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     Volume 11 |Issue 19 | May 11, 2012 |


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Not so Hillary-ous, after all

What does Hillary Clinton's visit really mean in the context of Bangla-US bilateral relations and the US's new strategic interest in the Asia Pacific?

Sushmita S Preetha

There was much ado about Hillary Clinton's recent visit to Bangladesh. In characteristic style, the Government and the Opposition, much like little children complaining to the Headmaster, dished out all our dirty domestic secrets in a matter of hours. The civil society, too, represented by two of the most influential men in Bangladesh, found in Hillary a sympathetic ally. The media went berserk, with pages after pages, programmes after programmes, paying homage to the auspicious occasion. Even the general public seemed enthused – if nothing else, by the fact that the stately stopover had put a stop, however temporary, to the incessant hartals.

And why shouldn't we all be excited? It's not everyday, after all, that the second most powerful woman in the world blesses us with her diplomatic presence. And let's face it, we all want to be America's friend; what if it isn't always in our best interests to be so? We convince ourselves that no matter how many concessions we make, be it on trade or national security, it pays to not invite the wrath of the Almighty America.

Hillary Clinton Photo: Star File

So she came, she saw, and she left. The details of her visit are still wishy-washy, so we are yet to decide what, if anything, she conquered. We know that she signed the “Joint Declaration on Bangladesh-U.S. Dialogue on Partnership” to hold annual dialogue on bilateral relations and she gave some “advice” to our political leaders to strengthen our democratic process. All fair and good, so far, say the optimists. They decry the possibility of foul play, moved by the exciting promise of mutual benefit between Bangladesh and the US.

These eternal optimists perhaps overlook two crucial things: the history of the US-Bangla relations (and its undeniable imperialistic overtones) and the US's new strategic interest in the Asia Pacific.

Even if we put aside the broader argument about US imperialism and the debilitating role of the World Bank, IMF and other financial institutions on our country's economy, and focus, instead, on the dozen or so agreements signed surreptitiously with the US, the situation seems less than flowery. Amidst the huff and puff of foreign dignitaries visiting us, the details of agreements (some signed and some in the process of being finalised) like SOFA (Status of forces agreement), HANA (Humanitarian Assistance Need Assessment), PISCES (Personal Identification, Secured Comparison and Evaluation System), or the latest TICFA (Trade and Investment cooperation Framework Agreement) were never made public.

SOFA essentially provides immediate clearance to US military personnel to enter the country at any time, without anything being asked about the accompanying troops or weapons and vice versa. Another deal, signed in 2003, whose details were revealed a month after it was finalised, states that no US soldier or personnel can be tried for any crime in a Bangladeshi court or handed over to the International Criminal Courts for trial. They get indemnity not only for committing crimes in Bangladesh, but they can come and take refuge after committing crimes in other parts of the world.

According to newspaper reports on PISCES(Sersonal Identification, Secured Comparison and Evaluation System), the Bangladesh government will cooperate in all possible ways to protect the security interests of the US if the US identifies any Bangladeshi citizen or group as possible terrorist suspects, even at the cost of human rights violations. Meanwhile, in the name of scientific and technological cooperation, we have given Americans access to sensitive information.

The terms of all these agreements were dictated by the US. Was it really in our best interests to sign these deals? If Bangladeshi policy-makers did indeed think that, why were these agreements never made a matter of public debate?

It is wonderful that the US and Bangladesh have agreed to enter into talks that can bring mutual benefit. But to what extent the terms of the next agreement(s) will be dictated by Bangladesh remains a matter of concern, if the past is any indication. The US wants to finalise and close the deal on TICFA, which would allow it to have a say in our trade and investment affairs. Although Bangladesh rejected the US's first effort, the Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) over disagreement on the issue of standard of labour in industrial relations, it seems only a matter of time before our foreign ministry signs TICFA. Would we manage to convince the US to grant duty-free access of Bangladesh's readymade garments to the US market? It's highly doubtful. We certainly didn't think it was important enough to be finalised during Clinton's visit.

Everyone but our eternal optimists are aware that Hillary Clinton's visit to Bangladesh was part of a new plan to revitalise US interests in the Asia Pacific. “The future of politics will be decided in Asia, not in Afghanistan or in Iraq, and the United States will be right at the centre of action,” she says, as the US prepares to finally withdraw its troops from Afghanistan and the war in Iraq dwindles down. Her government's policy – clever and ominous – could not be clearer: “One of the most important tasks of American statecraft over the next decade will therefore be to lock in a substantially increased investment – diplomatic, economic, strategic, and otherwise – in the Asia-Pacific region." The US realises that the key to world dominance lies no longer with the Middle East, but with the Asia Pacific region, which boasts almost half the world's population, and is home to several of America's key allies, as well as important emerging powers like China, India, and Indonesia. The US needs to make sure that it can establish its might over the region before China can. The tug of war has already begun – if Myanmar is any example.

China's attempt to create a shortcut to Malacca through Myanmar and the Bay of Bengal has suddenly given Bangladesh geopolitical importance. The recent verdict by the International Tribunal of the Law of the Sea (ILTOS) on the maritime dispute with Myanmar, giving Bangladesh sovereign rights over 111,000 square kilometres in the Bay of Bengal, has rekindled US interests in us. US companies are anxious to exploit the gas, oil and mineral reserves in the area before the Chinese companies come along, and establish their claims on more than the two blocks that has already been awarded to the US company, Conoco-Philips.

The US also wants to ensure that the routes that carry oil and gas supplies, one of which happens to be close to the Straits of Malacca in Indonesia, can in no way be disrupted. Thus the US needs to make sure that it has military allies all over the region to stop any such hanky-panky, and Bangladesh is in an ideal geographical and ideological position to offer its unlimited support.

It would do well for Bangladesh to remember that the US and India are strong allies in their hurry to check China. It is no coincidence that Hillary has remained auspiciously silent on BSF tortures and killings, the construction of the Tipaimukh Dam or removal of trade barriers (even though her next stop was with Mamata Banerjee) and focused instead on strengthening transit between neighbouring countries. If Hillary is as concerned about human rights violations and democratic values as she swore to be during her visit, why was she oh-so-willing to let its powerful ally, India, off the hook? Then again, we all know what the rhetoric of democracy and human rights really means to US policymakers.

When the US talks about a “a new American century” in Asia Pacific, it causes all those familiar with US's imperial history to silently shudder – one need only remember the plight of Korea, Vietnam or the Philippines, to name a few. When Hillary says it's through the civil society that new alliances and partnerships will be formed, and American supremacy will be maintained, it gives us cause to pause (Refer to her article, “Leading Through Civilian Power: Redefining American diplomacy and development”).

Our ruling elite seems oblivious of the US's past – or for that matter, it's present. It appears equally naive about the US's plans for the future. Content to play the part of a silly love-struck schoolgirl, it is willing to make all possible compromises to keep her dismissive lover happy.

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