The United States’ (U.S.) opposition to the 1971 Liberation War of Bangladesh remains a saga in historical understanding of Bangladesh-US relations. The Nixon Administration compensated their strategic blunder of supporting a genocidal Pakistani regime by extending their diplomatic recognition to just born Bangladesh in April 1972. Citizens and many political leaders of the US came forward and rejected Nixon’s policy and supported the cause of liberation of Bengalese. Over the decades, the bilateral relations have grown and deepened. From economic cooperation to trade relations and political support to socio-cultural engagements as well as the evolving collaboration in counterterrorism after 9/11, both countries have gone far in maturing their bilateral relations. Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is the architect of strong Bangladesh-US relations in the early 2010s when China, India and a couple regional powers demonstrated their willingness to claim and reclaim their dominant positions at the regional and global settings.
The recent US attempt of invoking unilateral coercive measure of EO 1338138 against seven law enforcing officials is a new addition to a sequel of the US strategic miscalculations about Bangladesh. Such a unilateral action against a friendly nation with whom the US has developed strategic partnership through introducing security dialogue, counterterrorism cooperation and military exercises questions the basic intention of the Biden Administration. It is an unprovoked diplomatic action of the US that needs to be understood in proper perspective and put the bilateral relations in right track. The US leadership has at least committed three major blunders in recent years that baffle the foreign policy observers. It is not unknown that the US has established itself in the post-WWII era as a global hegemonic power with its untiring and unremitting emphasis on the realist paradigm of its international relations.
Generalized System of Preferences or GSP is a mechanism that has been widely referred to promote trade and reduce poverty in the developing and underdeveloped countries in the world. GSP is the largest and oldest U.S. trade preference program. Bangladesh was included in the USGSP facility in 1980. Surprisingly, on June 2013, the United States suspended Bangladesh’s designation as a beneficiary country under GSP program over concerns about workers’ rights in the country following the Rana Plaza garment factory collapse in April 2013. As a result, U.S. imports of GSP-eligible products from Bangladesh lost their duty-free status.
After the accident, the US attached as many as 16 conditions to be complied with by the Bangladesh government and concerned private sector factories of Bangladesh. According to the government of Bangladesh, Bangladesh has fulfilled all 16 conditions in the field of workplace, labor rights issue, and factory inspection and remediation issues. A tripartite committee has already been formed with six representatives from the government, three representatives from entrepreneurs, and three representatives from workers. The labor law, which originally came into force in 2006, has been substantially revised twice: once in 2013 and again in 2018; Bangladesh labor rules have also been formulated in 2015. Significant improvements in the institutional frameworks of the regulatory bodies have taken place over the years. Although Bangladesh requested the US to reinstate GSP facilities, it has not been accepted yet.
The deliberate exclusion of Bangladesh from the Democracy Summit is another example of diplomatic puzzle that has confounded the foreign policy analysts, political leaders and strategic commentators in Bangladesh and beyond. It is amusing and unusual the majority of the invitee countries to the Summit have questionable records, but they were invited. Despite having a robust civil society, strong tradition of democratic system of government since 1972 and above all, enjoying a very strong bilateral relationship, Bangladesh was excluded from the Summit. Bangladesh has been making a significant contribution to world peace, including in the UN and other multilateral bodies while sheltering more than 1.2 million Rohingyas from Myanmar. The decision of White House has created confusions and questions in the policy and knowledge circles. In all probability, the decision of exclusion of Bangladesh from Summit is diplomatic and political.
Dhaka has rightly been dismayed with the deliberate exclusion both for selective and arbitrary criteria of invitation and diplomatic fallouts. Though the invitation is not the ultimate stamp of democracy, it gives a misleading message to the global community about a country that has miraculously progressed from a war-torn economy to a middle-income nation in fifty years. It may strain existing friendship and partnerships between the two nations for which Bangladesh has no role. Analysts may question whether the US has rightly upheld its own standard of justice and rule of law while treating Bangladesh in such a discriminatory fashion. The issue of the deportation of Rashed Chowdhury, a convicted fugitive and killer of Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, has remained pending on the US side for more than a decade, though Bangladesh has repeatedly requested the US government to speed up the return of Rashed Chowdhury.
The third and probably most shocking is the sanctioning of security officials of Bangladesh. US imposed the so-called human rights-related sanctions on Bangladesh’s elite paramilitary force, the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and seven of its current and former officials on December 10, 2021. It marks the first time Washington has ever sanctioned Dhaka, which it has described as a key partner. Although the US intends to maintain a strong relationship with Bangladesh, the decision has already dealt a blow to bilateral ties. Every nation, including the US suffers from the questions of human rights violations. Reports from the rights organizations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch graphically demonstrate the cases of human rights violations by the security officials every year. The US has not imposed sanctioned on all these countries or other countries have not imposed sanctions on the US that has worsening records in the recent times. The sanctioning practice of the US has been, unilateral, arbitrary and selective as evidence shows. Bangladesh has rather improved its law-and-order situation and reduced the threat of terrorism through active support of the security agencies. This has highly been lauded by the USA in its 2021 Country Reports on Terrorism (CRT). Bangladesh is quite ahead of the US in ranking in the Global Terrorism Index. Bangladesh has rightly protested the US measures and requested the country to revoke it based on the true spirit of bilateral cooperation.
Analysis of the Cases
The above mentioned cases show that the diplomatic strategies behind these actions of the USA are ill conceived and are based on false notion of strategic interests, particularly when Bangladesh is an integral part of a new South Asia and the Bay of Bengal with enormous geopolitical significance. Michael Kugelman, deputy director and senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center, a think-tank based in Washington, DC, said “Bangladesh might “appear to occupy a prominent position” in the geopolitics of South Asia as it sits astride the Indian Ocean, and is part of “a tug of war” for influence between regional rivals, India and China”. Now the key question is why has the US been so arbitrary and harsh in the case of Bangladesh when it deals with these strategic and diplomatic issues in the name of human rights?
Undoubtedly, the US has reckoned its underlying diplomatic and strategic interests behind these actions. The apparent reference to human rights and labor rights is not enough to the analysts and policy people in the arena of diplomacy and international relations. It is understandable that the Biden Administration emphasized the human rights and democracy agenda in their foreign policy approach, which was almost erased during the Trump Administration. Regardless of which administration in power, the US has never sacrificed its strategic interests over the issues of democracy and human rights. In fact, global democracy agenda always benefited its strategic and geopolitical interests regionally and globally. Hence, the US actions are unequivocally based on its strategic and diplomatic interests and are part of its South Asia strategy.
It is indicated above that as a diplomatic strategy, the US has made a poor judgment perhaps due to its underlying negligence to South Asia, in general and Bangladesh in particular. One may certainly contest it and single out Bangladesh and argue that while the US attaches the importance of South Asia, it is less concerned about its bilateral relations with Bangladesh. Alliances such as QUAD and AUKUS may lead a section of US policy officials to undermine Bangladesh or to pursue a policy of zero-sum game by crafting a high stake gamble to create massive pressure on Bangladesh.
It is certainly a major strategic miscalculation on two critical grounds. First, Bangladesh has a clean record in its diplomatic journey, as the country is not a springboard of any great power. It has gathered its own sustainable domestic resources and transformed them into a national capability to face any odds from within and outside. Significantly, the country has strong political leadership and proven economic competence to withstand any pressure tactic. Second, the strategic complacency of the USA having post-withdrawal Afghanistan on the West and Myanmar on the East and extra-alliance or intra-alliance rivals in the Indo-Pacific region, it is inconceivable why has the US decided to antagonize Bangladesh.
The continuing postponement of GSP facilities, exclusion of Bangladesh from democracy summit, and unprecedented sanctioning of Bangladesh security officials clearly demonstrate a problematic understanding of the current foreign policy establishment of the USA. Bangladesh’s relations with all regional and global big powers are crystal clear and it is based on economic priorities as a newly graduating country from a least developed to a developing nation. Trade, investment, technology, remittance, development assistance, energy, connectivity, knowledge transfers and disaster management are the primary considerations.
It is not just a sanction or exclusion; rather it reveals the US efforts to draw attention of Bangladesh for its strategic concerns in the region through applying diplomatic-political pressure, which is clearly understandable now. In providing a right direction to Bangladesh-US relations, the US should not only withdraw its ill-conceived sanctions, but also immediately reinstate GSP facilities to Bangladesh recognizing the progress of the country in every aspect towards achieving the goal of a developed nation with its strong 165-million hard-working and proud citizens.
The writer is a columnist