Bangladesh-US: Long Term Agendas over Short Term Fall-Outs

30 Apr, 2014    ·   4420

Dibya Shikha analyses why the Bangladesh-US bilateral relationship, although presently in a rough patch, will stand the test of time

Dibya Shikha
Dibya Shikha
Research Intern
The Bangladesh-US bilateral has seen troubled times in the recent period. What are the current deadlocks between the two? Is there scope for rapprochement in the relationship?

Troubles in the Bilateral
Several issues have created a discord in the Bangladesh-US bilateral. They include the overthrowing of Prof. Muhammad Yunus from the post of managing director of Grameen Bank; the failure to ensure rights and safety of garment industry workers; the allegedly non-inclusive national elections of January 5; and the extrajudicial killings and abductions of Bangladeshi citizens.

The Obama administration sternly reacted to the ouster of Prof. Yunus, who is a Noble Peace Laureate and regarded as the father of microfinance. The US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, during her 2012 Bangladesh visit appreciated Yunus’s work and criticised Dhaka for sidelining him. The Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, Nisha Desai Biswal, called the dismissal of Yunus as a “deep shame and travesty.”

In June 2013, in the aftermath of the Rana Plaza building-collapse catastrophe, the US administration suspended the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) privilege for Bangladesh. The GSP is a tool to provide economic privileges to the “Most Favoured Nation.” Bangladesh became conscious as the GSP suspension was ‘sending a bad image’ of the country to other markets.

Furthermore, post the January 5 elections of 2014, bitterness increased manifold. The US described the election as “deeply flawed” and one which did not credibly represent Bangladeshi citizens. The US administration repeatedly stated that the current political impasse will not be resolved until all political parties and the Bangladeshi civil society participate in the electoral process.

The US government also articulated its concern over extrajudicial killings and suspicious disappearances of Bangladeshi people and also raised questions over the legitimacy of the war crime trials, which they alleged that did not meet all the criteria for fair trials and due processes.

The US Deputy Assistant Secretary for South Asia, Atul Keshap, remarked that the US “wants to see a bright, prosperous, stable, democratic Bangladesh with the participation of all people.” Nisha Desai Biswal stated that the US government continues “to press for greater political inclusion, without which, a more stable and prosperous future is put at risk.” These remarks and statements are an indication of the US’ pressure on Bangladesh to organise another election.

Bangladesh-US: Where next?
At present, the bilateral relationship is going through a rough patch. Despite that, the US is unlikely to ignore Bangladesh due to the geostrategic location of the country in the New Silk Road envisioned by Washington – that will connect Central Asia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar and China. Bangladesh is also an active partner country in the Bangladesh–China–India–Myanmar Forum for Regional Cooperation and other multilateral groupings in the areas of energy, connectivity, and security. As Tom Kelly, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, US, stated recently, “Bangladesh is located in a vital region, which required it to play an important role in maintaining security in the Bay of Bengal.”

Furthermore, Bangladesh is a role model for many Muslim-majority countries as a moderate Muslim democratic country. Additionally, the US needs Bangladesh more than the other way round to uplift its image among the Muslim nations – especially now, given its declining stronghold in West Asia, post the Arab Awakening, and its disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Bangladesh too wouldn’t want further deterioration of the already tense status of the bilateral, because the US is the single biggest export destination for its goods, by being responsible for 30 per cent of Dhaka’s export revenue. Bangladesh gets preferential treatment from the US for its tobacco, sporting equipment, porcelain china and plastic products. In fact, approximately 5000 Bangladeshi products are accorded duty-free access to the US markets.

To improve their image in global market, the Bangladesh readymade garment sector has agreed on the manual of global standard to handle issues of workers safety. An updated labour law has been adopted in 2013 to protect the rights of the workers; Dhaka has facilitated the registration of trade unions for the same purpose. Additionally, Bangladesh will not take risk of losing grants and foreign aids by invoking the US’s wrath.

Following the conclusion of the April 2014 Trade and Investment Cooperation Framework Agreement (TICFA) meeting in Dhaka, Dan Mozena, ambassador of the US to Bangladesh, stated that the bilateral relationship “was never stronger, deeper and broader than now.” In fact, the TICFA meeting was the first of its kind to be held to review bilateral trades and investment between the two countries. However, the US has shown no interest in providing duty-free market access to Bangladesh-manufactured readymade garments, and has given no positive indication on reinstating the suspended GSP, which has been a long-pending demand of Dhaka’s.

Although bilateral relations cover wider socio-economic issues as well, the main focus of strategic dialogue is defence and security-oriented. The US has an interest in maintaining security in the South Asian region as US troops withdraw from Afghanistan soon, and the further rise of China is perceived as risky for Washington’s influence in this region.

Therefore, in the midst of all controversial remarks by some cabinet ministers in the Bangladeshi government, and the ongoing upheavals, both the countries would come back to existential realities and make moves to improve political and economic ties through partnership in: joint military exercises and exchanges, developmental projects, counterterrorism, and security initiatives. The Bangladesh-US relationship will stand the test of time.