The eighth annual “Partnership Dialogue” between Bangladesh and the United States of America (USA) started on March 20, 2022. Due to Covid-19 pandemic, the dialogue was on halt for two years since 2019, when the last dialogue took place. The last two years have experienced significant developments in the stage of global politics, such as a pandemic, President Biden coming to power, intensifying great power rivalries, and growing “scramble” over the Indo-Pacific region. In these two years, many qualitative shifts have also occurred in the US and Bangladesh bilateral relations, including the US sanctions on Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and its seven current and former officials, security demands for the USA, and vaccine diplomacy. As this is the first official meeting after the RAB sanction, this year’s dialogue holds special significance considering the new realities in bilateral, regional, and global politics.
Half a century ago, on April 4, 1972, the USA recognized Bangladesh as a sovereign nation state. Since then, the trajectory of this bilateral relationship has been upward with cooperation in the fields of aid, trade, investment, security, politics, and cross-cultural issues. To reconstruct the war-torn Bangladesh, the US emerged as the biggest source of aid since 1972. Bangladesh is the third-highest recipient of US aid in South Asia. A little-known fact is that the USA is also the largest aid provider to Bangladesh. In addition, the USA is the largest investor in Bangladesh’s energy sector while contributing to Bangladesh’s effort to ensure “energy security” directly hitting SDG-7, affordable and clean energy.
The two-way trade has reached USD9 billion-dollar landmark in 2019 with Bangladesh becoming the 46th largest trading partner of the US. Besides, the USA was the largest source of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) to Bangladesh with $3.5 billion in that particular year. During the pandemic, the USA has extended its helping hand towards Bangladesh with USD8 billion in assistance. In the meantime, Bangladesh has received 61 million doses of vaccine from the USA, making Bangladesh the largest US vaccine recipient in the world.
US-Bangladesh Partnership Dialogue, established in 2012, was initiated as an annual meeting to cooperate on common interests, discuss for dispute resolution, and evaluate current relations in a manner in which to take them to a new height. Since the last meeting in 2019, new realities have taken place, starting with the pandemic and vaccine diplomacy. In the meantime, great power rivalries between the US and China have also intensified South Asian geopolitics. Years after the ongoing Quad-China stalemate, it seems a ‘scramble’ for the Indo-Pacific Region has become visible where Bangladesh’s geostrategic potential makes it a desired ally for all the parties.
Again, the Biden Administration has formulated its foreign policy putting “Democracy and Human Rights” at the centre. Undoubtedly, the “unilateral” sanction on RAB over the allegation of human rights violations is the result of this new foreign policy. Though it is a tiny part of a long-standing relationship, the sanction has surely put strain over the relationship creating a temporary cloud.
As a host, Dhaka will prepare the dialogue agenda, which will be of great advantage to prioritize those issues that matter most to Bangladesh. While lifting sanctions will be the topmost priority for Bangladesh, the US is looking to sign two defense deals: General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA), to ensure its security in the Indo-Pacific region against growing Chinese presence.
As both parties have their priorities set for the meeting, the dialogue would clear up the temporary cloud between the states. Apart from the US cooperation on improving democracy and human rights, Bangladesh will look for the way-outs to the sanctions being lifted. As these are not ‘one-sitting’ issues to be resolved, this five-stage dialogue would be beneficial in finding fruitful solutions in this regard.
As of today, most of the US investment is highly concentrated in Bangladesh’s energy sector. Bangladesh is expecting US investment in other sectors especially in the ICT (Information and Communications Technology) sector. This meeting is the best platform to discuss and devise ways to diversify US trade and investment with Bangladesh.
Moreover, Bangladesh should emphasize political relations and greater cooperation in combating transnational crimes. Apart from aforementioned expectations, Bangladesh may seek assistance from the US not only for supporting the 1.2 million stranded Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, but also for their safe and dignified return to Myanmar. Finally yet importantly, Bangladesh will expect the US to clarify its position on the Indo-Pacific strategy considering the intensified geopolitics of the region.
Any single issue, e.g., RAB sanction, should not undermine the multi-faced nature of relationship with multilateral cooperation. Due to the great power rivalries, qualitative shift in the US foreign policy, and US objectives in the region, the issues have become pressing yet time-consuming which is acknowledged by both parties. As a result, there will be no joint statement this year to keep the possibilities open for further discussion.
Though the air is heavy for the time being, it should be cleared through this dialogue. Considering the commercial noteworthiness and geostrategic importance of Bangladesh, the US should redesign its strategic posture in South Asia for more proactive engagement with Bangladesh. The US should not view Dhaka through the prism of New Delhi. Bangladesh’s image is not the same anymore after fifty years of its birth. Standing at the crucial juncture of the golden jubilee of the bilateral ties, Bangladesh should receive consideration based on its merit. Therefore, it is time for both countries to take the relations to a new height and transform it into strategic partnerships by clearing the cloud and addressing mutual interests.
 RAB is an elite anti-crime and anti-terrorism unit of the Bangladesh Police. It consists of members of the Bangladesh Police, Bangladesh Army, Bangladesh Navy, Bangladesh Air Force, Border Guard Bangladesh, Bangladesh Civil Service and Bangladesh Ansar. It was formed on 26 March 2004 as RAT (Rapid Action Team), and commenced operations on 14 April 2004.
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About the author:
Hussain Shazzad, a strategic affairs and foreign policy analyst, is currently working as a consultant to BEDO, a Bangladeshi NGO. He has completed his B.B.A and M.B.A from the, University of Dhaka, Bangladesh. Before starting his career as a consultant, he used to work with Palli Karma-Shayak Foundation (PKSF), an apex development organization under the Ministry of Finance, Bangladesh. He is a writer and columnist whose articles have appeared at The Diplomat, Australian Institute of International Affairs, The Star, The Statesman, The Daily Star, Daily News, Modern Diplomacy etc.