Security dialogue usually transcends asymmetry. What led to holding of the first ever security dialogue between Dhaka and Washington on April 19? More such dialogues will perhaps follow. The agenda look to be primarily bilateral and somewhat regional. But is that all?
The closed-door dialogue was led by Additional Foreign Secretary Mustafa Kamal on Bangladesh side and US Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs Andrew J. Shapiro. Foreign Secretary of Bangladesh Mohammad Mijarul Quayes inaugurated the dialogue while the US Ambassador in Dhaka Dan Mozena also attended the event.
The two sides agreed to enhance partnership in UN peacekeeping, counterterrorism and disaster management. The whole gamut of on-going security cooperation between the two countries in counterterrorism, disaster management, maritime security and peacekeeping operations, and shared commitment to peace, security and prosperity in the region, came up for discussion, it was learned.
A press release of the US Embassy in Dhaka said the positive and substantial exchanges of the dialogue reflected the depth and strength of the bilateral defence relationship as well as shared commitment to peace and prosperity in the region. It said: "This inaugural Dialogue on Security Issues highlights the robust engagement between the United States and Bangladesh as well as our growing defense relationship." Describing Bangladesh as an important partner of the US in dealing with many traditional and non-traditional security threats, Andrew Shapiro is reported to have stressed the strategic importance of Bangladesh for the US
From Bangladesh side, however, no press statement or briefing was made. However, the daily Independent quoted an unnamed foreign ministry official who described the dialogue as an effort to explore avenues of cooperation in security-related issues. The source further said: "We want to work together on all of the security challenges that we face here in this region and the world."
If one contextualises the visit, apart from Bangladesh's being on the side of US in its much talked about global war on terror, as are its other South Asian neighbours, some degree of bilateral security cooperation has been ongoing. But this dialogue perhaps transcended bilateralism and Bangladesh has been gradually taken on in a South Asian security loop. Earlier, on March 2, head of US Pacific Command Admiral Robert Willard said in a hearing that US special forces teams were currently stationed in five South Asian countries -- India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Maldives -- as part of the counter-terrorism cooperation with these nations. "South Asia is home to a confluence of challenges, including nuclear armed rivals India and Pakistan, numerous transnational VEOs such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, piracy, trafficking in narcotics and persons, disputed borders, and insurgent movements that have plagued India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka," he said. Bangladesh, he said, has emerged as a particularly effective partner in the fight against terror, cooperating with India as well as the US to counter VEO activity by actors such as LeT. Further, Bangladesh's military is advancing its capabilities and contributes broadly to UN peacekeeping operations, he added.
Although the implied meaning of Willard's statement that US troops are stationed in these South Asian countries was rejected forthrightly in New Delhi, Dhaka and later Washington DC, US embassy in New Delhi and India's ministry of defence admitted that a unit from the US 25th infantry division was in India to hold an exercise with Indian forces. It was also admitted in Dhaka that some US security personnel were in Dhaka for training purposes.
In February, two senior officials of US State Department, Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights Maria Otero and Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Robert O. Blake, visited South Asian countries including Bangladesh. On April 5, US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, visited Dhaka to discuss bilateral issues with top government officials, opposition leaders and civil society members. The two-day official tour of Wendy Sherman, third in ranking in the State Department, was considered crucial as it was the highest-level visit by any US government official in recent years. Asked about the purpose of the visit, Mozena said: "We have a very strong relationship and she [Sherman] will discuss with the leaders of Bangladesh bilateral issues."
Thus, the dialogue is a continuation of efforts to build up a regional security network with a host of regional security issues and couched in it are a set of bilateral issues. The Maldives, also visited by Robert Blake, comes into the picture because of its strategic location for security of sea lanes of communication for vital energy resources. Whether political turmoil in Maldives provided the small island country an attraction for joining the regional initiatives will be speculative at this stage. However, it will not be a mere speculation that the China factor also lies at the back of mind of the initiators, if not of the responding nations of South Asia.
The writer teaches International Relations at North South University. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.