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Thursday, May 17, 2012

Bangladesh: America’s new strategic cynosure in South Asia


“It has for one thing, moved the level of bilateral relationship to a higher degree and, for another, formally brought Bangladesh on the strategic radar of the United States. Clinton’s comments covered both the internal political situation as well as the strategic compulsions” ----The Daily Star, Bangladesh,  Editorial of May 7 2012 on US Secretary of State visit to Dhaka on May 5, 2012

Bangladesh’s emergence on the United States strategic radar reflects the United States coming to grips with the changed geostrategic and geopolitical realities in South Asia. To some measure it also reflects the US strategic pivot to Asia Pacific in that America is in quest for new strategic partners in the region.

The new stronger American focus on Bangladesh can be gauged from American media and other documents. In one recent Wall Street Journal article it was written that “Bangladesh is the standard –bearer of South Asia”. In a Congressional Research Paper it was reflected that not surprisingly, Bangladesh is the ‘partner of choice for the United States in many of the foreign policy priorities of President Obama”

Bangladesh eminently qualifies as the United States new strategic partner in South Asia to replace its erstwhile focus on Pakistan with which the United States currently stands disillusioned. Bangladesh is a moderate Islamic country which under the current PM Sheikh Hasina has boldly demonstrated ‘zero tolerance’ for Islamist extremists by liquidating them and nor does it present any prospects of Talibanization like Pakistan.

In the overall geopolitics of South Asia any US strategic relationship or strategic partnership with Bangladesh does not create policy complexities for the United States in relation to India and the US-India Strategic Partnership.  Unlike Pakistan, Bangladesh and India are not in an adversarial or confrontational ode even though some irritants exist especially on water-sharing.

Therefore, the ‘Joint Declaration of Bangladesh-United States Dialogue on Partnership’ signed by the two nations during US Secretary Of State Clinton’s visit to Dhaka on May 05 2012 needs to be viewed in this light and without any misgivings.

Bangladesh and the United States have for some time been engaged in security cooperation including joint exercises and the United States supplying surplus military equipment to Bangladesh. In mid-April both Bangladesh and the United States had undertaken a closed doors high-level security dialogue in Dhaka, possibly as a prelude and preparatory discussion for the signing of the Joint Declaration last week.

The main purpose of the Joint Declaration seems to be putting Bangladesh-United States security dialogues and strategic discussions on a regular higher level and in a structured mode.

The major questions that arise from the United States strategic cynosure on Bangladesh and the Joint Declaration will logically what it portends for India and China and how would a Bangladesh-United States Strategic Partnership once fully consummated impact on the security interests of India and China?

As far as India is concerned there are two opposing portents that come to the fore. The first being a positive one in hat India views this development as one of a logical extension of the US-India Strategic Partnership transplanted onto a wider strategic canvass carrying positive security advantages for all three nations. It carries the nucleus of a US-India-Bangladesh Strategic Trilateral emerging.

The opposite portent, a highly improbable one, is that a Bangladesh-United States Strategic Partnership as a bipartite security understanding at some later stage may emerge on the same pattern of United States security linkage with Pakistan and all the attendant negative security connotations in its wake for India.

However, what is definitely intriguing is the American emphasis on Bangladesh’s role in the maritime security of the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean. One would have thought that the United States under its Strategic Partnership understandings with India would have acceded that role to India as the dominant naval power in the region. What maritime role for Bangladesh in the Bay of Bengal is the United States envisaging?

The biggest impact of any evolutionary Bangladesh-United States strategic partnership would be on China with which Bangladesh has a Strategic Partnership Agreement. In Bangladesh policy circles, despite a lack of geographical contiguity, China was viewed as a countervailing power to India as the outsized and predominant power in the region.

In Chinese strategic perceptions, the coupling of the United States-India Strategic Partnership with increasing security cooperation between Bangladesh and the United States is going to be perceived as hostile.

Bangladesh would have to indulge in some very tight balancing between its China policy and the new directions unfolding in its increasing strategic engagement with the United States. Concurrently, both the United and India would have to be wary as to how China responds.

Bangladesh did not indulge in any hype on the signing of its Joint Declaration with the United States, and this may be due to avoid generating any negative responses from China. However, the underlying strategic messages from this Joint Declaration between Bangladesh and the United States do carry some strategic rings for the region and China.

 In terms of domestic politics, this is a big triumph for PM Sheikh Hasina and her policies of moderation and zero tolerance for Islamist terrorism. Also in terms of domestic dynamics the linkage to the United States may rob the India- baiters of some of their rationale for berating India and thereby distorting Bangladeshi foreign policies.

Concluding, what needs to be said is that this is a positive gain for the South Asian security environment even if in the process India may have to marginally subordinate its role in Bangladesh. The better way of looking at it would be that the United States may have elected for India and the United States to bat together in complementary roles for security and stability on South Asia’s eastern flank.

First published in South Asia Analysis Group (SAAG), 15 May 2012

Dr Subhash Kapila is an International Relations and Strategic Affairs analyst. He is Consultant, Strategic Affairs with South Asia Analysis Group. Email:

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