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Political Instability Could Derail the Growing US-Bangladesh Relationship

Anand Kumar is Associate Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. Click here for detailed profile
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  • May 21, 2012

    The United States is trying to take its relationship with Bangladesh to a higher plane at a time when the lone super power is disengaging itself from other parts of Asia like Iraq and Afghanistan. Though the strategic partnership agreement signed between President Obama and President Karzai gives the US a role in that country even beyond 2014, it is clear that the US role would be much smaller compared to what the world has seen for nearly a decade. In contrast, the US signed a new ‘Joint Declaration on Bangladesh-U.S. Dialogue on Partnership” with Bangladesh during the latest visit of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Dhaka. This agreement entails regular consultation on political, security and economic matters, to be held alternately in Dhaka and Washington.

    Hillary Clinton’s visit took place after the US-Bangladesh relations had seen a period of chill. This visit was scheduled to take place nearly a year ago. But at that time it was put off because of the removal of Nobel laureate Mohamed Yunus as chairman of the Grameen Bank; Yunus is a family friend of the Clintons. Hillary Clinton, who is a champion of women empowerment, thinks that Grameen Bank and Bangladesh Rehabilitation Assistance Committee (BRAC) are two best institutions in Bangladesh that can achieve this objective. She is impressed by the way Grameen Bank is modelled whereby 830,000 Bangladeshi women who have borrowed money from the institution are themselves stakeholders. The success of Grameen Bank and BRAC has also encouraged work on a similar pattern in the state of Arkansas in the United States.

    Many in Bangladesh feel that Yunus had fallen out of favour of the Sheikh Hasina government when he tried to float his own political party during the caretaker government regime. The Awami League government removed him from his position in the Grameen Bank citing his age factor; according to the government, Yunus had turned 71 and could not have continued after reaching the age of 60. The supporters of Yunus called it political vendetta. Even during her latest visit, Hillary Clinton strongly supported Yunus and the Grameen Bank and urged the Bangladesh government not to upset the structure of organisation which was doing commendable work.

    The main purpose of Hillary Clinton’s visit was, however, to intensify the relationship with Bangladesh. The way America chose to sign ‘Joint Declaration on Bangladesh-U.S. Dialogue on Partnership’ clearly indicated that it now considers this Muslim majority South Asian country as a success story. In Bangladesh, the Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League government has been doing a tremendous job. Bangladesh is possibly the only Muslim majority country in the world where Islamists are on the defensive. The government has actually opened ‘war crime’ trials against some leaders of the Islamist parties who escaped prosecution in the aftermath of the country’s liberation. It has almost restored successfully the secular nature of the Bangladeshi constitution which came into force in 1972.

    The Bangladesh government has also been equally successful on the economic front. The economy has been growing at a steady pace of about six per cent a year. The government has also done well to improve power situation by taking several measures to increase power generation. Both India and the US are trying to help Bangladesh in this effort.

    Bangladesh has also risen in importance for the US, because its long time frontline ally has been giving it a lot of trouble in recent times. Moreover, the emergence of the Islamists and Taliban in Pakistan are taking that country towards further uncertainty. In fact, it would not be wrong to say that increasing chaos in Pakistan is also not letting the situation in Afghanistan stabilise. In this context, the increased engagement with Bangladesh is likely to provide the United States an opportunity to improve its image in the Muslim world. In recent times, US actions in some parts of the world have made some people allege that it has been at war with the Muslim world.

    Most importantly, the elevation of the bilateral relationship allows the US to counter the Chinese ‘String of Pearls’ strategy. For some years, it has been thought that the Chinese have been creating deep sea ports in Gwadar, Hambantota and other places with the objective of projecting power. They were also targeting Bangladesh in this regard by planning to develop a deep sea port at Chittagong. America’s new ‘partnership dialogue’ with Bangladesh will disrupt this Chinese strategy in a small way. And if the US manages similar successes in other states like Myanmar, then it would be prove to be a serious check on Chinese power projection.

    Hillary Clinton’s latest visit seems to have made a good beginning in this regard. However, the benefits of this relationship would depend on how the political scene shapes up in Bangladesh. If the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) led opposition comes back to power after the elections scheduled towards the end of 2013, then the situation would change considerably. The close alliance of the BNP with the Jamaat would not let it pursue moderate policies which are the hallmark of present regime.

    The BNP is also known to be close to China. Moreover, the party is currently carrying out a countrywide agitation alleging political harassment. It is also demanding restoration of the caretaker government system under which elections have been held in Bangladesh. The continuous political chaos in Bangladesh could provide an excuse for the army to step in although it has been reluctant to take over power in recent times. In this scenario the US will have to look afresh at Bangladesh. But for the time being, Bangladesh seems to have acquired a new prominence in US foreign policy towards south Asia.