Indo-Pacific strategy: US wants Dhaka on its side
US Deputy Secretary of State Stephan Biegun left Dhaka yesterday, giving a clear message in his three-day visit that his country wants Bangladesh on its side as the US advances the Indo-Pacific Strategy.
He lauded Bangladesh's stability, sustained growth and geostrategic location, skilled labour and a big consumer class while promising more investments here.
He also explained that not only Bangladesh, the entire South Asia has long been left out of any US-led Asian strategies.
Stephan Biegun has not mentioned, in any of his statements, the name of China, with which the US relations has turned very sour now, but noted that a number of challenges and tensions in the Indo-Pacific region have alarmed the US and other regional countries.
The US official specifically mentioned the Indo-China tension over the Line of Actual Control in Galwan Valley, dispute over Senkaku Islands in Japan, tension in Taiwan, repression in Hong Kong, Shenzhen and Tibet, and increasing economic hostility towards the people of Australia -- all the issues have connections to China.
Foreign relations analysts say the US was trying to institutionalise the Quad, an alliance of US, Australia, Japan and India, to advance the Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS).
Biegun's visit to India and Bangladesh and the upcoming visits by US secretary of defence and state to India later this month are testimony to that effort.
Experts say though the US emphasises on free, open, rules-based Indo-Pacific, which is actually great, it also has a security component meant to counter China.
Bangladesh, though a small country in size, has become important for all of these big powers, they said.
Interestingly, Bangladesh has good relations with all of them. India, the closest neighbour having the warmest relations with Bangladesh, has joined the US-led alliance and would naturally want Bangladesh to join it too, they added.
An obvious question can arise here -- how would Bangladesh act if that happens?
"I think Bangladesh has a clear foreign policy -- Friendship to all and malice to none. Bangladesh has been actually maintaining this policy quite well over the years," said Munshi Faiz Ahmad, a former ambassador to China, replying to a query on the issue.
He said Bangladesh's major objectives are trade and economic development. There are not any major military threats that the country needs to adjust to its policy emphasising defence cooperation.
Therefore, it would be wise for the country not to join any alliance when it has security component, he added.
Does that mean that Bangladesh will maintain a fine balance in terms of its relations with foreign countries? Munshi Faiz said national priorities should determine how Bangladesh deals with the foreign countries. For example, Bangladesh now buys majority of its arms from China because it finds it competitive.
"If we now want to buy arms from the USA, can we afford it? No. Simply because US arms will be much more expensive," he said.
Munshi Faiz, also former chairman of the Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies (BIISS), however, said the US is the largest single ready-made garment buyer and the second largest investor in Bangladesh. Bangladesh cannot disengage with the US.
Again, China has large investments here in various infrastructure projects that are extremely vital. Bangladesh and Japan too have good investments in connectivity and infrastructure projects.
The geopolitical analyst said, "We cannot leave one and join the other. Rather, to boost our trade and investment, we need to boost our relations with all based on our national interests.
"At the same time, we, as a nation, want peace and stability, not war … It is not that we will balance with both sides and lose both. Rather, we will act based on our priorities. In that case, the friends of Bangladesh, if really they are, will have nothing to say, at least publicly."
Prof Lailufar Yasmin of Dhaka University's International Relations department said the China-led Belt and Road Initiative and the US-led IPS can be complementary to each other. Bangladesh looks at the both initiatives from that perspective, because confrontation will yield nothing good."
She said over the years, Bangladesh has improved its infrastructure. Besides, the purchasing power of its people has gone up significantly. Also, the country's geographical location makes it an attractive place for investments.
Therefore, many countries are now showing interests here. The important thing for Bangladesh is not to be on the side of any alliance, but to further improve relations with all for trade and economic development. Bangladesh's skilled labour force and manufacturing capability in pharmaceutical, textile and other sectors during the Covid-19 are its strength.
"For competitive prices and quality, others will be coming to us; we don't need to go to others. We have been maintaining our relations with all well and will need to continue it, instead of leaving someone and joining someone else."
Asked how the country should consider the perception that certain country's loan can lead to debt trap or corruption, Lailufar Yasmin said Bangladeshi experts will need to be careful, see the terms and conditions critically before signing any deal.
"It will depend on our domestic capacity and integrity," she added.