesh, indicating its conspicuous strategic interest in forging robust ties with Bangladesh. Bangladesh, conversely, reciprocated bilateral ties as a part of its “Third-Way Balancing” of great power rivalry. 

An objective assessment of the diplomatic engagement of the past two years reveals that Bangladesh has come under the radar of the U.S. strategic lens, and the myriad engagement with Bangladesh needs to be interpreted as such. 

On Oct. 14-16, 2020; Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun called on Bangladesh PM and other top government officials for a visit. The ostensible rationale of the overture was to promote the U.S.-Bangladesh partnership on a gamut of bilateral issues. The meeting is a precursor of Washington’s renewed strategic consideration toward Bangladesh. 

This initial overture was followed by a slew of bilateral engagement in the functional issues, and the sporadic arrival of the U.S. delegates in Dhaka. On April 9, 2021, the special presidential envoy for Climate John Kerry had been dispatched to Bangladesh. Kerry called on government high-ups, development partners, and representatives of foreign governments. The multi-year investment and initiative of the United States to broaden access Bangladesh to clean energy have been discussed in the meeting, while United States support for the Climate Vulnerable Forum has been reiterated. The visit has cemented the Bangladesh-United States partnership in the realm of climate change mitigation and adaptation. Since the two countries face shared vulnerabilities, climate change cooperation has ushered in an era of more comprehensive partnership.

On March 19-21, 2022; the US undersecretary for political affairs Victoria Nuland held meetings with Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen and called on the representatives of business leaders and civil societies. During this visit, a draft had been shared from the United States side on much anticipated General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA). The visit also drew on the modus-operandi of the bilateral relations to promote democracy, human and civil rights, labor freedoms, freedom of the press, and thorny issues such as the Digital Security Act and the Environment. 

In the 8th “Security Dialogue”, held on April 7, 2022; Bangladesh and the United States discussed a gamut of bilateral issues concerning mutual interest and pertinent to the broader security sphere. During the visit of Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland, Bangladesh and the United States formalized the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), which is the precursor of the security and defense cooperation between the two countries. United States broached other fundamental defense agreements e.g. GSOMIA and Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement, which will further boost defense trade, and streamlined the process of partnership between the countries. The cordial bilateral relations thrived between the countries, and both Bangladesh and the United States joined forces on an array of issues e.g. terrorism, defense, and institution-building.

The United States and Bangladesh engaged in bilateral relations shared a vision of Indo-pacific principles of inclusive and secure Indo-Pacific.

On May 7-11, 2022; USAID’s Deputy Administrator Isobel Colemen paid a visit to the Rohingya crisis and evaluated the need for humanitarian assistance to mitigate a host of regional crises. The USAID delegate acknowledged Bangladesh’s role in hosting an astronomical number of Rohingyas for a protracted period. Also, the resolve to maintain U.S. assistance to the Rohingya crisis had been stated. 

On May 8-11, 2022; 25 executives from the United States drawn from an array of sectors such as energy, digital, financial services, agriculture, and insurance called on the Foreign Minister of Bangladesh to revitalize old partnerships and harness the evolving opportunities. A briefing demonstrating the high-level opportunities for robust commercial and economic ties between Bangladesh and the United States has been presented. 

On Sept. 22, 2022; during her visit to the United States to attend the General Assembly meeting of the United Nations, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina invited president Biden to visit Bangladesh.  Such gestures at a bilateral level enhance goodwill and deepen strategic ties.

On Nov. 15, 2022; in the midst of her two-day official visit, US Deputy Assistant Secretary Afreen Akhter stated that the US perceives Bangladesh as a “truly important strategic partner”. This is a striking pronouncement and lends Bangladesh an unprecedented strategic moment in U.S. strategic calculations. 

The strings of the bilateral engagement had culminated in the belated recognition of Bangladesh’s importance in the U.S. strategic reckoning. While earlier clamors for including Bangladesh in strategic radar had gone unheeded, however, the belated acknowledgment had further underscored the strategic significance of Bangladesh.

The spate of diplomatic overtures of the United States directed towards Bangladesh reveals the importance the United States attaches to Bangladesh. The overture of the United States was reciprocated in equal measure by Bangladesh, as the country occasionally dispatched delegates to ameliorate bilateral ties with the United States.

The bilateral engagement has intensified, and this has been supplemented by delegations from Bangladesh visiting the U.S. intermittently, encompassing both high-political as well as low-political issues. On Feb. 22, Dr. AK Abdul Momen visited Washington and called on the incumbent U.S. Foreign Secretary Anthony J. Blinken. This was followed by another visit of Bangladesh’s foreign minister A.K. Abdul Momen on April 3, 2022, whereby a meeting was held with Anthony J. Blinken. Also, the two countries engaged in security dialogue which coincided with the 50th anniversary of bilateral relations. 

On April 20, Army chief Gen SM Shafiuddin paid an official visit to the U.S. to call on his U.S. counterpart and participated in a roundtable discussion on South Asian Regional Security. On May 2022, a four-member delegation of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs conducted meetings with officials of the U.S. State Department and underscored the importance of robust ties in various sectors. These sporadic dispatches and bilateral visits had promoted bilateral issues and deepened bilateral relations on defense, which has set the groundwork for constructing a “truly strategic partnership”.

Alongside the robust engagement at the Track I level, the diplomatic engagement also thrived at Track II and Track III levels, whereby delegations promoted functional issues between the two countries. 

Besides, business actors have also expedited the dynamics of bilateral ties, which spilled over to bolster the strategic dimension of bilateral relations. Since its genesis, AmCham (American Chamber of Commerce in Bangladesh) had promoted the economic ties between Bangladesh and U.S. through engagement with both private and public sectors. This attests to the pronounced interest in deepening ties between U.S. private sectors and Bangladesh’s counterpart. The United States remains the most colossal market for Bangladeshi goods and profoundly contributes to economic growth through the steady inflow of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). The inflow of U.S. investment in Bangladesh had surged to $888.48 million in Q1 and Q2, registering 50% growth on a year-to-year basis. The FDI in form of equity capital ballooned to 105.26 percent, which stands at a whopping $288.33 million. The flourishing FDI inflow fosters economic ties and thus contributes to deepening bilateral ties.

The spurt of bilateral engagement has instilled reciprocity in bilateral relations, which is deemed as the precondition for the elevation of the bilateral ties to the strategic level, and the belated recognition of the strategic importance of Bangladesh soon followed. Moreover, the increasing bilateral exchange underscores that the relations between Bangladesh and the United States had become paramount for both countries in the evolving geopolitical context. The strategic dimension had been injected into the bilateral relations after the ascent of the Indo-pacific narrative. The heightened activities in bilateral relations can be explained from this lens. The thriving bilateral relations can be sustained by the gesture of reciprocity and mutual respect. This requires respecting the sensitivities of each other. 

Moreover, the engagement has given a thrust to bilateral relations and is poised to forge an incipient strategic relationship. In fact, deepening bilateral partnership is in the interest of both countries, considering the geostrategic interest of the United States and the economic and security interest of Bangladesh. Betting on Bangladesh will allow the United States to shield Bangladesh’s creeping slide into the Chinese sphere. Likewise, engagement with the United States will reinforce the democratic credentials of Bangladesh, which might be blemished due to Bangladesh’s inordinate reliance on China. Furthermore, the engagement strategies of the United States steeped in transparency and the spirit of liberalism is far from the opaque strategies of China, which can embroil Bangladesh in the devious financial and political strategies. As such, it is well-advised for Bangladesh to engage with the United States, while it is in the interest of the United States to decouple Bangladesh from the Chinese sphere. 

Thus, both countries should tap into momentum that has been generated, and need to be wary of squandering the momentum and thus need to engage in the spirit of shared ideals and mutual respect to secure the momentum of bilateral relations.

[Photo by Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Bangladesh]

*Mehjabin Maliha Hossain is an international affairs researcher and pursuing her doctoral studies at National University of Singapore (NUS). The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect TGP’s editorial stance.