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বাংলা
Dhaka Tribune

New chapter: What does the future hold for Bangladesh-US relations?

  • Expert emphasizes shifts in diplomatic behaviour over time
  • Says pre-election unease may dissipate but its effects may linger
Update : 22 Feb 2024, 11:32 PM

The United States is noticeably singing a different tune following the January 7 general election in Bangladesh.

Throughout the electoral process, the Biden administration consistently emphasized the importance of a free and fair election with the participation of all major parties. However, the dynamics have evolved since then.

US President Joe Biden recently wrote to Awami League President Sheikh Hasina, who formed a government with an absolute majority in the 12th national election and became prime minister for the fourth consecutive time. 

The contents of the letter, shared by the US embassy with the foreign ministry earlier this month, allude to a promising "new chapter" in bilateral relations.

For the past six months, no delegation from Dhaka or Washington has visited either country for talks. There was an understanding that there would be no visits during election time.

Now a delegation led by US State Department Deputy Assistant Secretary Afreen Akhter is scheduled to arrive in Dhaka at the end of February.

The team aims to engage with the director general of the North America wing of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, with further bilateral discussions also potentially involving the foreign secretary and various other meetings.

Prior to the election, the United States had voiced concerns about civil rights in Bangladesh, even concluding in a post-election statement that the voting process had not been entirely free and fair. 

Shahidul Haque, former foreign secretary and Bangabandhu Chair at Delhi University, is of the opinion that diplomatic behaviour evolves with time and circumstances, urging a nuanced perspective.

“Each country has different priorities at different times… I think we should think of it from that point of view.”

"The issue of regional and global security comes up at the very beginning of the letter, which is very significant," Shahidul Haque said about Biden’s correspondence with Sheikh Hasina. However, he also mentioned that Bangladesh had always prioritized economic issues.

In terms of collaboration, President Biden's letter underscores cooperation between Bangladesh and the US in areas such as regional and global security, addressing the Rohingya crisis, and a shared vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific, encompassing economic development, climate change and energy initiatives.

Bangladesh’s vision 

Bangladesh aspires to developed nation status by 2041. For this purpose, the government has introduced a variety of economic activities, from the construction of large infrastructures to radical changes in the education system.

Prof Shahidul highlighted the need for foreign assistance to carry out such a large-scale campaign. “Not only financing but the technical know-how, technology and education are also important. The United States can help in these matters.”

What US wants

The United States has a $27 trillion economy. On the other hand, the amount of trade between Bangladesh and the United States is about $10 billion.

Bilateral trade was important for Bangladesh but not for the US, Shahidul Haque noted.

“$10 billion in trade is not that significant to them. Naturally, they may want to look at Bangladesh through a broader, ie, core and non-core security lens.”

He continued: “The US always mentions that it wants Bangladesh to side with its initiative for a free and open Indo-Pacific. Security is one of the many components of the US Indo-Pacific architecture, and Bangladesh is working with the US on some of these issues.”

Security cooperation between the two countries encompasses various facets, including training, information exchange, peacekeeping efforts, maritime security, and combating terrorism and militancy. Recent developments include the provision of state-of-the-art drones by the US to Bangladesh.

Besides, the two countries also work on issues including climate change as well as food and energy security.

Regional stability

Efforts and urgency to preserve the entire region’s stability are now getting more importance than anything else.

Any instability in Bangladesh could have far-reaching consequences for the entire region, Shahidul Haque told this correspondent. “South Asia cannot afford it at the moment. The stability of the region should not be allowed to be undermined.” 

He said that while unease preceding the election might gradually dissipate in Dhaka-Washington relations, lingering effects could surface, particularly concerning labour rights, with potential ramifications in international forums such as Brussels and Geneva.

The delicate balance between different forces is now more consequential than ever. Calling it a big challenge, Shahidul Haque said for Bangladesh to fully support any side was improbable and would not be right either. 

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