The US-Bangladesh relations have taken a positive turn after Bangladeshi Minister of Foreign Affairs AK Abdul Momen visited Washington, D.C. and met his US counterpart Antony Blinken on April 10, 2023. This meeting comes after a series of trips by high-ranking US officials to Bangladesh and the hosting of bilateral dialogues and joint military exercises over the previous year that indicate a positive turn in US-Bangladeshi relations. Additionally, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s successful visit to the US has further strengthened the ties between the two nations.
Overview of Bangladesh-US relations
Since its independence in 1971, Bangladesh and the US have usually maintained extensive political, economic, military, cultural, and humanitarian relations with each other. While Dhaka has carefully pursued a non-aligned and relatively well-balanced foreign policy during and after the Cold War, it has sometimes demonstrated a ‘tilt’ in its foreign policy towards the US. On its part, Washington has maintained cordial relations with both the military dictatorships in Dhaka in the late 1970s and 1980s and the democratic governments in the post-1990 period. So far, Dhaka and Washington have held eight partnership dialogues and eight security dialogues to bolster their political and security ties.
You can also read: Recap of Prime Minister’s USA visit
Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s visit to the United States has resulted in several agreements and commitments, including support for future development projects. The visit has showcased the progress and potential of the country in various sectors, and the meetings and events during the visit demonstrated a significant diplomatic effort towards strengthening bilateral relations between the two countries. The following paragraphs will discuss some of the key outcomes of the visit.
PM seeks US partnership to build smart Bangladesh
During her virtual meeting with US Senators, Prime Minister Hasina highlighted the importance of a long-term partnership between Bangladesh and the United States to build a “smart Bangladesh.”
Bangladesh has enormous potential in technology, and the Prime Minister requested the United States to provide support in this sector.
The Prime Minister emphasized the need to increase global competitiveness and expand the export base to achieve the goal of becoming a “developing” country by 2026. During a business roundtable held at the US Chamber of Commerce in Washington DC, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina expressed Bangladesh’s desire for a long-term and fruitful partnership with the United States. She said, “We shall need support to increase our global competitiveness and expand the export base. I am optimistic that the United States would become our long-term productive partner in this challenging venture through trade, investment, technology transfer, and by creating a smooth and predictable supply chain for mutual benefits.”
Special economic zones for US investors
During a meeting with US businessmen, Prime Minister Hasina offered special economic zones to encourage investment in Bangladesh. She invited US investors to explore opportunities in the country and called for greater US investment in the country’s infrastructure and other sectors. The prime minister urged the US business community to explore opportunities and make investments in Bangladesh, citing the country’s vibrant and high-potential sectors, including renewable energy, shipbuilding, automobile, pharmaceuticals, and ICT. She reiterated her previous offer of a special economic zone exclusively for US investors. She said, “I invite you to invest in our many vibrant and high-potential sectors.”
The US had been the topmost provider of economic assistance to Bangladesh in its initial years, and currently, the US is the largest source of foreign direct investment for Bangladesh. The US is the single largest destination of Bangladeshi exports, and it is Bangladesh’s 3rd largest trading partner. Export of Ready-Made Garments (RMG) products and remittances constitute the backbone of Bangladesh’s rapidly growing economy, and since Bangladesh has a positive balance of payments with the US, its partnership with the US is crucial to its continued socio-economic development.
Security and military ties
Dhaka and Washington have cooperated closely on the security and military fronts. Washington has provided Dhaka with considerable military aid, helped the latter in bolstering its border and maritime security, assisted it in equipping and upgrading its UN peacekeeping contingents, and conducted a number of joint military exercises with it on a regular basis. Moreover, US-Bangladeshi cultural relations are strong and multifaceted, exemplified by regular cultural exchanges, joint cultural programs, and the presence of nearly 800,000 Bangladeshi immigrants in the US.
The US has been a very important partner for Bangladesh in terms of humanitarian assistance. During the Covid pandemic, Bangladesh had been the largest recipient of US vaccine donations, receiving more than 100 million doses that comprise more than 70% of all vaccine donations to the country. Moreover, Washington has provided Dhaka with nearly $2.1 billion since 2017 to manage the 1.2 million Rohingya refugees currently residing in south-eastern Bangladesh.
Areas of friction
There also exist some areas of friction in the US-Bangladesh relations. Washington has expressed its reservations about the fairness of elections in Bangladesh, the human rights records of Bangladeshi security agencies, and the conditions of media freedom and labour rights in the country. On the other hand, Dhaka is seeking from the US the reinstatement of GSP facilities for itself, the removal of sanctions on Bangladeshi security force Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), the extradition of Rashed Chowdhury (a former Bangladeshi military officer involved in the assassination of Bangladesh’s founding father Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman), and the increased involvement of the US in the repatriation of Rohingya refugees.
Bangladesh-US ties amidst global and regional transformations
The growing importance that the US is attaching to Bangladesh has to be understood in the context of global and regional transformations. Bangladesh is a rising power in South Asia, and its strategic location, population, and economy make it an important player in the region. Moreover, the US is seeking to maintain its strategic presence in the Indo-Pacific region as part of its broader strategy to counterbalance China’s growing influence in the region. Bangladesh is an important partner for the US in this context, as it shares a border with India, which is a critical player in the region, and is also a member of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) and the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA).
In conclusion, US-Bangladeshi relations are on a positive track, as evidenced by the recent high-level visits, joint exercises, and dialogue mechanisms. While there are some areas of friction in the relationship, the growing strategic importance of Bangladesh and the US’s interest in maintaining its strategic presence in the Indo-Pacific region are likely to drive the relationship forward in the coming years.