Sunday, May 6, 2012

Hillary Clinton’s visit: Why is Bangladesh Government not upbeat?

As I see it column
The Independent, May 5, 2012
M. Serajul Islam

The visit of a US Secretary of State is to say the least a rare political event for a country like Bangladesh. If I remember correctly, this will be the first one since George Schultz’s visit to Dhaka in the late 1980s. Given the fact that Secretary Hillary was a former First Lady who holds a special position in the administration of President Obama, the visit should be a very important event for Bangladesh. 

Yet, the feeling that one gets is that the visit has caught a lot of people in Bangladesh unaware. Under normal circumstances, the Government should have welcomed this visit as a mark of great success of its foreign policy in particular and governance in general. However, officially the Foreign Ministry did not even come out with any statement on this visit. The Prime Minister’s office mentioned about this visit only as a matter of fact. The national dailies did not even know where to place this news in the front page of its paper. There were few analytical reports about what was expected of the visit.  

The US Ambassador was the only one who was upbeat about the visit. He spoke of Bangladesh in lofty terms and went out of the way to please Bangladesh by describing it as a country with a great future. He stressed the fact that the Secretary’s visit would enhance bilateral relations, particularly in security related ones. His statements in the press together with two important visits in recent times, that of Under Secretary Wendy Sherman and Assistant Secretary Shapiro, should have given gave some hint of something important was coming. During the visit of the Assistant Secretary, the media was kept out totally. The only news that filtered to the media, courtesy the US Embassy in Dhaka was that US was seeking increased cooperation with Bangladesh on security. 

In fact, whatever little has come to the media in recent days out of these developments hinted that US had offered to hold with Bangladesh annual consultations on security related issues. US’ interest in Bangladesh in security related issues is somewhat intriguing. The USA played a major role during the Caretaker Government and ensured that the military handed power to an elected government. Earlier during the BNP term, the USA was disappointed at the indulgence of the BNP with elements like Bangla Bhai in particular and its alliance with the fundamentalist Jamat in general.  

The US must therefore have been greatly relieved at the AL’s zero commitment to terrorism. Nevertheless meantime the parameters within which US had earlier perceived terrorism and threat in South Asia changed.  First, the killing of Osama Ben Laden and top Al Qaeda leadership has encouraged the US to bring its war on terror to an end in Afghanistan from where it is withdrawing combat troops earlier than the 2014 deadline that the Obama administration had set initially. Second, the US has realized that its fear of so-called Islamic terrorism in Bangladesh has been exaggerated. Finally, in the context of US’ strategic partnership with India, the US administration has left security concerns in our region to the Indians. It is no longer interested to deal with its security concerns directly with countries such as Bangladesh and would like India to deal with these instead. 

Therefore the sudden interest of the US in security related issues should raise questions about intent. For those focusing on Bangladesh-US relations, Grameen Bank has dominated Bangladesh-US relations in recent times. The perception in Bangladesh is that the US Government in general and Secretary Clinton in particular have taken offense because the Bangladesh Government turned down a simple request to give Noble Laureate Dr.  Mohammed Yunus an honourable exit. Instead, he has not only been removed from GB; he has been accused as a “blood sucker” of the poor and corrupt. In fact, only last week, the Finance Minister has said that 54 Grameen Bank institutions are being investigated for wrong doing. 

It would therefore be unrealistic and wishful to expect that the US Secretary would be coming to make the Bangladesh Government happy. Therefore there must be some other reason for which Hillary Clinton is coming to Dhaka. That reason has to be security but not the way one would like to accept from the Bangladesh perspective. 

The reason for US’ sudden focus for security cooperation with Bangladesh is in geopolitics. The US and India are now in strategic partnership in the global perspective. The main objective of the partnership is to contain China’s expansion in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. The US-Myanmar relations have also turned a full circle with US now in the process of sending its Ambassador to Myanmar after many decades.  Myanmar is now willing to change its policy for greater interaction with the West. Myanmar-India relations are also getting thicker with the former also now trying to move away from China. In the emerging security scenario, Bangladesh is emerging as the bridge for extending US-India influence towards Southeast Asia  in the physical sense. 

Secretary Clinton  may therefore be setting aside her personal feelings for   Bangladesh and its Prime Minister for a greater objective of global significance. Going by what the US Ambassador has been saying lately on Bangladesh’s politics, the US appears to be worried at the way domestic politics is going from bad to worse. For their global strategy, both USA and India would need a stable government in Bangladesh.  

Therefore it may not be totally a matter of coincidence that Pranab Mukherjee is also going to be in Dhaka during the Secretary’s visit. He is well known for his  influence on Sheikh Hasina. The US, having dealt with Sheikh Hasina, may not be sure that she would respond to US security needs the way it wants. Since US interests are also Indian interests in the context of security in the region and in Southeast Asia, Pranab Mukherjee may prove to be handy in getting Bangladesh to agree to whatever the US has to offer. 

Those in charge of foreign policy of Bangladesh should consider the fact that if offered to join the US-India security axis, it would be placing the country in a camp opposite to China. The US has historically been known to drop a country as hot potatoes after befriending it based on its self interests. Pakistan stands out as a prime example to get the point. India on its part, except for 1971, has not shown any positive interest in Bangladesh except pursuing at its own interests. China on its part has been a much more dependable ally. It is a tough choice, one that would need a government that has the nation behind it, to make the correct choice. Unfortunately, that is not the case in Bangladesh now. 

The US should therefore take Bangladesh’s current political situation into consideration and instead of pushing for a security deal with the present government in a hurry, encourage it to resolve the issue of the Caretaker Government so that Bangladesh’s political instability would end. In such a move, the US could take the Indians on board. Only a politically stable Bangladesh would be able to give the type of security cooperation that the US expects. Without assuring that, a security deal whether transparent or otherwise, would inject more instability and push Bangladesh closer to a failed state.

As for the Government of Bangladesh, after the initial state of diplomatic numbness, it has expressed the desire to sign the Trade and Investment Cooperation Agreement (TICFA) not knowing what to except. The Prime Minister on her part came out with a belated reaction to the visit, stating that Bangladesh expects duty free access of its goods to USA. Having annoyed the US for  unbelievable reasons, it has failed to react rationally for an event that should otherwise be  a very positive input for its governance in general and its foreign policy needs in particular. 

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt.

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