What was the significance of US Deputy Secretary Stephen Biegun’s visit to Dhaka?
The US stated that the purpose of the recently ended visit to Dhaka of US Defense Deputy Secretary Stephen Biegun was to strengthen US-Bangladesh cooperation in maintaining peace, prosperity, and security in the Indo-Pacific region, extending from the Pacific to the Indian subcontinental region by reaffirming the US-Bangladesh partnership for sustainable development, promoting US-Indo-Pacific strategy, and to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic.
But the visit raised eyebrows among the intelligentsia here and in the corridors of Topkhana Foreign office in the context of its urgency, of it taking place at a time when the US presidential election is about two weeks away. It had the added significance in view of the forthcoming Delhi visit of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and defense Secretary Mark Esper at the end of this month for talks with their counterparts.
There was widespread speculation in the Indian and international press that the visit was prompted by the US and India’s shared concern to counterbalance the growing Chinese military and economic clout in Bangladesh and the Chinese expanding spheres of influence in the Bay of Bengal, the Indian Ocean, and the South China Sea. The US is concerned about maintaining international maritime security.
Both India and the US are watching with suspicion China’s increasing warming of relations with Bangladesh. They are concerned about Bangladesh participating in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, heavy Chinese investment in Bangladesh infrastructure projects, and purchase of Chinese submarines.
The purchase of Chinese military hardware worth $2.59 billion during the last 10 years, dwarfing the purchase of US hardware worth $110m was an added concern. The Chinese submarine base in the Bay of Bengal for training was an added irritation. Also, China lifted tariffs on 97% of Bangladesh imports.
China has offered a $1bn credit line to Bangladesh to manage water supplies in Teesta after India stalled and stagnated a signed agreement on Teesta by former prime minister Manmohan Singh. China sent supplies of masks, gowns, and medical teams for the pandemic response. Additionally, Phase 3 trial of a vaccine developed by the Chinese company Sinovac biotech is in progress. These developments obviously ruffled the feathers of China watchers in the South block in Delhi.
The visit was designed, according to the Indian press, to woo and entice Bangladesh away from Chinese influence. Also the visit is aimed at furthering Washington’s broader Indo-Pacific strategy. The US is also interested in deepening its defense diplomacy by selling its military hardware. In a rare outreach, US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper last month phoned Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, as reported by the international media, to help Bangladesh’s defense capabilities.
However, Bangladesh Foreign Minister Abdul Momen, in course of his press interview after talks with the visiting US Deputy Defense Secretary Biegun, has dispelled all speculations and misgivings by his categorical statement that Bangladesh is only interested to strengthen US-Bangladesh economic cooperation, particularly by advancing its blue economy and energy development, pharmaceuticals, and climate adaptation.
He also stated unequivocally that Bangladesh was not interested in the security aspect of US-Indo-Pacic strategy but only about its economic aspect. He also asserted that the US does not look at its relation with Bangladesh through “India’s prism,” dismissing by implication the widely-shared presumed suspicion that the US is playing second fiddle as a proxy role to India to promote India’s foreign policy agenda in Bangladesh.
It is apparent that knowing that Bangladesh will brook no change in its deep relation with China, maybe the US did not at all raise any proposal to Bangladesh to join the Indo-US alliance to contain China.
Biegun said the US was the second highest investor in Bangladesh, after the UK, and Bangladesh enjoyed a significant trade surplus in 2019 with the US.
He said Bangladesh has a big economy and the US was interested to sign a free trade agreement with Bangladesh. He also assured of continued support for repatriation of the Rohingya.
Bangladesh is steadfast about its clearly spelt out independent foreign policy as enunciated by the Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, “friendship to all and malice to none,” pursued in letter and spirit, by PM Hasina.
Any misunderstanding about any chance of its shift from its stated policy will be misconceived. Bangladesh is treading on a fine line of neutrality by maintaining an equidistant relation with the US, China, and India, steering clear of tilting to one side or the other, motivated exclusively by its national interest to strengthen its security and economic objectives.
Abdul Hannan is a columnist and a former diplomat.