Elevating US-Bangladesh partnership: Secretary Clinton's visit
Despite American ambivalence during our war of liberation, Bangladesh and the United States have over the last four decades forged an exceptionally close partnership based on shared values and outlook. Like all good friends we have not surprisingly had our differences of opinion -- each side has its own national interests to advance -- but the bonds that tie us are enduring and deep; and the relationship is based on deep mutual respect and a community of purposes. The two countries are committed to plural democracy, diversity, secularism and tolerance; a robust civil society as a seedbed of democracy; and an uncompromising attachment to the values of inalienable rights and freedom. Based on these values the two partners have worked shoulder to shoulder in many international fora and have fought together, along with other countries of the United Nations, for preserving international peace and to prevent oppression, discrimination, and violation of human rights.
To the US, Bangladesh is the "standard bearer of South Asia" -- as recently described by the Wall Street Journal -- and an exemplar for the developing and Islamic societies as a moderate, progressive, liberal democracy passionately committed to social justice and empowerment of women. The US government has particularly lauded our efforts to promote connectivity and sub-regional cooperation and our determined effort to combat extremists and terrorists. The closeness of our ties is reflected in the stature that the prime minister is accorded in many of his foreign policy priorities of President Obama. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has emerged as a powerful but moderate voice in the debate on global warming and shared the platform with the US president. She has been able to use her prestige to influence, moderate and leverage the support of the developed countries to stem the horrors of climate change. Not surprisingly Bangladesh is a partner of choice for the US in many of the foreign policy priorities of President Obama: global food security, global health access, engagement with the Islamic world and global warming. It has not escaped the notice of the observers that at a time when the US has cut back development assistance to many countries the volume of aid to Bangladesh has increased significantly. The US government appreciation of Bangladesh as a pioneer and model for tackling large challenges like food, energy, water and environment crises was reflected in Secretary Clinton's offer to provide technical and financial support for sub-regional development projects. It is not accidental that there have been more high-level civil, military and corporate US visitors to Bangladesh in the last three years than in the previous ten. The significance of the visit of Secretary Hilary Clinton has to be viewed in this context.
The decision of the Secretary to come to Dhaka at a time when Washington is so totally gripped by US presidential campaign is a testimony the importance that the US attaches to its partnership with Bangladesh. The visit enabled the two countries to review the entire gamut of the bilateral relationship and to concert our views on a number of international issues. The decision to sign an agreement for a high level Partnership Dialogue -- a status also enjoyed by India and China -- has helped to elevate US-Bangladesh relations to a new height. This will further bolster our existing cooperation in strengthening democratic institutions, fighting terrorism, money laundering, defense training and trade and development ties.
There is no secret that a number of things on our agenda could not be fully resolved. While the two countries have agreed in principle to the TICFA -- Trade and Investment Cooperation Forum -- as we felt we needed more time to complete the process. We impressed on the visitors the compulsions for securing duty free access to the US market for some of our products so that we could reduce our dependence of foreign aid. Although the decision rests with the US Congress, we were all satisfied that we now have a powerful ally in Secretary Clinton on our side. We also pressed for our inclusion in the Millennium Challenge Account (MCA) based on significant improvements in our social, economic and political indicators. To our great satisfaction the secretary invited Bangladesh to present its case to the committee in Washington DC.
Perhaps largely because of our own inability to communicate our vigorous and free media sadly missed the real significance and outcome of the visit and remained focused mostly on peripheral issues. Much has been made of the "advice" given by the secretary for a dialogue with the opposition parties. Let me state the facts. In bilateral meetings between sovereign states, domestic issues are not a part of the agenda. We did not discuss internal issues and we are not aware if the honourable leader of the opposition raised it during her meeting. As part of our efforts to strengthen democratic institutions and processes we shared our efforts that we have made to strengthen the electoral system to secure free and fair elections and to ensure an environment where the voters will be able to exercise their franchise without fear or intimidation. The secretary's call for a dialogue was fully in accord with our own views and we welcomed her appeal against the boycott of elections by any party.
The media infatuation with Nobel Laureate Professor Yunus's meeting with the secretary was no surprise. For over a year a large part of the media has reduced the multifaceted US-Bangladesh relations of over four decades based on shared values and interest to a single issue of Grameen Bank. There is no question that Professor Yunus is held in high esteem internationally as indeed here, and there is no denying of his long-standing association with both President Clinton and Secretary Hilary Clinton, but it would wrong to conclude that our bilateral relations hinges solely on this single fact. Secretary Clinton is an enthusiastic supporter of the microcredit experiment and was interested in learning more about the performance of Grameen Bank. The fact that the Bank has endured the transition -- the number of loans has not declined, the rate of loan recovery is as impressive as in the past, and that there was no run on the bank or withdrawal of deposits -- was obvious to a well- informed secretary. No names were ever mentioned in the discussion. The concern, if any, was about the institution of microcredit.
The visit was by any standards a success -- "it exceed our expectations" was how an US official described it to me -- and we should celebrate the success of Bangladesh-US partnership and focus on how we can further deepen the relationship to our mutual benefit. Diminishing the substance by magnifying the peripherals is not the hallmark of objective journalism.