Thursday, May 3, 2012

On visit of Hillary Clinton
Daily Sun, May 2, 2012
M. Serajul Islam

At a private discussion among friends, the question that we all asked one another was why the US Secretary of State was visiting Bangladesh.  Like the story of the seven blind men looking at the elephant, each one of us had a view that differed from the other. 

So far for such an important visit, the only one who is upbeat is the    US Ambassador who might be knowing something that neither the government nor the opposition seems to know. It is not that US Secretary of State visits Bangladesh regularly. In fact, the last visit of a US Secretary of State to Dhaka was that of George P Schultz in the era of President Ershad. 

Furthermore, the present US Secretary of State is someone who in terms of influence she exercises in US politics and the international political scene is extraordinarily powerful. For such a powerful individual to land in Dhaka practically without any notice is something that begs explanation. In the case of Hillary Clinton, the only issue that anyone in Bangladesh can think of the cuff to explain the visit is the case of Dr. Mohammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank in which she took a great interest.  

The way the Bangladesh Government spurned the request of Hillary Clinton and President Obama for an honourable exit to Dr. Yunus made a lot of people speculate that the US Government is very unhappy with the present government of Bangladesh. Many have speculated that she is so angry that she has used her influence to stop the World Bank from funding the Padma Bridge to get back at the Prime Minister and the Bangladesh Government.  

The surprise and unpreparedness of the Bangladesh Government was amply reflected by its reaction or the lack of it to the visit. Normally for such an important visit, the Government should have reacted very enthusiastically. The reasons are obvious. The US has the power to turn Bangladesh into a middle income country quicker than the ruling party expects. It is the biggest market for our RMG exports that have given Bangladesh a good measure of economic success already. 

Bangladesh now has the ability of competing with the best in the important RMG sector globally. A little support from the US for more market access of its RMG products could have a dramatic impact on our economic development. Then there is the US’ influence over the international financial institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF; institutions that hold keys to our accelerated economic development. At a time when the ruling party is literally caught in political quicksand over its failure to deal with a host of domestic issues, the visit could have been  used  as a heaven sent opportunity to gain a great deal of political mileage.. 

Instead, in the days following the news that Hillary Clinton was coming to Dhaka, the Government did not come out with any reaction at all except matter of fact statements from the Prime Minister’s Office and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Government failed to show any enthusiasm for the visit. Instead, it seemed to be in a state of shock that she was coming to Dhaka, perhaps not knowing what to expect.  

The last occasion that someone of this government met Hillary Clinton was when Foreign Minister Dipu Moni met her at her office at the State Department a few months ago. When she returned home, she did not show any signs of having had a great visit. In fact, many speculated in the media and in private that in the official discussions, the US Secretary was curt and had communicated her personal displeasure and that of the US Government for the manner that Bangladesh Prime Minister had treated the request on Dr. Yunus and Grameen Bank.  

There is no reason to believe that the US administration has allowed the GB issue to be forgotten. Every official visitor from Washington to Dhaka following Dr. Yunus’ unceremonious departure from GB has made it a point to visit GB and raise US’ concern about what happens to the institution. When the US Under-Secretary of State Wendy Sherman visited Dhaka last month, she too took a trip to Manikgang to visit a GB institution, no doubt underscoring for the Bangladesh Government that the US administration has not forgotten what the Government of Bangladesh did over the institution in the context of Bangladesh-US relations.  

Therefore one can understand the diplomatic inertia or numbness or perhaps a sense of fear of the unexpected on the part of the Bangladesh Government in reacting to the Secretary’s visit. But then a US Secretary of State does not undertake an overseas visit without a reason. Therefore, in this instance too there must be a good reason. In the discussion among the friends with which I started the piece, we tried to find that reason. One of us pointed out that the Indian Finance Minister would also be in Dhaka at the same time. He did not think this is a coincidence. 

Another friend referred to the very recent visit of the Assistant Secretary for Security and Military Affairs to Dhaka. This reference had all of us thinking, particularly in the context of the offer that the US had made at the meeting for annual dialogue between the two countries on security matters. The US Ambassador in Dhaka in press meeting after the visit of the Assistant Secretary has also harped upon security and security related cooperation between USA and Bangladesh.

We concluded from these issues in our discussion that the Secretary is coming to Dhaka with security on top of her agenda; in fact we thought that this would be her only agenda item. In recent times, the US and India have entered into a strategic partnership to contain China’s expanding influence in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. Bangladesh’s geopolitical location makes it desirable from the security interests of the US-India axis to take Bangladesh on board. In Myanmar, the US is making inroads diplomatically and India, strengthening its influence. At the same time, Myanmar is starting to distance itself from China. These developments suggest that in the emerging strategic interests of the US and India, Bangladesh has become important. 

In getting Bangladesh to agree to be a part of the US-India security strategy against China, the US could throw some incentives. Even a review of the Padma Bridge funding by the World Bank could be on the cards. Already, the two countries are preparing a draft of the Trade and Investment Cooperation Agreement (TICFA) that could possibly be signed during the Secretary’s visit. 

If indeed the Secretary is coming with the security agenda and would be willing to provide incentives, she would be visiting Dhaka at a very inopportune time. Politically the ruling party is in a tight corner with a list of serious mistakes. India has also lost its credibility across the board. Therefore the Secretary would be making a serious mistake to encourage the Bangladesh Government to sign a security agreement against China with India on board. It would push Bangladesh closer to the edge from becoming a failed state. 

Instead the Secretary would be doing the US-Bangladesh relations a great favour instead if she would encourage the Bangladesh Government to hold the next elections in a manner where the opposition would participate. She could use the well acknowledged influence of India in general and Pranab Mukherjee in particular over Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina for achieving this objective.  

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan.

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