No warmth in US-Bangladesh Relations: Why?

No warmth in US-Bangladesh Relations: Why?

One of the important allies of Bangladesh has been the US. The posting as Ambassador to Washington from Bangladesh is generally considered as the prized diplomatic assignment. Therefore it is natural to examine Bangladesh-US relations as the Hasina government nearly completes its term since taking power in January 2009.

Although during the first term of the Sheikh Hasina’s government (1996-2001), the Bangladesh –US relations went to the highest water mark with the visit of President Bill Clinton to Dhaka in March 2000, during her second term since 2009, the relations may be described as cool as they lack dynamism and warmth as the engagement between the highest political levels appears to be thin.

Having said that, since 2009, the Hasina government has become a valuable United States ally in the War on Terrorism. The government is determined to root out the terrorist elements from the soil of Bangladesh in all shapes and forms and the Obama administration has been pleased with the anti-terrorism policy of the government

Despite the above fact, why do bilateral relations lack warmth? What went wrong? There are many factors which may have contributed to this state of relations and some of them may deserve mention as follows:

First, the reportedly harsh remarks about the founder of the Grameen Bank and Nobel Peace Laureate Dr. Muhammad Yunus by the government leaders did not go down well with the Obama administration. Professor Yunus was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal from the US, a rare honour. Naturally the US wants to see a person who has been held so high esteem by the US administration and the Congress well –treated in his own country.

The former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, during her 20-hour visit to Bangladesh in May 2012, did not mince her words in her praise for Dr. Yunus describing him as a “tremendous model” for the developing world and cautioning the Bangladesh government to not “undermine or interfere in the operations of the Grameen Bank or its unique organisational structure where the poor women themselves were the owners. To further illustrate her admiration for the Nobel laureate, Clinton held an hour-long breakfast meeting with Dr. Yunus.

Second, the US wants to see multi-party democracy flourish in Bangladesh. Both the US and Bangladesh nationals have the utter dislike of authoritarian rule. Democracy is more than just elections. It’s about ensuring that people can have their voices heard peacefully. Some insensitive actions against the opposition parties in Bangladesh are seen contrary to the spirit of multi-party democracy and did not help the democratic image of the government to the US.

Third, the US administration reportedly is not pleased with the confrontational politics of the two major parties in not resolving the type of the interim government under which parliamentary elections will take place next year. In recent times, US Secretary of State John Kerry wrote a letter to the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition to come to an agreement ensuring inclusive, free and fair elections. It is reported that the government did not respond to Kerry’s letter.

Fourth, the failure of prosecution of the alleged murderer of labour leader Aminul Islam has infuriated the powerful trade union of the US–AFL-CIO and the US Ambassador several times urged for thorough investigation leading to detection and punishment of the culprit. Furthermore, the US expressed concerns on mysterious “disappearances” of Bangladeshi citizens during the tenure of the government.

All the aforesaid factors have an impact on bilateral relations. During the term of the government since 2009, no visit of the Prime Minister took place to the White House when President Obama received so many Asian leaders including the leader of Myanmar.

During the second term of the Obama administration, Secretary of State John Kerry came twice to South Asia (India and Pakistan) but avoided his visit to Bangladesh and abruptly cancelled his proposed 6-hour trip to the country.

Many argue the suspension of Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) in June this year is only a manifestation of its discreet displeasure with the Bangladesh government on the pretext of aftermath of Rana Plaza tragedy because the suspension does not directly affect the country’s multi-billion-dollar clothing exports to the US, because they do not come under GSP.

Having said that, it is the image of Bangladesh to international community which has damaged and has an impact on the European Union which allows quota-free and duty-free ready made garments to European Union.

The US, however, has kept engagement with Bangladesh because of its geographic location. Bangladesh shares borders with India and reformist Myanmar and is close to China and Bangladesh is a conduit between South Asia and South East Asia.

Furthermore Bangladesh has an access to the Indian Ocean through the Bay of Bengal. The sea-lanes of the Indian Ocean is strategically and commercially important for both US and China which monitors the security of the sea-lanes from piracy and other non-military maritime threats and Bangladesh’s participation may enhance the security of the sea- lanes.

For strategic reasons, the US has on-going military cooperation with Bangladesh. The third annual exercise “Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training” (CARAT) Bangladesh commenced with an opening ceremony at the Chittagong Naval Base Issa Khan, Sept. 16 this year.

“Our goal for this year’s CARAT is to continue the process of enhancing capacity and interoperability to address common maritime security concerns,” said Rear Adm. Cindy Thebaud, Commander, Task Force 73 and commander, Naval Forces CARAT.

Finally the bottom line is that given the changing environment Bangladesh needs the US as much as the US needs Bangladesh.

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