A relationship decades in the making

Just six days after the 51st anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Bangladesh and the United States, Bangladeshi Minister of Foreign Affairs Abul Kalam Abdul Momen visited Washington DC and met his US counterpart Antony Blinken.

The meeting was held in the wake of a series of trips to Bangladesh by high-ranking US officials as well as the hosting of bilateral dialogues and joint military exercises over the previous year that indicate a positive turn in US-Bangladesh relations.

Positive elements continue to outweigh friction

Since its independence in 1971, Bangladesh and the US have usually maintained extensive political, economic, military, cultural, and humanitarian relations with each other. While Dhaka has carefully pursued a non-aligned and relatively well-balanced foreign policy during and after the Cold War, it has sometimes demonstrated a “tilt” in its foreign policy towards the US, for instance, by its strong opposition to the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia and the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, its participation in the US-led boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, its military involvement in the US-led coalition during the Gulf War, and its recognition of US-backed Kosovo as an independent state.

On its part, Washington has maintained cordial relations with both the military dictatorships in Dhaka in the late 1970s and 1980s and the democratic governments in the post-1990 period. So far, Dhaka and Washington have held eight partnership dialogues and eight security dialogues to bolster their political and security ties.

The US has been the biggest provider of economic assistance to Bangladesh in its initial years, and currently the US is the largest source of foreign direct investment for Bangladesh. In addition, the Bangladesh economy is closely connected with the US economy. The US is the single largest destination of Bangladeshi exports and its third largest trading partner. Bangladesh is the third largest exporter of RMG products to the US, and it exported more than $10 billion worth RMG products to the US in the last year.

In addition, the US is the largest source of remittance for Bangladesh at present. Export of RMG products and remittance constitute the backbone of Bangladesh’s rapidly growing economy, and since Bangladesh has a positive balance of payments with the US, its partnership with the US is crucial to its continued socio-economic development.

Similarly, Dhaka and Washington have cooperated closely on the security and military fronts. Washington has provided Dhaka with considerable military aid (worth more than $75m since 2015), helped the latter in bolstering its border and maritime security, assisted it in equipping and upgrading its UN peacekeeping contingents and conducted a number of joint military exercises with it on a regular basis.

Moreover, US-Bangladeshi cultural relations are strong and multi-faceted, exemplified by regular cultural exchanges, joint cultural programs and the presence of nearly 800,000 Bangladeshi immigrants in the US. Furthermore, more than 10,500 Bangladeshi students are now studying in US educational institutions, making Bangladesh the 13th largest source of international students in the US.

Last but not the least, the US has been a very important partner for Bangladesh in terms of humanitarian assistance. For instance, the US Navy assisted Bangladesh greatly in managing the aftermath of the devastating cyclones in 1991 and 2007. During the Covid-19 pandemic, Bangladesh has been the largest recipient of US vaccine donations, receiving more than 100 million doses that comprise more than 70% of all vaccine donations to the country.

Moreover, Washington has provided Dhaka with nearly $2.1bn since 2017 to manage the 1.2 million Rohingya refugees currently residing in southeastern Bangladesh.

It should be noted that there also exist some areas of friction in the US-Bangladeshi relationship. Washington has expressed its reservations about the fairness of elections in Bangladesh, the human rights records of Bangladeshi law enforcement agencies, and the conditions of media freedom and labour rights in the country. It is also uncomfortable with Dhaka’s growing military-economic ties with its geopolitical rivals Beijing and Moscow. On the other hand, Dhaka is seeking from the US the reinstatement of GSP facilities for itself, the removal of sanctions on Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), the extradition of Rashed Chowdhury (a former Bangladeshi military officer involved in the assassination of Bangladesh’s founding father Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman), and the increased involvement of the US in the repatriation of Rohingya refugees.

However, these areas of friction have not prevented the parties from maintaining and further developing fruitful, multi-pronged and dynamic relations with each other. In fact, the positive elements in the US-Bangladesh relations continue to far outweigh the issues of discord between them.

Ties that bind

The growing importance that the US is attaching to Bangladesh has to be understood in the context of Bangladesh’s own politico-economic rise and the global and regional transformations. Bangladesh’s geo-political, geo-economic, and geo-strategic value has been on the rise owing to its rapid socio-economic advancement, its huge and expanding local market, its resource base, its potential as a future middle income powerhouse, and its strategic location on the Bay of Bengal and at the confluence of South and Southeast Asia.

Accordingly, the global and regional powers, including the US, China, Russia, Japan, and India, have sought to expand their influence in the Bengal delta. So far, Bangladesh has displayed a balanced and pragmatic attitude towards the Sino-US, US-Russian, Sino-Indian and Sino-Japanese rivalries. Walking on a politico-diplomatic tightrope, Dhaka has sought to maintain cordial relations with all the parties involved to accelerate its socio-economic development.

Meanwhile, in a bid to counter growing Chinese assertiveness, the US has shifted the crux of its geo-political activities to the Indo-Pacific region. The growing US interest in Bangladesh has to be viewed in the context of Bangladesh’s location along the Indian Ocean rim. As Bangladesh Foreign Minister Abdul Momen has stated after the meeting with his US counterpart, the growing partnership between the two states is mutually beneficial and congruent with the national interests of both states.

He has addressed key US concerns about Bangladesh, while stressing the need for enhanced economic ties and further US involvement in the resolution of the Rohingya crisis. Furthermore, both Dhaka and Washington have expressed their interests in enhancing bilateral military cooperation, including the conclusion of defense agreements and the Bangladeshi purchase of high-tech military equipment from the US. If such a level of military-strategic cooperation is achieved, US-Bangladesh relations might be upgraded to a strategic partnership in the future.

In the 50 years of diplomatic relations, Bangladesh and the US have succeeded in preserving a cordial, multi-dimensional, and comprehensive partnership with each other. The rapidly growing political, economic, military, cultural and humanitarian ties between the two states continue to far outweigh the few irritants that are present in their otherwise ideal bilateral relations.

Therefore, in the wake of the Momen-Blinken meeting that ended on a positive note, it can be expected that while Bangladesh is likely to continue following its traditional policy of non-alignment in international politics, the US-Bangladeshi ties would continue to move in a positive direction, with the probability of the formation of a strategic partnership.

Md Himel Rahman is a post-graduate student at the Department of International Relations, University of Dhaka.

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