What are US-Bangladesh relations like, post sanctions?
On December 12, 2021, the United States (US) sanctioned seven of Rapid Action Battalion's (Rab) former and current top officials over allegations of human rights violations, which surprised the Bangladesh government. Since then, discussions have been going on in scholarly and diplomatic spaces, arguing in favour of or against the sanctions.
But it has become a reality for Bangladesh-US bilateral relations, especially for the former. These bilateral issues have been discussed with utmost priority in their recent Partnership Dialogue held in Dhaka. Marking the upcoming golden jubilee of this bilateral relationship, it is high time to revisit its history, and understand its future directions considering the sanctions and the effects of the recent partnership dialogue.
The diplomatic relations between the countries started on April 4, 1972, through the US' recognition of the newly independent Bangladesh. In the last 50 years, both countries enjoyed cozy relations, developing cooperation in development, climate change, counter-terrorism, democracy and human rights.
Several high-level visits bolstered the relations, including President Bill Clinton and PM Sheikh Hasina's historic visit to their counterparts in 2000. The most crucial component of any bilateral relationship, bilateral trade, has also experienced an upward trend. By 2019, bilateral trade reached USD 9 billion, with USD 2.3 billion worth of US export to Bangladesh—a 12 percent increase from 2018. In the meantime, Bangladesh exported USD 6.7 billion to the US a 9.5 percent increase from 2018. While Bangladesh mainly exports RMG products to the USA, it primarily imports machinery and agricultural products from its counterpart.
Apart from trade relations, the US has also contributed to Bangladesh's development since the inception of their ties. Immediately after the Liberation War, the US provided aid and assistance to a war-torn Bangladesh. Since then, assistance gradually flourished, including the latest Covid-19 pandemic aid. It is worth mentioning that Bangladesh is the third-largest recipient of US aid in South Asia. Bangladesh's liberalisation process in the 1980s through the structural adjustment programme of the IMF was also backed by the US. The US also has significant Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in Bangladesh, with its highest investment being in Bangladesh's energy sector.
In terms of cross-cultural relations, both countries have made tremendous progress, with excellent prospects lying ahead as well. US culture significantly impacts Bangladesh in fashion, music, literature, movies and food. Through this cultural promotion, the US has yielded massive soft power in Bangladesh. According to a PEW research survey of 2014, the US has secured a 76 percent favourable view in Bangladesh. Bangladeshi nationals have also introduced their culture to US society. As per latest data, 213,372 Bangladeshis are living in the US, contributing to its economy. Last but not least, the US has also made significant contributions to Bangladesh's knowledge space through various scholarship and study programmes.
State-to-state relations between the countries are also warm, with no lingering dispute. Throughout history, some temporal issues emerged, which have been solved using constructive solutions. For instance, in 1974, the US withheld 2.2 million tonnes of food supply to Bangladesh as the latter signed the jute export agreement with Cuba. Immediately, Bangladesh acknowledged the US' concern and cancelled the deal. Again, in 2013, the US excluded Bangladesh from GSP preference over precarious labour conditions. In the same year, countries signed the TICFA agreement to create an annual forum to address common issues related to bilateral trade. But at present, the sanctions have put a "strain" on the relations, and it have now emerged as a new discourse dictating the narrative of the bilateral relations.
Post sanction: Partnership dialogue and 50 years
Though both countries have officially reiterated that sanctions will have the least impact on existing amicable relations, lifting the sanction has become a major concern for Bangladesh.
Even in the recent partnership dialogue, withdrawal of sanctions was the topmost priority for Bangladesh. The partnership dialogue has been a diplomatic forum to discuss and review bilateral relations every year since 2012. The 2022 dialogue was also the first official meeting since the sanctions.
Again, Bangladesh is prioritising diversification of the US investment to satisfy its gargantuan need. Till now, the majority of US investment has been in Bangladesh's energy sector. Bangladesh is expecting US investment in other thrust sectors, including the ICT sector.
While sanctions and investment are top priorities for Bangladesh, the US seeks to ensure its security in this region. In the current great power rivalry, the US needs to ensure its security in the Indo-Pacific region. To do so, the US is looking to sign two defence agreements with Bangladesh, GSOMIA and ACSA. The US wants to deepen military relations through these agreements by increasing cooperation in intelligence sharing and exchanging logistical and technical support.
Alongside ensuring security, the US also has democracy, labour, and human rights as its top agendas. The Biden administration has formulated its foreign policy centering on Democracy and Human Rights to counter growing Chinese influence. Therefore, it is inevitable that the US will prioritise democracy and human rights conditions in Bangladesh. This issue was also discussed in the first phase of the partnership dialogue. Progress took place as Dhaka got the chance to describe its perspective. The US delegates also acknowledged positive signs in the last four months even though the situation is still "complicated."
Both countries have been showing positive signs for a while now, including Bangladesh setting up human rights cells and sending human rights reports. At the same time, the US has also reiterated its intention to continue to work with Bangladesh to improve the human rights situation. In the next phase of the dialogue, foreign ministers will sit and discuss these issues thoroughly. But due to the complicated nature of the issue, it will surely take time to resolve.
Though the sanctions are dictating the narrative, considering the history and depth of the relations between the US and Bangladesh, it is still a tiny portion of this relationship. Both countries have experience in addressing temporary disputes and addressing them bilaterally. There is still time to correct the courses. Upcoming negotiations will focus on sanctions and securities alongside other issues such as labour rights and investments. Both countries will also celebrate the 50th anniversary of their relationship amid the current engagement. On this auspicious occasion, both countries should find a way to address these issues and take their relationship to a new height.
Doreen Chowdhury is a doctoral researcher at the University of Groningen.