Boosting Bilateral Ties or Testing The Nerve? What Does The Future Hold for US-Bangla Relations?


Bangladesh and the United States of America concluded their ninth security dialogue on September 5, which was officially launched in 2012. This dialogue is a back-to-back diplomatic and strategic event between the two countries. A two-day bilateral defence dialogue between Bangladesh and the US was held in Dhaka on August 23-24 with an aim to discuss cooperation on a myriad of defense issues.

The defense dialogue was led by the Director General at the Bangladesh Armed Forces Division Brig Gen Hussain Muhammad Masihur Rahman on the Bangladesh side while director of strategic planning and policy of the US Indo-Pacific Command Brig Gen Thomas J James led on the US side. The US embassy spokesperson in Dhaka, Bryan Schiller, stated that during the dialogue both the countries shared a vision to ensure the Indo-Pacific region is free, open, peaceful, and secure. In pursuit of these mutual objectives, the Bangladesh Armed Forces Division and Indo-Pacific Command would conduct the bilateral defense dialogue in Dhaka.

Against this backdrop, delegates from the two countries have met again for another stream of dialogue, bilateral security dialogue, which was concluded on September 5 in Dhaka. According to the State Department press note, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs Mira Resnick and Bangladesh Director General (North America) at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Khandker Masudul Alam chaired the ninth US-Bangladesh Bilateral security dialogue in Dhaka. It further says: “The dialogue, established in 2012, reflects our growing security relationship with Bangladesh and our shared commitment to peace and prosperity in the region. Discussions focused on efforts to expand partnerships in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, peacekeeping, defense trade, military cooperation, and counterterrorism, as well as maritime security and regional issues.”

The dialogue was held in a critical juncture of Bangladesh-US relations marked by an array of diplomatic and strategic issues with bilateral and regional ramifications.

Bangladesh-US bilateral relations are passing through a challenging moment in history, largely due to the changed geo-political context in the Indo-Pacific region. There has been a global spotlight on Bangladesh-US bilateral cooperation to observe how the two countries navigate their differences and remain focused on their strengths in bilateral partnership.

Although the dialogue in Dhaka was aimed at strengthening the overall security relationship between the United States and Bangladesh, the two countries have addressed all the issues in the basket as the delegates indicated. It is a comprehensive framework that dominates their bilateral agenda. Both sides have identified the dialogue as fruitful and constructive to move forward. Several issues were featured in the dialogue.

First, Bangladesh and the US discussed their respective positions on the Indo-Pacific region. The US declared its new Indo-Pacific Strategy in 2022, while Bangladesh announced its Indo-Pacific Outlook in April 2023. Both the documents cover common grounds about the Indo-Pacific region. The US and Bangladesh highlight freedom of navigation, openness in the ocean and need for exploitation of economic resources in the region. Although Bangladesh has termed it an “outlook,” it has recognized the Indo-Pacific region and unequivocally spells out its opposition to any kind of hegemony or dominance by any great power. Bangladesh envisions the whole region as free, open, secure, and inclusive for ensuring collective prosperity.

Second, the dialogue covers the issues of security cooperation between the two nations.

Third, delegates from both sides discussed matters relating to defense trade and cooperation.

Fourth, Bangladesh and US have exchanged their views about the upcoming elections in the former highlighting the security arrangements during the elections. Both countries have expressed their satisfaction in exchanging their views about elections.

Fifth, Bangladesh has raised the issue of withdrawing the sanctions against security officials of RAB in Bangladesh. The US side has informed its counterpart that the matter involves a process in their country which may take time.

Sixth, according to the Statement Department Press Note, both sides have discussed humanitarian assistance and the Rohingya issue which deserve utmost priority for Bangladesh and the whole region.

Seventh, another issue that has featured in the dialogue is counterterrorism. The Bay of Bengal, South Asia, and Southeast Asian regions suffer from the rise of terrorism and violent extremism over the past two decades. This threat still dominates the regions. Both nations have already developed a robust bilateral counterterrorism cooperation to combat the menace of violent extremism in Bangladesh and beyond.

Last but not the least, both countries have focused on maritime security issues in the wider Indo-Pacific region — particularly, both traditional and non-traditional security threats are increasing in the maritime zones. Bangladesh and the US have felt the need for more bilateral cooperation to deal with the situations.

The cordiality in the dialogue and the range of issues covered demonstrate that Bangladesh and US have abiding interests for strengthening their partnership to deal with issues and concerns at bilateral and regional levels. Both sides have institutionalized their cooperative frameworks through regular arrangements of defense dialogue and security dialogue since 2012.

It is a major achievement for both nations, which has remained largely unrecognized by the foreign policy observers and strategists in the region. However, there are analysts who may suggest that Bangladesh and the US are testing their patience with each other as they have differences on a couple of bilateral issues. They tend to argue that issues of human rights, elections, labor rights, quota-free duty-free access, reinstatement of GSP facilities, withdrawal of RAB sanctions, the new visa policy, and divergent threat perception in the region may damage their bilateral partnership. Many quarters also create a hype on these issues for their own interests relating to national or international politics. They also indicate that Bangladesh and the US may find it difficult to handle these issues with the right perspective on the emerging strategic matrix in the region.

LONG FORM2This may not hold the truth as the continuing engagements from both sides amply demonstrate that they are committed to maintain their strategic partnership. Frequent high-level visits from the US and holding of regular dialogues focus on the growing economic cooperation, diplomatic and strategic interests, promoting cultural and people-to-people contacts, cooperation on environmental issues and strengthening regional and maritime security cooperation.

Bangladesh has pro-actively reciprocated every policy or initiative for consolidating bilateral cooperation in the era of geo-political rivalries, emanating from the fallouts of the Ukraine war, and Sino-American and China-India tensions. One can conclude that the security dialogue once again reflects the importance of Bangladesh-US bilateral cooperation for mutual interests and for meeting the common challenges. With its spectacular economic progress and growing geo-political importance, Bangladesh has acquired a larger national capacity to contribute to achieve common interests and goals at bilateral, regional and global levels.

– Delwar Hossain, PhD is Professor of International Relations, University of Dhaka, Bangladesh, and the founder of the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA).

Published in Dhaka Tribune [Link]