What Is to Be Done? Envisioning a Cooperative Lustrum of Bangladesh–US Relations

On Jan. 17, 2024, the US Ambassador to Bangladesh Peter Haas met newly appointed Bangladeshi Minister of Foreign Affairs Hasan Mahmud and discussed the issues of mutual interests, including climate change, bilateral commercial ties and the Rohingya crisis. Just 10 days before the meeting, on Jan. 7, the 12th general election in Bangladesh was held, and in its aftermath, the United States had expressed its commitment to the expansion of the partnership between Dhaka and Washington. Therefore, it appears that Washington, irrespective of its reservations about the internal political dynamics in Bangladesh, is willing to bolster its partnership with Dhaka.

Since the US recognition of Bangladesh’s independence on 4 April 1972, Dhaka and Washington have shared strong political, economic, security, cultural, and humanitarian ties with each other. At present, Bangladesh and the US share a comprehensive partnership, which ranges from trade and security to climate and humanitarian action. The US remains one of the most important partners for Bangladesh, while owing to Bangladesh’s strategic location in the Indo-Pacific region, its geopolitical salience for the US is increasing. Hence, it will serve the interests of both states if they expand their cooperative ties on political, economic, cultural, and humanitarian sectors.

Political Concord

Bangladesh and the US have so far held eight Partnership Dialogues and eight Security Dialogues, and high-level contacts between the political leaderships of the two countries is common. In terms of foreign policy, Bangladesh and the US have no fundamental clash of interests. On the contrary, Bangladesh has declared its commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific in its Indo-Pacific Outlook, mirroring the US Indo-Pacific Strategy. On the Ukrainian crisis, Bangladesh has adopted a policy of positive neutrality, and it is complying with US sanctions regime. While there exist a few points of friction, Dhaka and Washington can pragmatically compartmentalize those issues and address them on a case-by-case basis, while continuing their growing multi-pronged partnership.

On the political front, both Dhaka and Washington can undertake a number of steps to deepen their bilateral ties. On its part, Dhaka should undertake measures to assuage US concerns about the internal political dynamics and labour rights in Bangladesh. On the other hand, the US should refrain from using economic tools as political weapons against Dhaka. Instead, the countries should institutionalize their bilateral ties into a strategic partnership, which would complement the already existing Sino–Bangladeshi and Japanese–Bangladeshi strategic partnerships. Moreover, taking into account Bangladesh’s extensive ties with India and the US, the three countries can develop a trilateral dialogue forum for expanding their political ties. Last but not the least, the two counties should upgrade their security partnership by enhancing collaboration (particularly intelligence-sharing) on counter-terrorism, cyber-security, and combatting transnational crimes, hosting more joint military exercises, and facilitating Bangladesh’s acquisition of advanced US military equipment.

Economic Partnership

Bangladesh and the US have concluded the Trade and Investment Cooperation Forum Agreement (TICFA) as well as a treaty on the avoidance of double taxation. Currently, the US is the 3rd largest trading partner of Bangladesh. It constitutes the single largest export market for Bangladesh, absorbing nearly 20% of Bangladeshi exported goods. Also, the US is the largest source of foreign direct investment (FDI) for Bangladesh, with US FDI in the country amounting to $4.1 billion and 19% of total FDI received. Moreover, the US is the single largest investor in Bangladesh’s energy sector. In addition, the US is currently the largest source of remittances for Bangladesh, with 16% of the country’s remittances coming from the States. It should be noted that remittances and the earnings from the export of readymade garments (RMG) serve as the engine of the Bangladeshi economy. Hence, the US, by virtue of being the largest source of remittances and the largest export market for Bangladesh, is a crucial economic partner for Dhaka.

Dhaka and Washington can further advance this multifaceted economic partnership. Bangladesh is projected to be the 9th largest consumer market by 2030, and so it will be mutually beneficial for Dhaka and Washington to bolster their economic ties. Attracting FDI is a top priority for Bangladesh, and the country has accordingly adopted an open and liberal FDI policy. The US can substantially enhance its investments in a number of sectors of Bangladeshi economy, including power and energy, information technology (IT), infrastructure, light engineering and electronics, automobile industry, agro-processing, pharmaceuticals, and ceramics. To take an example, US companies can invest in the growing IT sector in Bangladesh, and employ thousands of skilled Bangladeshi IT personnel. This will reduce unemployment in Bangladesh and decrease costs for US companies. Similarly, US companies should invest more in other sectors of Bangladesh, and the latter should create a more favourable opportunities for the infusion of more US FDI into the country.

Moreover, under the US-led Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment (PGII), the US can invest in the development of high-quality and sustainable infrastructure in Bangladesh. Also, US can provide Bangladesh with technical know-how in exploring the Bay of Bengal for potential hydrocarbon reserves.

Cultural Collaboration

Owing to the relentless drive of globalization, the US culture has left a significant imprint on Bangladesh. This cultural bond is bolstered by the presence of around 800,000 Bangladeshis on US territory. The US is also the most preferred destination for Bangladeshi students who want to study abroad, and the country currently hosts more than 13,500 Bangladeshi students.

The two countries can strengthen the exist cultural collaboration by undertaking more cultural exchange programs, arranging cultural fairs and exhibitions, and bolstering people-to-people ties. Specifically, Washington should provide more Bangladeshi students to pursue higher studies in the US. On its part, Bangladesh should carefully develop its tourism infrastructure to attract more US tourists, and at the same time, it should invest more in promoting its culture in the US.

Humanitarian Cooperation

Bangladesh is the 3rd largest recipient of US foreign aid among South Asian states. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the US helped Bangladesh in largely minimizing the devastating impacts of the pandemic by providing the latter with more than 100 million vaccines free of cost. Also, the US is the leading provider of humanitarian assistance for the more than 1.3 million Rohingya refugees stranded in southeastern Bangladesh.

However, the US possesses the capability to play a greater role in dealing with the Rohingya humanitarian crisis. Over the recent years, the infusion of international funds for the Rohingyas has significantly decreased, and this has placed Bangladesh in a quandary. As the only superpower and the largest economic power of the world, the US can make increased diplomatic and financial contribution to the Rohingya cause. based on the emphasis that the Biden administration has put on human rights, the US should step up its financial support for the Rohingya refugees. Yet, providing only humanitarian aid to the Rohingyas is not a viable long-term solution to this acute problem. Hence, taking into consideration the continued political turmoil within Myanmar, the adoption of the BURMA Act by the US Congress, and the current intensification of the ongoing civil war in the country, the US can exert greater diplomatic pressure on Nay Pyi Taw to repatriate Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh.

Moreover, owing to climate change, Bangladesh is one of the most vulnerable countries of the world. The current US administration is a party to the Paris Agreement and vocally committed to the decarbonization, climate change adaptation, and climate finance. It has also previously committed to provide Bangladesh with new technologies to mitigate the deleterious effects of climate change on the latter. Hence, the US should make good on its commitments by accelerating the process of technology transfer and according financial backing to Bangladesh’s efforts to combat climate change.

Towards a Cooperative Lustrum

From a practical perspective, Dhaka and Washington have significant opportunities to expand their partnerships on political, economic, cultural, and humanitarian fronts. Upgrading their current comprehensive ties into a formal strategic partnership will be mutually beneficial for them. Therefore, Bangladesh and the US should collaborate with each other on expanding their multifaceted partnership in order to build a better and more prosperous future for both.

[Photo by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Bangladesh]

Md. Himel Rahman is a post-graduate student of Security Studies at the Department of International Relations, University of Dhaka, Bangladesh, and a freelance analyst on international and strategic affairs. His articles have been published in The Diplomat, the South Asian Voices, The Geopolitics, The Daily Star, the Dhaka Tribune, The Daily Observer, and other platforms. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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