During the 1971 Liberation War of Bangladesh, the United States tilted towards Pakistan. However, within four months of its independence, the United States recognized Bangladesh and gradually developed good relations on every dimension from trade to security. Bangladesh and the United States has also commenced Annual Partnership Dialogue which played crucial role in deepening Dhaka-Washington ties. In a letter to Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, US President Joe Biden wrote that ‘In over 50 years of diplomatic relations, the United States and Bangladesh have achieved a lot together — advancing economic development, strengthening people-to-people ties, addressing global health and climate issues, partnering on the humanitarian response to Rohingya refugees’.
US Deputy Assistant Secretary Afreen Akhter recently said that Bangladesh has been an important strategic partner. Akhter also mentioned that the United States also looks forward to a stronger relationship in the next 50 years. According to the US State Department (2023), ‘Bangladesh is an important regional partner on economic, climate, humanitarian, and security priorities. Against this backdrop, this write-up focuses on why Bangladesh matters to the United States.
In fact, Bangladesh matters to the United States for several reasons. First, the geo-strategic location of Bangladesh makes it an important country for the United States in the context of the growing geo-political rivalry and considering the geo-political shift from the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific region and particularly South Asia. In the competing geo-political connectivity projects, Bangladesh becomes an important country.
In order to understand the growing geo-strategic importance to the United States, it becomes necessary to have a look on several important policy documents of the United States. In fact, Bangladesh’s geo-strategic importance was clearly reflected in 2012 Fact Sheet of U.S. Relations with Bangladesh, prepared for the US Department of State. It had also been claimed that, “Bangladesh is a key U.S. strategic partner in South Asia’ (USDS, 2012). Former American Ambassador to Bangladesh Dan Mozena (2013) observed that “Bangladesh is a country that matters a lot to America and to the world.” In addition, in a letter to members of Congress in May 2013, Dan Mozena warned that “good relations with Bangladesh are vital to regional security and United States strategic interests” (See Urbina, 2013).
The geo-strategic importance of Bangladesh was also reflected in a 2010 Congressional Research Service report, entitled Bangladesh: Political and Strategic Developments and US Interests. It argued that “Bangladesh is a nation of strategic importance not only to the South Asian sub-region but to the larger geopolitical dynamics of Asia as a whole. Bangladesh has played, and will likely continue to play, a role in the shifting regional balance of power between India and China” (Vaughn, 2010). In the policy document, Bangladesh’s geo-strategic location and its importance was also highlighted that ‘Bangladesh is situated at the northern extreme of the Bay of Bengal and could potentially be a state of increasing interest in the evolving strategic dynamics between India and China. This importance could be accentuated by the development of Bangladesh’s energy reserves and by regional energy and trade routes to China and India’ (Vaughn, 2010, p.2). Hence, Bangladesh is of interest to the United States for the role it plays in the larger geo-political dynamics of South Asia.
Second, from the US perspective, economic interests stand out as the single dominant factor in its relations with Bangladesh which is evident from a listing of foreign policy objectives published by the State Department in 1976. Notably, on that list, four out of five foreign policy objectives of the United States in Bangladesh were either directly or indirectly related to the economic interests of the US (Aziz, 1982, p.220). Although it was the 1976 US foreign policy objectives, till date it remains the same as the Congressional Report 2010 testified the same while pointing out that “American interests with Bangladesh include promoting development, trade, energy, democracy support, countering militant Islamists, and working together in peace operations” (Vaughn, 2010). President Obama had also “emphasized how economically important this [Bangladesh’s] market is to the prosperity of the American people. US firms recognize the country’s potential and are eager to do business” (Rivkin, 2014). In fact, one can argue that trade and investment are two key economic interests for the US in Bangladesh
Third, nurturing a warm relation with Bangladesh also serves the security interest of the United States. In the policy paper, entitled Bangladesh: Political and Strategic Developments and US Interests (p.2), it was identified that ‘Bangladesh and the United States have a common interest in working to counter extremist Islamists and their ideology’. According to the U.S. Department of State, (October 26, 2012), Bangladesh’s ‘efforts at development, countering violent extremism, assisting international peacekeeping, and improving regional connectivity are vital to regional and global stability”. In addition, in the United Stats’s Country Reports on Terrorism 2011, Country Reports on Terrorism 2012, Bangladesh’s cooperation with the United States in combating transnational terrorist groups was acknowledged.
Fourth, Bangladeshi diaspora in the United States is contributing to the socio-economic development of the latter significantly. According to the data of Pew Research, Bangladeshi population lived in the United States was 57, 000 in 2000 which increased to 208, 000 in 2019. Bangladeshi diaspore is better educated that the Americans. For instance, according to the Pew Research, 26 percent of Bangladeshi population attained Bachelor’s degree in 2019 while 20 percent of Americans attained the degree. Similarly, while 23 percent Bangladeshi population completed post-graduate degree, only 13 percent Americans attained post-graduate degree. This educated Bangladeshi people contributes immensely to the socio-economic development of the United States. In addition, Bangladeshi diaspora also adds a rich Bengali culture to the American culture.
Finally, Bangladesh matters to the United States because the country is the fourth largest Muslim country and eighth-largest populated country in the world. Bangladesh is popularly known as a moderate, democratic, peaceful Muslim country who works for the promotion of international peace and security, international justice and so forth. While in the post-9/11 era, many Muslim countries were critical of the United States because of its ‘war on terror’ policy, Bangladesh maintained warm relations. Thus, maintaining a good relationship with Bangladesh also serves the strategic interest of the United States to the wider Muslim world. The Sheikh Hasina government has extended all out support to strengthen and consolidate Bangladesh-US relations over the past fifteen years as demonstrated by the introduction of TICFA, security dialogue, partnership dialogue, joint military exercises and boosting of investments and trade. It is a phenomenal achievement that should not be undermined in the future trajectory of Bangladesh-US relations.
– Dr. Md. Shariful Islam is an Associate Professor of International Relations at the University of Rajshahi. He is also an adjunct research fellow at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA), Dhaka, Bangladesh.