Hillary Clinton comes calling
Yesterday afternoon, Hilary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, arrived in Dhaka. So far she had a busy schedule here. Besides meeting her counterpart Dipu Moni she called on our prime minister as well as the leader of the opposition. A meeting with a select group of civil society members is fixed for this morning as well as with our Nobel Laureate Mohammed Yunus. She flies off to India in the afternoon. Hillary's visit to Bangladesh is not sudden. Nor is it a goodwill visit. Although this is her first visit as a Secretary of State, the last time she came to Dhaka twelve years back she was then the first lady of the US.
Bangladesh has hosted several high ranking State Department officials this year alone. Robert Blake, Assistant Secretary of State, came in February. Under-Secretary of State Wendy Sherman followed in April. Assistant Secretary of State Andrew Shapiro then arrived to join the first ever security dialogue between Bangladesh and the USA. The dialogue was held to identify the security challenges facing the two countries. Hillary Clinton has come to now wrap up the discussions that have taken place so far.
While commenting on the security dialogue, the US described it as "a robust engagement between the US and Bangladesh as well as our growing defense relationship." It said that "the positive and substantial exchanges reflected the breadth, depth and strength of the bilateral defense relationship as well as our shared commitment to peace and prosperity in the region." In short, the US feels that these discussions with Bangladesh which is now "one of the most robust in South Asia is because Bangladesh is a key player in maintaining security in the Bay of Bengal. She is also an active partner in regional counter terrorism efforts."
In addition to security consultations, the US has also shown interest in Bangladesh's military modernization plan. For sometime now Bangladesh had been looking for "partners for affordable defense systems." The US supports this modernization effort through its Excess Defense Articles Program, which makes US equipment that is surplus to their needs, made available to other countries. The US at the same time appreciates Bangladesh's UN peace keeping efforts. Through training and military exchanges the US has helped Bangladesh armed forces to professionalise itself. It is US' strong belief that by helping Bangladesh upgrade its military, it is also helping to enhance its own national security.
It must be remembered that the US is now disengaging itself from south west Asia. It has already withdrawn its combat troops from Iraq. It will leave Afghanistan in 2014. President Obama, in an unannounced visit to Kabul last week, signed an agreement with President Karzai which outlined how the US will remain engaged there after the withdrawal of US forces. The US is also trying to quickly repair its damaged relationship with Pakistan especially between their military. India is already cooperating with the US on various strategic and nuclear issues. The US has thus woven a tapestry of friendly countries around the Indian and Pacific Oceans to protect its strategic interests. It has encouraged Japan and Australia as well as neighbouring India to help it implement this geo-strategic vision. The US has also moved to ease economic sanctions against Myanmar and to draw it into this strategy. Iran is the only country in this area that has been left out of this great game.
To the US, Bangladesh must be drawn now into its grand strategy. By showcasing a robust relationship with a moderate Muslim country like Bangladesh, the US also wants to send a strong signal that it can work closely with countries having large population of Muslims. A relevant question here is whether the US is doing all this to contain the growing strategic and military might of China? The answer is not yet very clear. Both the countries have annual consultations on strategic issues and frequently collaborate on regional and world issues. They may have differences over the nature of governance in each other's countries or even over human rights. Yet they work closely. But India seems to have joined hands with the USA mainly to contain China.
The US has another immediate reason in following this grand strategy. It wants to be sure that no rogue element could scuttle ships carrying vital oil and gas supplies through the two major maritime choke points, one at the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf near Iran, and the other close to Indonesia in the Straits of Malacca. Any disruption in the flow of oil through these straits would cripple many of the major economies in Asia and Australia and will damage western interests.
So the US is bolstering the military strength of all the countries in the region so that they are able to combat any such mischief on their own. Bangladesh is a littoral country along the Indian Ocean. It is well placed geographically in the Bay of Bengal to see that no such mischief takes place. Hillary is here to see that a "US-Bangladesh partnership cooperation" declaration is announced that would take care of such eventualities when the two countries will be able to consult and act jointly.
The strategic importance of Bangladesh had been further enhanced by the stunning verdict given recently by the International Tribunal of the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) on the maritime border dispute with Myanmar. The award gave Bangladesh 111,000 square kilometers of exclusive economic zone in the Bay of Bengal with sovereign rights over all the resources there. It is expected that the area awarded may have gas and oil reserves as well as valuable minerals. US companies are keen to bid for exploitation rights there now, before Chinese companies come along and put them at a disadvantage. The US government could request that another 6 blocks in addition to the two given already to Conoco-Philips be awarded to US companies. Clinton may have talked about a mega energy deal if she finds Bangladesh government amenable.
There are a lot of speculative reports that Hillary has talked with the government and opposition leaders about ways to overcome the political impasse on the caretaker government. But it must be clear the US administration will face presidential election this year. Hillary could at best, in her talks with them and the civil society, be able to gauge the political temperature. However, the US wishes to finalise the long pending Trade and Investment Cooperation Framework Agreement (TICFA) between the two countries. This would allow the US to have a say in our trade and investment matters too. Bangladesh's concern with regard to duty free exports of our ready made garments to the US needs early resolution. It would also like to be included in the Millennium Challenge Account. All these must have been horse traded last night. The press conference would reveal all that happened.
Secretary Hillary after leaving Bangladesh will travel to Delhi. But she will stop by in Kolkata to meet the mercurial Chief Minister of West Bengal province, Mamata Banerjee. It is reported that Hillary will try to understand how Mamata looks at the future relationship between India and Bangladesh. This is critical for the US as Mamata had put a spanner last September and scuttled the proposed agreement on the sharing of the waters of the Teesta river. This has upset not only Bangladesh leaders but also the man in the street in this country.
The immediate result has been the postponement by Bangladesh allowing India the use of Chittagong port for transit of goods to the north eastern Indian states. This has also delayed the transit through Bangladesh which India had planned to use in its own interest. This has inevitably created a critical gap in the seamless security strategy designed by the US for this sub-region. The Kolkata meeting therefore is important for the US.
It is yet too early to say that Hillary's visit will clear the clouds that had gathered over US-Bangladesh bilateral relations. This was after the US got a rebuff, when it requested for a dignified exit for Nobel Laureate Yunus from Grameen Bank . Like the proverbial elephant , big powers always have long memories . But that Hillary has come to Bangladesh at her own initiative and has her own agenda and programme speaks much about US diplomacy. We all hope that the government understands this and will not use the visit to cash in politically.
The writer is a former Ambassador and is a regular commentator on contemporary issues. E-mail: [email protected]