Constant engagement key to Bangladesh-US ties

Sanctions do not determine the relationship, says US embassy official

Bangladesh and the United States must engage constantly for the benefits of both countries, experts said at a discussion on Tuesday.

Like every relationship, there are convergences and divergences in Dhaka-Washington ties and any differences must not impede the overall broad relations, they said.

Referring to US sanctions on the Rapid Action Battalion and several of its officials and Bangladesh’s abstention from a United Nations vote against Russia that somewhat strained the ties, the speakers said that the relationship between the two countries was much more than those factors and there were many other aspects that could be beneficial to both the countries.

The leading English daily Dhaka Tribune and Central Foundation for International and Strategic Studies (CFISS) jointly organized the roundtable on Bangladesh-US relations at a local hotel.

Shamsher M Chowdhury, former foreign secretary and former Bangladesh ambassador in Washington, Sean McIntosh, counsellor for public affairs at the US embassy in Dhaka, Shahab Enam Khan, professor of Jahangirnagar University and Lailufar Yasmin, professor of Dhaka University, attended the program as panellists.

Dhaka Tribune Editor Zafar Sobhan and Commodore Nurul Absar, chairman and founder of CFISS, moderated the event attended by diplomats, academics and journalists.

“This is a mutual relationship. This is a partnership in the interest of both Bangladesh and the US,” said Zafar Sobhan.

A partnership of mutual understanding and respect is necessary to strengthen the bases and where both the countries are being benefited, he said.

No particular issue dictates the relationship, he added, in a reference to the US sanctions on RAB officials.

Shedding light on the evolution of the Bangladesh-US relationship, Zafar Sobhan said, “After an antagonistic start during the liberation war, the relations have evolved. In the first place, we need to redefine the role of the US in 1971. It was the decision of the US government to oppose the liberation war where the mass was even in support of Bangladesh.”

“Currently, the US remains a great trading partner. These statistics are not only the heart. There are certain development projects. The US has a lot of aspirations for Bangladesh. At the end of the day the US remains an indispensable country for the heart of Bangladesh,” he added.

Taking part in the discussion, US embassy official Sean McIntosh said, “The US has a broad and dynamic relationship with Bangladesh. Our relationship is very strong.”

On the US sanctions on RAB officials, he said that sanctions did not determine the relationship and that ‘every relationship has agreements and disagreements.

“We are still able to continue the relationship,” he added.

McIntosh reminded the roundtable of the Biden administration’s priorities like democracy, human rights and rule of law, saying that the US would talk about these issues during the upcoming partnership dialogue in Dhaka next week.

About the next election in Bangladesh, he mentioned the irregularities of past polls and said, “The US wants a free, fair election process.”

Washington desires an equitable process that will reflect the will of the people, said the official of the US embassy.

He assured continued US support for the Rohingyas and to find a durable solution to the crisis.

Condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine, he said, “We want to be on the right side of history.”

Narrating the evolution of the Dhaka-Washington relationship, Shamsher M Chowdhury said that over the years, Bangladesh had managed to overcome the difficulties of a bi-polar world and was able to maintain the friendship.

“Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the world was looking for a so-called unipolar world. Bangladesh’s relations with the US grew in spite of that, not because of that,” he said.

“Over a period of time, trade with the US was a very major factor. In spite of the fact Bangladesh does not enjoy tariff-free export to the United States, it built a very strong platform for both countries. Even then our exports grew. Our relations were diversified with people-to-people contact and the defence sector,” he added.

On Bangladesh’s abstention at the UN General Assembly vote, the former foreign secretary said, “The Ukraine thing will continue to strain.”

He firmly said that there was no alternative to constant engagements despite the presence of some disagreements.

On Bangladesh’s importance in the world in the context of Bangladesh-US relations, the former ambassador in Washington said, “It (Bangladesh) cannot remain confined to a bilateral frame. Bangladesh needs to be a responsible regional player.”

The former Foreign Secretary placed emphasis on responding to the priorities of the Biden administration, saying, “Dialogue is the only way forward.”

He also noted that the Bangladeshi diaspora in the USA needed to be more active like the Israelis and Indians to advance Dhaka-Washington ties.

CFISS Chairman Commodore Nurul Absar said, “For the last 50 years the US has been our important development partner; and we cooperated on a wide array of issues, including economic and social developments, security issues and counter-terrorism efforts.”

He talked about finding a new paradigm in building new frontiers of US-Bangladesh relations and said that with years starting from security, economy, fighting terrorism, etc., the relations had grown profoundly.”

“We can cooperate on the Rohingya issue, climate change, and blue economy, the transition of technological management, skill development and harnessing the democratic dividend,” he added.

“Plus 18 billion dollar trade with the West and there is a future demand for Bangladeshi products. So it is important to see it not only from the paradigm of defence security but also from the paradigm of economy,” said Professor Shahab Enam Khan.

Placing emphasis on transparency in the discussions between the two countries, he said that Bangladesh’s geostrategic location in the Bay of Bengal and other aspects would be very helpful in shaping the relationship.

“Bangladesh is often seen from the lens of a small state, as a sandwich between Myanmar and India, considered as a victim of geography and an India-locked country,” Professor Lailufar Yasmin said, stressing the need for a change to this notion.

“Bangladesh does not have to follow any other country. It can set its own policies. Bangladesh has the agenda-setting capacity,” she said.