US-Bangladesh relations in peril!

US limbering up to Bangladesh

Shah Husain Imam

US Ambassador to Bangladesh Dan Mozena mixes counseling with diplomacy while speaking at any important public forum in Dhaka. His words are usually a blend of advice and compliments, the latter pointing to possibilities on the horizon for Bangladesh.

Ambassador Mozena conveyed US buyers’ concern over labour unrest in garments sector, safety at workplace and freedom of association in Bangladesh at his Meet the Press interaction in the capital recently. The issues no doubt need utmost attention at our end; however, the business community is somehow left with an impression maybe the US is insistent on such issues because it is still not prepared to meet some of Bangladesh’s well-known demands. Does his government think the time is not right for such concessions to be accorded to Bangladesh, or is it subliminally looking for a quid pro quo?

Having said that, Mozena has been consistently upbeat in his remarks about Bangladesh in three important respects. First, he recognises the potential of Bangladesh as the seventh largest populous (Muslim majority) country in the world; second, he sees the country emerging as the next “Tiger in Asia” provided it keeps politically stable; and last but not least, the US values Bangladesh for its geo-political importance. Bangladesh is the bridgehead between South and Southeast Asia and a littoral state of Indian Ocean with two seaports of high potential.

The geo-political characterisation of Bangladesh is a sea change from how I remember a USAID chief in early 90’s telling me in an interview that Bangladesh was being treated on humanitarian grounds only. This somehow found resonance with Henry Kissinger’s labelling of Bangladesh as a basket case in the early 70’s. Indeed, we have moved a long way ahead since.

That the US is attaching increasing importance to her relationship with Bangladesh has been illustrated by a flurry of visits by US dignitaries to Dhaka in the recent months. They included US Assistant Secretary of State Robert O. Blake, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy R. Sherman and Assistant Secretary of Political-Military Affairs Andrew J. Shapiro. The series of inter-state contacts climaxed with the visit of US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton signing up to Bangladesh-US partnership dialogue framework. The maiden annual meeting under the framework is likely to be held in September.

All this was followed by the visit of the highest US defence official, Secretary of Navy Ray Mabus between July 13 and 15. Cooperation between the navies of the two countries was mooted at length.

The US establishment may be buying into some of the latest research material making out a case for the United States to foster closer relations with smaller countries in South Asia. This is not to make a short shrift of an organic rethink in the State Department and Pentagon as part of the USA’s “pivoting to Asia” winding down its commitments to Afghanistan and Iraq.

Nilanthi Samaranayake, Strategic Studies Analyst at CNA in Alexandria VA, writing for Asia-Pacific Bulletin (Sept 22, 2011), East-West Center underscored: “The prospects for advancing US security ties with Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Nepal deserve serious examination.”

The reasons for such a shift of emphasis can be ticked off in the following order: While relations with India “may not progress as quickly as desired” and those with Pakistan and Afghanistan are “in tatters,” the USA needs to forge deeper strategic relationship with the “marginal states.” Such states,” according to Doug Lieb in the Harvard International Review, “are often overlooked in a structural realist world view that privileges the study of large countries.”

Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the Maldives being maritime countries exude significant potential for securing Indian Ocean sea lanes in the eyes of China and USA, of course with implications for India.

The Maldives is exposed to Somali pirates and Lashkar-e-Taiba seeking harbour on any of its 26 atolls. It could benefit from US counter-terrorism assistance to protect its tourism industry. Sri Lanka’s economic and diplomatic ties with China growing, “the United States must try not to alienate Sri Lanka (human rights concerns regardless) given its strategic location in the Indian Ocean,” adds Nilanthi Samaranayake suggesting a possible directional change in US geo-strategic thinking.

Myanmar and Bangladesh have the potential gas reserve to substantially meet the energy requirements of Asia — particularly China and India. With Myanmar opening up, aside from the traditional Chinese presence, India and United States are going forward in forging closer ties with Yangon.

China, Bangladesh and Myanmar have agreed to build Kunming highway linking Chittagong with Kunming through Myanmar, though a rail link is off the table.

In all, this remains something of a vision statement which even a chink in any pair of bilateral relationships (Myanmar in relation to Rohingya) could queer the pitch for at least a part of a comprehensive inter-regional infrastructure networking.

Bangladesh stands out for its moderate secular values and success in fending off political use of religion. But it has vulnerabilities to non-traditional security threats such as cyclones and earthquakes requiring weather forecasting technologies and assistance in disaster relief and climate change issues. The US wishes to come in on these concerns.

Holistically, Bangladesh is ideally placed to maintain balanced and efficacious relationships with India, China and USA. Only if we can manage our own house efficiently and sagaciously would we be in a position to reap demographic dividends of a large, yet controlled population bridging some of the gaps with all the three giants.

The writer is Associate Editor, The Daily Star.