DIPLOMATIC ties between Bangladesh and the United States have undergone a dramatic transformation over the past few years. There have been high-level diplomatic sanctions, a flurry of landmark diplomatic visits, and repeated messages from the US that they will no longer be looking at Bangladesh through the lens of India. Bangladesh has been presented with an unprecedented opportunity to collaborate with the world’s largest superpower at a bilateral level like never before.
In keeping with their word, the current US ambassador, Peter D Haas, has been the most engaged US envoy Bangladesh has ever had. It seems like not a day goes by that the ambassador is not making headlines in the year since he was appointed.
According to the ambassador, the US will surpass China as Bangladesh’s largest investor, a bold claim that has been widely reported in the press recently. There are also talks of allowing Bangladesh GSP plus facilities after LDC graduation. The reason behind this uptick in diplomatic activity in Bangladesh is the ticking countdown to the next general elections. Between the lines of all the news, one may read the catch behind all these promises being made. No matter who takes office in Bangladesh, substantial reforms are necessary if the country is to achieve its potential and realise the many benefits that have been promised.
The diplomatic strategy of the United States in Bangladesh relies heavily on the promise of closer economic ties as an incentive for Bangladeshi leaders to cooperate. Until now, the fabric of the relationship that has tied the United States and Bangladesh together has been solely woven by the hands of the four million garment workers, working day and night under the minimum wage. The export of readymade garments to the United States is a major economic driver in Bangladesh. Bangladesh is the third-largest apparel exporter in the US market, while China and Vietnam occupy the first and second positions, respectively. Despite the Ukraine-Russia war, a pandemic and a global recession, Bangladesh’s market share in the United States has continued to increase. In light of this, it is not surprising that our largest RMG buyer has voiced concern over the treatment of our garment workers.
The US ambassador to Bangladesh has outlined five specific areas that the country will need to improve upon in the future in an opinion piece commemorating his first year in office that was published in New Age. Ensuring worker rights, reducing the widespread pestilence of corruption, strengthening legislative powers to support business, strengthening intellectual property rights, and creating a more liberal market are the key demands. In recent press statements, the ambassador has also warned that the provision of strong labour protection is the sine qua non to prevent future sanctions.
These demands present a morbid dilemma. Bangladesh has to balance between providing worker rights and increasing their quality of life at work while still maintaining the low labour-cost production that allows Bangladesh to compete with China, Germany and Vietnam. Such is the tightrope that the RMG industrialists will have to walk from now on. If Bangladesh is successful, it may regain access to the preferential trade facilities it lost after the Rana Plaza disaster.
Currently, there is a palpable upsurge in pro-American sentiment in Bangladesh. The vaccine donations at a crucial time during the Covid pandemic, one of the largest amounts of monetary support provided to tackle the Rohingya refugee crisis, all the US-led development initiatives such as USAID, and other intangible benefits such as providing higher education opportunities abroad have all played a part in improving the stance of the Bangladeshi people towards America. However, the United States must also take into account the significant cultural and ideological distance that separates the two peoples. So far, no government in Bangladesh can be labelled as pro-US.
It is mostly market forces that have tied the two nations together. But, market forces are largely uncontrollable and may change seasonally like the tides. Meanwhile, in the US, Bangladesh is still synonymous with sweatshops and exploited labour, despite the nation now regularly attaining the highest scores in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification. Although diplomatic ties have generally been strengthening, efforts to boost people-to-people connections and cultural ties have been put on the back burner. This can be easily solved by increasing the level of track two diplomacy between the two nations.
Bangladesh is now at a crossroads. Opportunities present now may never again return. It seems the United States has become somewhat aware of this reality. Perhaps that is why the United States and its envoy are so active in Bangladesh right now. In his op-ed, the ambassador spoke frankly, saying that the US is not picking any political sides and that they are only interested in seeing free and fair elections in Bangladesh. All the potential and promises that are being made right now will not be actionable unless Bangladesh can reverse the steady backsliding of democracy. The positive effects of the RAB sanctions have given hope to all those who feel oppressed and silenced by the current government. These individuals now look to the US for assistance in returning Bangladesh to the path to democracy. They feel emboldened as the US has most recently taken a strong stance against autocracy across the world. But the pages of history also tell a different tale of a different America — an America with no qualms in supporting autocrats to protect their national interests abroad.
Though a growing bilateral relationship between the US and Bangladesh is a matter to be celebrated, unless the US remains consistent in their messaging and actions, those who are willing to work with the US will lose trust. If a relationship of mutual trust and respect cannot be established from the start, any and all diplomatic activity so far will be for nought. Similarly, the government of Bangladesh has to take note of the opportunity provided and act accordingly. Incidents such as the security breach during the US ambassador’s programme cannot be tolerated.
It must be recognised that an ambassador’s word is effectively the word of the state they represent. While on Bangladeshi soil, Peter Haas has to be treated as if we are addressing the US government. If Peter Haas states a fact of concern, it is essentially the US government that is stating a fact of concern. The facts of concern are now on the table. How the government of Bangladesh will respond to these facts will determine the future of US-Bangladesh relations.
Zillur Rahman is the Executive Director of Centre for Governance Studies
This article was originally published on New Age. Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy