Hiren Pandit: Before the election of the 12th National Parliament, there was bitterness in relations with various countries and groups of the world due to various reasons but this changed after the formation of the government. The kind of chaos that was feared before and after the election did not happen. It is very comforting for our internal politics. At the same time, a positive signal from the outside world is going through it. Now we must focus on developing diplomatic relations to deal with the ongoing crisis. At the same time, attention should be given to reforming the financial sector.
After the election, the global response was on the expected lines. All the powerful states of the world were already vocal about this election. India, Russia, China have given full support to the election program as planned by the government. On the other hand, the United States and the European Union wanted free, fair and participatory elections. India, Russia, China immediately congratulated the Prime Minister and the government on the election victory. EU Ambassador Charles Whiteley recently met Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and discussed bilateral issues.
Awami League formed the government for the fourth consecutive time on January 11 after the absolute victory in the January 7 election. After this, various heads of state and government congratulated Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her government. US Ambassador Peter Haas has also met with Foreign Minister Dr. Hasan Mahmud and expressed his determination to improve the relations between the two countries. At this time, he praised the dynamic and multifaceted relationship between Bangladesh and the United States.
Meanwhile, in the first week of assuming office, the finance minister held a meeting with development partners including the World Bank, the Indian High Commissioner, and ADB. There, World Bank Resident Representative Abdullahi Sek and Finance Minister Abul Hasan Mahmud Ali stressed the importance of strengthening the relationship between the two sides. In the meeting, there was a discussion about what to do in Bangladesh to deal with the ongoing global crisis. Apart from this, it is said that the World Bank has reiterated its commitment to continue all kinds of assistance to Bangladesh’s ongoing economic crisis and development activities.
The Ministry of Finance is working with other development partners including the Islamic Development Bank-IDB, and Japan International Cooperation Agency-JICA. The Ministry of Finance and Planning is also holding a series of meetings with development partners including the USA, UK, and European Union. Development partners including the World Bank, ADB, IMF, and JICA will increase the support for the development of Bangladesh. As a part of strengthening diplomatic relations with the outside world, the Prime Minister’s foreign tour may begin next March. Before June, contacts with 32 development partner countries and organizations will begin regarding the Bangladesh Development Forum (BDF) conference.
Meanwhile, on the invitation of Indian Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar, the Foreign Minister is going to visit India on February 7. The minister mentioned this information in a briefing of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently. This is going to be his first bilateral visit after assuming the new charge as Foreign Minister. After the January 7 vote, there has been a marked softening of US action in Bangladesh. In a statement after the vote, the United States expressed interest in advancing relations with Bangladesh. Ambassador Peter Haas congratulated them on meeting the policy-making stage of the new government.
Many diplomats say that the ice is melting in the Dhaka-Washington relationship. Again, a section of diplomats says that further observation is needed to clarify the position of the United States on the Bangladesh issue. Diplomatic sources say Bangladesh is now an important country in South Asia and the Indo-Pacific region. Bangladesh acts as a bridge connecting South Asia and Southeast Asia. The geographical position of Bangladesh in the global arena has made the country important in geopolitics.
The Bay of Bengal has elevated the importance of Bangladesh. Along with that, due to the indomitable work ethic of the country’s people, Bangladesh has made enviable economic progress even during the Corona period – which has also caught the attention of the international community. The US has its strategy in the region, particularly in the Indo-Pacific region. This is not possible without the cooperation of Bangladesh if Washington wants to achieve their goals with this strategy. That’s why before the polls, the US prioritized issues of democracy, human rights, and elections. Washington’s pre-vote activity has seen a slight ebb and flow in post-vote activity.
The United States is now floating the boat in the tide, again in the ebb, to realize its interests. Dhaka believes that it will be able to advance relations with the United States in the coming days. The government’s position on all the issues on which the Westerners have objections will be openly discussed with them. The United States will be provided with accurate information by the government to avoid confusion. However, it is necessary to observe for at least a few more months to be clear about what position the United States is taking on the Bangladesh issue.
Ambassador Peter Haas said recently, when he met for the first time, he discussed with the foreign minister Foreign Minister Dr. Hasan Mahmud how to advance the issues related to the interests of both sides. We discussed how we can help each other in business and the Rohingya crisis between the two sides. We will do more to advance our mutual interests in the days ahead. The two sides also discussed security and defense cooperation of mutual interest. Michael Kugelman, director of the South Asia Institute of the US-based Wilson Center, said in a recent article that Bangladesh has the same interests as the United States in Bangladesh.
The United States is one of the main destinations for Bangladesh’s garment sector. Again, as Bangladesh is in a strategically important position, several US investors are investing in Bangladesh. Ahead of the vote, the US has moved to enrich Bangladesh’s foreign policy. For that reason, the United States has been working with the country’s political leaders, civil society representatives, and other stakeholders for a long time on Bangladesh’s elections, democracy, and human rights. The reason behind the US’s eagerness to enrich Bangladesh’s foreign policy is not yet clear.
After the vote, the United States can emphasize two issues regarding relations with Bangladesh. One is the extent to which the government has obstructed the conduct of free, fair, and peaceful elections. The other is about what the United States wants to achieve from Bangladesh in the future. However, experts said the post-vote US statement showed flexibility. More observation is needed to clarify what position the United States will take on the Bangladesh issue. If the US is flexible, the government should improve relations with them, albeit with some concessions. Because Bangladesh cannot reject the Western world. The ball is now in the US court.
The US will review the relationship and start anew. Review where the relationship left off and start over. Regardless of the democratic values between the two parties, the two parties must be sensitive for the sake of the relationship. Bangladesh never wants relations with the US to deteriorate. The US also wants the same. The United States cannot achieve its goals by excluding Bangladesh in this region. In diplomacy, the relationship between the two sides is never the same. Relationships have ups and downs. Hope that Washington-Dhaka relations will move upward in the coming days.
The US wanted to see participatory, free, fair, and peaceful elections. They also said that if the election is not according to their expectations, they will ban it. A new government was formed just after our election. We will have to wait and see what the US will do now. The US position will be clear after further observation. After the vote, Ambassador Peter Haas is meeting with the new government’s policy-making level, a normal practice in diplomacy that will always go on. There is no easy way to understand where the relationship is going with these meetings.
Sources in the Finance Department and the Planning Commission say that strengthening relations with the US, Canada and Europe will be a priority in the foreign policy of the new government. Looking at Asia and South America. Helping to weld the labor market in the Middle East. Apart from this, there is a section in the country that is against India, Russia and China. They will be handled tactfully. Initiatives will be taken to improve relations with the United Nations. The permanent mission of Bangladesh will be reorganized there. The scope of work and policy of the Permanent Mission of the United Nations will be taken in such a way that it contributes to the development of relations.
The term of the US government under the leadership of Biden is coming to an end. Whichever ideological government comes to power in the United States, the development of relations with Bangladesh and the United States should be given utmost importance. We should create good relations without enmity with anyone. Apart from this, we should focus on developing relations with other global organizations or UN bodies, WHO, WTO, FAO, UNHCR, and other organizations. Apart from that, there is no alternative to good relations with China, India, Russia, the USA, and EU countries in terms of economic development and regional security.
Meanwhile, the US has imposed the highest tariff on exports of apparel and textile products from Bangladesh. Bangladesh has to pay a 16 percent duty to export these products to the United States. But India and China can export these products to the United States with only 5 percent duty. Only Bangladesh and Cambodia have imposed such high tariffs in the world. If the United States withdraws this tariff, it would be possible to provide American buyers with 16 percent lower prices of clothing and textile sector products. However, the Bangladesh government has not appointed any lobbyist group in the past.
This issue is being deeply thought about. If necessary, lobbyists can also be appointed, said the Ministry of Commerce. Dr. Hasan Mahmud said in his first function as Foreign Minister, ‘I will emphasize economic diplomacy as my main focus. As part of economic diplomacy, Dhaka is keen to explore expanded economic relations, particularly with countries in Africa and South America. In the backdrop of increasing global polarization, maintaining relations with countries in both the Eastern and Western Hemispheres has emerged as a major challenge. Eastern and Western countries have shown interest in working with Dhaka’.
Ambassadors of all countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom, congratulated the new government and expressed their desire to work with Dhaka because of the free and fair elections. Many feared that a one-sided election in 2024 could lead to visa and trade restrictions, especially from the United States so that Bangladesh’s currently troubled economy could face a wider crisis. The voice of the Western countries was loud in the months leading up to the elections, but after the announcement of the election schedule, it seems to be much muted.
The reactions of these countries after the election and the formation of the new government seem to be comparable to the post-election commentary of 2014 or 2018. In the weeks leading up to the election, although the intensity of US commentary has decreased, the White House press conference has always said that there has been no change in US policy regarding the Bangladesh election. The post-election statement also said the United States supports the people of Bangladesh and their desire for democracy, peaceful assembly and freedom of expression.
In the coming months, the United States will have to keep a watchful eye on what steps it takes, or if it takes any steps at all, in relations with Bangladesh, and continue efforts to normalize bilateral relations. But maintaining good relations with all the East and West, including the US, will be good for Bangladesh. Bangladesh’s existing benefits in various sectors including environment, good governance, renewable energy and transport under the Global Gateway facility will be strengthened in the coming days.
The EU gave 407 million euros to Bangladesh at the recent Global Gateway Forum conference held in Brussels, Belgium. The EU ambassador pledged to continue the facilities provided to Bangladesh under the Everything But Arms (EBA) facility. He also promised to provide a GSP-plus facility to Bangladesh. The EU ambassador also appreciated the initiatives taken by the Sheikh Hasina government for the development of disabled and marginalized people. In the meeting, the Prime Minister of Bangladesh expressed satisfaction over the relations between Bangladesh and the European Union in the last 50 years. She sought more cooperation in various sectors including renewable energy under the Global Gateway program.
Hiren Pandit is a columnist and researcher