Amid rising security concerns in Asia-Pacific region, the US is showing new enthusiasm for its ties with Bangladesh due to the country’s sustained growth and political stability over the last decade and its geopolitical location, officials and foreign relations analysts said.
The visit of US Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun, following a number of engagements between the two countries over the last one and a half months, is a testament to the vigorous moves by the US, they said.
Biegun came to Bangladesh from India. His visit comes at a time when the US is advancing its Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS) in a new Asian reality.
“Unfortunately, we are facing a number of challenges in the Indo-Pacific. I would not deny that there are security concerns, a fact that concerns many of us, the Pacific or the Indo-Pacific nations,” said Biegun.
He specifically mentioned the Indo-China tension over the Line of Actual Control in Galwan Valley, tension in Taiwan, repression in Hong Kong, Shenzhen, and Tibet, and increasing economic hostility towards the people of Australia.
“There are a number of challenges and tensions in the region that have alarmed the US and other countries in the Indo-Pacific,” he said at a press conference at Hotel Westin in the afternoon.
He explained that the IPS is a vision for peace and stability and not directed at any specific country. For long, South Asia has been left out of most Asian strategies where the US participates.
Stephen Biegun arrived just weeks before the US elections and at a time when nearly 1.1 million people have died from Covid-19. Last month, US Defence Secretary Mark T Esper called the prime minister and discussed many issues, including defence cooperation.
Bangladesh Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen and Biegun yesterday spoke with warmth and new hope of solid relations at a meeting at the State Guesthouse Padma in the capital yesterday morning. The meeting lasted for about two hours.
“The US sees Bangladesh as a key partner in the Indo-Pacific region … we are committed to growing our partnership in this regard to advance a free and open Indo-Pacific. Bangladesh will be the centrepiece of our work in the region,” Biegun told reporters at an open-stage press conference afterwards.
He said he was pleased to have the latest chapter of cooperation that has bound Bangladeshi and American people for many years.
Momen said the US impression about Bangladesh has improved manifold because of the country’s sustained growth, stability, and geopolitical location.
“We have a very stable government and democracy. We believe in the same values and principles. Therefore, our relationship is becoming more solid … we look forward to it. I have no doubt it will continue to improve. We hope to achieve many goals.”
Biegun said from Covid-19 vaccine cooperation to trade and investment, agro-processing industries, IT, pharmaceuticals and energy, US companies were showing increased interest in Bangladesh.
Biegun arrived Wednesday afternoon and had a meeting with State Minister for Foreign Affairs Shahriar Alam that day.
Yesterday morning, he visited the Bangabandhu Memorial Museum in Dhanmondi before his meeting at the guesthouse.
Around noon, he called on Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina at the Gono Bhaban and then visited the Kurmitola General Hospital where he donated some medical equipment.
During the meetings, Bangladesh sought large US investments, including in energy, IT, pharmaceuticals, agro-processing, blue economy, relocation of US companies, climate-change adaptation, said Momen.
“We want big investments. I said we want to build a dedicated Dhaka-Chattogram train line. We want to stop river erosion, build embankments to check the impacts of climate change,” he said.
Biegun said they would work on it and apprised that many US companies were interested in investing here and that Bangladesh should be part of the global supply chain.
At the Westin press conference yesterday afternoon, he said Bangladesh and US have recently kicked off an economic dialogue. The two countries appointed representatives who have started developing a work plan that would be a roadmap for deepening economic relationship.
Biegun said the US is the second largest investor in Bangladesh after the UK.
“Our business community is having increased interest in Bangladesh because of the size of your consumer class, skilled labour, and the geographical location on the bank of the Bay of Bengal. It makes an attractive place for US investors,” he said.
Bangladesh also sought post-Covid-19 economic recovery assistance that America is giving countries that have good relationships with the US.
Biegun, however, said Bangladesh has a big economy and that they encourage signing a free trade agreement.
Asked if Washington sees Bangladesh in the eyes of New Delhi, Momen replied in the negative.
“The media says that. It’s not right. We are an independent and sovereign country. We have values and principles. We do what we need to do for our interests. The US looks at us independently. If the US saw us in New Delhi’s eyes, he would not have come here,” he said.
Bangladesh sought a strong US role for Rohingya repatriation.
Biegun said the US has been the biggest contributor of humanitarian assistance for the Rohingyas and it will continue. However, a permanent solution lies in the Rohingyas’ return to Myanmar, which should create conducive conditions and ensure rights.
He said the US has been using its political influence as much as possible to influence decisions inside Myanmar regarding the treatment and restoration of rights of the Rohingyas.
“All countries need to work shoulder to shoulder … This is a global priority. Every major country in the Indo-Pacific should be speaking in equal outspokenness to the government of Myanmar to take steps necessary to end this crisis,” he said.
Biegun said apart from immediate humanitarian support to the Rohingyas, the international community should redouble its efforts to reach a long-term solution, which lies in the sustainable return of the Rohingyas to Myanmar.
Some one million Rohingyas, 750,000 of whom fled a military crackdown in Rakhine State of Myanmar in 2017, are in Bangladesh.
US REVIEWING RASHED CHOWDHURY’S EXTRADITION
In response to Dhaka’s request to extradite Rashed Chowdhury, a self-confessed killer of Bangabandhu living in the US, Biegun said US Attorney General William Barr’s office was reviewing the matter.
“Those matters are beyond the department of state,” he said, but assured of cooperation towards this end.
“It’s deeply moving for me and all Americans. It is another impression of how severe the nature of the event was,” Biegun said about the killing of Bangabandhu and most of his family members on August 15, 1975. He had visited the spot earlier in the day.
Biegun appreciated Bangladesh for manufacturing world-class PPE and Covid-19 medicine Remdesivir, and apprised that Bangladesh was one of the countries with priority for getting US Covid-19 vaccines once they are approved following phase-III trials.
Asked if US companies would collaborate with Bangladesh for phase-III trials, a US official said that would be unlikely given that the US has a large number of Covid-19 patients.
Biegun said his country seeks a long-term partnership with Dhaka to tackle the pandemic as Bangladesh wants early access to prospective vaccines to be developed by the US, BSS reports.
“Long-term partnership has become crucial for two countries to fight Covid-19 … combined efforts between Bangladesh and the USA are needed to deal with the pandemic,” he told a press briefing after a meeting at the state-run Kurmitola General Hospital.
Health Minister Zahid Maleque who joined Biegun at the briefing said Dhaka urged the US to provide it with a vaccine soon after it is developed.