Although situated in close proximity to
Pakistan, Bangladesh has to this point somehow avoided
becoming a major headache for Washington.
Yet, given recent developments, Bangladesh
could soon cause U.S.
officials a migraine.
However, first it is important to understand what is at stake. Over the years,
Bangladesh has transformed itself
in marvelous ways, serving as an example to other developing nations. The
Bangladesh Bank (equivalent to the Federal Reserve has
the second foreign
currency deposits in South Asia after India, while the country’s garment
industry has become the world’s second largest. Significantly, this
multi-billion-dollar industry—housed in the third largest Muslim country in the
world—is largely driven by women. In Bangladesh, many more girls are in
school than boys.
demonstrates an array of human development , ranging from decreased mortality rates to
increased average incomes and less poverty. A Bangladeshi institution, Grameen
Bank, has pioneered microcredit financing. Additionally, the world’s largest
non-governmental organization, BRAC, has become a globally active entity whose
latest tasks include helping rebuild Afghanistan. Corruption
notwithstanding, some state institutions—including the Bangladesh
army—have an impressive record as well. Some may associate Bangladesh’s
army with mutinies and coups, but in fact it has also been lauded for its
extraordinary contribution to U.N. peacekeeping missions. In honor of the great
services provided by Bangladeshi forces, the African nation of Sierra Leone
has declared Bangla its second language.
shelters half-a-million registered Rohingya minorities in its territory.
Similarly, ghettoes inhabited by people of Pakistani origin still dwell in the
heart of Dhaka. Neither Islamabad
nor Naypyidaw is willing to take back these descendants—making Bangladesh the
de facto safe haven for these displaced people.
To be sure,
also accused of providing havens for more unsavory populations. Delhi thinks Bangladesh
is a potential sanctuary for separatists fighting for the independence of the
northeastern states of India.
has also been accused of harboring militants sponsored by the Pakistani
intelligence. Perhaps unsurprisingly, some in Washington
are concerned that Bangladesh
could fall into the hands of terrorists. This is a highly misplaced concern,
Since human rights and promoting democracy have been cornerstones of
foreign policy, it is understandable that America is unable to applaud the
deeply flawed election of late that returned Hasina to power. Washington’s cautious efforts in recent
weeks to help bring the government and opposition together—so that they can
come to an agreement to hold a fresh election—are welcome. Nevertheless, much
more needs to be done.
U.S. policymakers seem to have realized Bangladesh’s
overall importance in a number of sectors. Although President Obama has GSP
(Generalized System of Preferences) benefits for Bangladeshi garment
manufactures, “Made in Bangladesh”
still remains a trusted brand among American retailers and consumers. American
conglomerates now consider Bangladesh
a lucrative destination with the rise of a strong middle-class population. What
is less clear is whether Washington has
strategic importance. Thanks to geography, the country lies somewhat
equidistant from three nuclear powers. It sits along an important channel that
transports massive amount of freight every year.
Washington, which has already wisely increased its to Bangladesh, would be wise to build a strategic partnership with Bangladesh in order to help protect American interests in the vast Indian ocean—a region that stretches from Eastern Africa to Southeast Asia, with Bangladesh right in the middle.
Unfortunately, none of this can happen if
political deadlock continues to grind on. Ongoing political clashes can end up
in lawlessness, which could enable indigenous vigilante groups to proliferate.
This in turn could provide an environment ripe for foreign insurgent groups.
What this all suggests it that despite
many success stories—it faces many impending dangers ahead. Therefore, it is
time that Washington adopts a more robust
policy on Bangladesh.
A prime focus of a revamped policy should be trade. Washington
should pursue a bilateral trade partnership that emphasizes not only commerce,
but also the importance of labor rights, transparency, and countercorruption
measures within Bangladesh’s
In addition, American cooperation, whether technological or financial, to bolster
Bangladesh’s energy sector would come as a great
relief to Dhaka. Bangladesh’s economy is as
projected due to acute scarcities of power. With a steady growth of
urbanization and dwindling indigenous energy sources (mainly in the form of
natural gas), Bangladesh
thus is badly in need energy assistance—an area Washington can be of great help. The U.S. has a strong interest in greater energy
security throughout South Asia, and has advocated for cross-regional pipelines
and financed energy projects in Pakistan.
is a logical next step.
On the political side,
Washington should exert
pressure on both the ruling party and opposition to take disputes off the
streets and on to the negotiating table. Both parties should be encouraged to
explore new avenues for peaceful dialogue—such as social media—and other
nonviolent means to engage with the masses. If democracy is for the people,
then it is virtually absent in Bangladesh
where political parties show little interest in being accountable to their
embodiment of a moderate Muslim nation—is now imperiled. The United States can no longer be complacent about
the nation a famous American secretary of State once notoriously referred to as
a “basket case”—yet has now become, despite its economic and democratic achievements,
one of the biggest tinderboxes in Asia.
First published in The National Interest, January 27, 2014