US-BD partnership dialogue: New realities and expectations

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Hussain Shazzad

The 8th annual partnership dialogue between Bangladesh and the United States of America started on 20 March 20 this year. Due to the Covid pandemic, the dialogue was on hold for two years since 2019 when the last dialogue took place. The last two years have experienced significant developments in the stage of global politics, such as a pandemic, Biden’s coming to power, intensifying great power rivalries, and growing scramble over the Indo-Pacific region.

In these two years, many qualitative shifts have also occurred in the US and Bangladesh bilateral relations, including the US sanctions on Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and its seven current and former officials, security demands for the US, and vaccine diplomacy. As this is the first official meeting after the RAB sanction, this year’s dialogue holds special significance considering the new realities in bilateral, regional, and global politics.

Old ties
Half a century ago, on 4 April 1972, the US recognised Bangladesh as a sovereign nation state. Since then, the trajectory of this bilateral relationship has been upward with cooperation in the fields of aid, trade, investment, security, politics, and cross-cultural issues. To reconstruct the war-torn Bangladesh, the US emerged as the biggest source of aid since 1972. Bangladesh is the third highest recipient of US aid in South Asia. The US is also the largest aid provider to Bangladesh. Also, it is the largest investor in Bangladesh’s energy sector while contributing to Bangladesh’s effort to ensure “energy security” directly hitting SDG-7, affordable and clean energy.

The two-way trade reached a nine billion dollar landmark in 2019 with Bangladesh becoming the 46th largest trading partner of the US. Besides, the US was the largest source of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) to Bangladesh with 3.5 billion dollars in that particular year. During the pandemic, the US extended its helping hand towards Bangladesh with 8 billion dollars in assistance. In the meantime, Bangladesh has received 61 million doses of vaccine from the US, making Bangladesh the largest US vaccine recipient in the world.

New realities
US-Bangladesh Partnership Dialogue, established in 2012, initiated as an annual meeting to cooperate on common interests, discuss dispute resolution, and evaluate current relations to take this to new heights. Since the last meeting in 2019, new realities have taken place, starting with the pandemic and vaccine diplomacy. In the meantime, great power rivalries between the US and China have also intensified South Asian geopolitics. Years after the on-going Quad-China stalemate, it seems a scramble for the Indo-Pacific Region has become visible where Bangladesh’s geostrategic potential makes it a valuable ally for all the parties.

Again, the Biden administration has formulated its foreign policy with democracy and human rights at the centre. Undoubtedly, the sanctions on RAB over the allegations of human rights violations are the result of this new foreign policy. Though it is a tiny part of a long-standing relationship, the sanctions have surely put a strain over the relationship creating a temporary cloud.

As a host, Dhaka will prepare the dialogue agenda which will be of great advantage to prioritise issues that matter most to Bangladesh. While lifting sanctions will be the topmost priority for Bangladesh, the US is looking to sign two defence deals: General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA), to ensure its security in the Indo-Pacific region against growing Chinese presence.

As both parties have their priorities set for the meeting, the dialogue would clear up the temporary cloud between the states. Apart from the US cooperation on improving democracy and human rights, Bangladesh will look for the way-outs to the sanctions being lifted. As these are not ‘one-sitting’ issues to be resolved, this five-stage dialogue would be beneficial in finding fruitful solutions in this regard.

As of today, most of the US investment is highly concentrated in Bangladesh’s energy sector. Bangladesh is expecting US investment in other sectors especially in the ICT sector. This meeting is the best platform to discuss and devise ways to diversify US trade and investment with Bangladesh.

Also, Bangladesh should emphasise political relations and greater cooperation in combating transnational crimes. Apart from aforementioned expectations, Bangladesh may seek assistance from the US not only for supporting the 1.2 million stranded Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh but also for their safe and dignified return to Myanmar. And last but not least, Bangladesh will expect the US to clarify its position on the Indo-Pacific strategy considering the intensified geopolitics of the region.

The multi-faced nature of relationship with multilateral cooperation should not be undermined by any single issue like the RAB sanctions. Due to the great power rivalries, qualitative shift in the US foreign policy, and US objectives in the region, the issues have become pressing yet time-consuming which is acknowledged by both parties. As a result, there will be no joint statement this year to keep the possibilities open for further discussion.

If the air has been somewhat heavy, it should be cleared through this dialogue. Considering the commercial noteworthiness and geostrategic importance of Bangladesh, the US should redesign its strategic posture in South Asia for more proactive engagement with Bangladesh. The US should not view Dhaka through the prism of New Delhi. Bangladesh’s image is not the same anymore after fifty years of its birth. Standing at the crucial juncture of the golden jubilee of their ties, Bangladesh should be considered based on its merit. So, it is time for both countries to take relations to a new height and transform this into strategic partnership by clearing the clouds and addressing mutual interests.


Writer Hussain Shazzad is strategic affairs and foreign policy analyst and is currently working as a consultant to BEDO, a Bangladeshi NGO

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