Bangladesh and the United States of America (USA) share a historical tie. Since the US recognition of Bangladesh’s independence in 1972, the trajectory of the relationship saw an upward trend in almost every decade. In 2022, both countries also celebrated the auspicious event of 50 years of this bilateral relationship.
For the last two decades, the US gazed its attention mostly on the Middle East. Hence, it had the least focus on South Asia. However, after the revival of Quad and the subsequent development of Indo-Pacific geopolitics, the US has renewed its focus on South Asia once again and has emerged as one of the crucial actors in this region within the last two years.
Against this backdrop, it is important to revisit the current trend and future prospects of this bilateral relationship.
Bangladesh and the USA always shared favorable relations since the beginning. But the RAB sanction came in December 2021 surprising many and immediately took over the narrative for a short time. Bangladesh also responded maturely by increasing diplomatic relations unlike many rogue states such as North Korea which usually responds by projecting military power to any disagreements with the USA. As a result, after two years of the sanctions, it seems the sanctions are only a strain on the historical relations that flourished in a wide spectrum. Donald Lu also praised Bangladesh for ‘tremendous progress’ in this regard.
As the relations flourished, both countries are engaged in various aspects of relations from political, economic, and cultural.
Currently, both countries share strong political relations among them. Regular diplomatic communications and state-level visits are taking place. In the last two years, 18 mid and high-level visits took place among the nations. The Foreign Minister of Bangladesh also met with his counterpart, Secretary Blinken in 2022. Among the visits, seven Bangladeshi delegations visited the USA while eleven US delegations visited Bangladesh including the latest visit of Rear Admiral Eileen Laubacher and Assistant Secretary Donald Lu.
Increasing cooperation among the countries can be easily identified through several dialogues and joint training programs that took place in the last two years. Bangladesh and the US held the Partnership Dialogue and Security Dialogue in 2022 after a long pause due to the pandemic. US Navy also attended Bangladesh’s International Fleet Review in December 2022.
Apart from deep engagement, political dissatisfaction is also a part of the relations. The US is dissatisfied with the internal political situation of Bangladesh while Bangladesh also sees such intervention as contradictory to diplomatic norms.
In the economic arena, Bangladesh and the USA share a complex interdependence. The existing bilateral trade is growing fast, reaching USD 13 billion in 2022. In 2021, it was USD 10.5 billion, and in 2020 it was USD 7.8 billion. Bangladesh also has a surplus of USD 7.78 billion in it. Such burgeoning trade has also made the US the 3rd largest trading partner for Bangladesh behind China and India. The USA is also the single largest market for Bangladesh’s RMG export - the main export product of Bangladesh. Bangladesh exported RMG worth USD 6.6 billion in 2022.
Apart from the bilateral trade, the US is also one of the largest aid providers to Bangladesh. It is also one of the top investors in Bangladesh with the highest investment in Bangladesh’s energy sector. Amid the pandemic, the US has also donated more than 100 million doses of vaccine to Bangladesh, a number that accounts for more than 70 percent of all international COVID-19 vaccine donations.
Cross-cultural connection is also experiencing an upward trend currently. Generally, Bangladeshi people are favorable to the USA. Pew Research in 2014 showed that 76% of Bangladeshi have a favorable view towards the USA. The historic people-to-people relationship began during the independence war when the US citizens collected funds for Bangladesh’s independence. Currently, more than 220 thousand Bangladeshi lives there.
The US is very popular among Bangladeshi to pursue higher studies. The US also offers several scholarship and skilled migration schemes for the applicants including the Fulbright. Immediately after the pandemic, more than 10,500 Bangladeshi students went to the USA to pursue higher studies during 2021-2022- the highest among the countries where Bangladeshis pursue higher studies.
Issues of Priority
Even though the current trend of bilateral relations is mostly upward in most aspects, there are some issues of priority that are important to address. The US wants Bangladesh to align itself with the US human rights and democracy policy. Bangladesh is finding it a bit tough to maintain the standard but also not rejecting the demand. The sanctions against RAB and its seven officials also came as a part of US human rights policy. However, many take US human rights and democracy policy as a coercive method to pursue Bangladesh to join the US-led bloc against China. The US also wants to sign two defense agreements with Bangladesh, namely GSOMIA and ACSA. Through these agreements the US is seeking to strengthen its security in the Indo-Pacific region.
While the US is prioritizing human rights and security agreements, Bangladesh wants the US to increase its investment and bilateral trade. The suspended GSP scheme is also on Bangladesh’s agenda. Rohingya is another issue where Bangladesh wants US to play a more proactive role. And lastly, the dissatisfaction related to internal politics goes both way but remains a short-term issue in historic relations. But it seems through Lu’s latest visit, both parties have exchanged their concerns regarding this short-term issue.
As Bangladesh is a tiger economy with good investment environment, there is a prospect that the bilateral trade and investment may increase in coming days. Bangladesh has identified ICT sector as its ‘thrust’ sector and wants US investment here. Such investment will also diversify US investment in Bangladesh. Moreover, Bangladesh has also accepted the draft of GSOMIA agreement. If Bangladesh decides to sign the agreements, it may also open new avenue for defense procurement from the USA. Certainly, it would benefit Bangladesh’s Forces Goal-2030. However, Bangladesh has not signed the agreements yet.
Both countries have also prospects in strengthening political and military relations by facilitating specialized training, and awareness program related to human rights and democratic values.
After two years, it seems individual sanctions are just a strain on existing bilateral relations. The recent disputes can also be considered as short-term due to the political nature of the issues. Beyond the disputes, both countries have mutual interests and they can be aligned. Diplomatic engagement and deepening relations can be helpful in this context. The visits in last two years have been fruitful to transform the relationship. The next engagements should have such a focus to develop a ‘time-tested’ friendship.
The writer is a retired government official of Bangladesh