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Bangla-US partnership: The past, present and the future

In the words of US President Joe Biden, the United States and Bangladesh have ‘achieved a lot together’ in over 50 years of diplomatic relations

Bangla-US partnership: The past, present and the future

In the media, it is often seen that the US Ambassador in Bangladesh comments on different domestic issues in Bangladesh, which provides a one-sided version of Bangladesh-US partnership. Against this backdrop, this write-up focuses on two questions: What are the key developments in Bangladesh-US partnership in the last decade? And what are the consequences of those developments?

On the occasion of Bangladesh’s Independence Day, in a letter to Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, US President Joe Biden wrote that ‘In over 50 years of diplomatic relations, the United States and Bangladesh have achieved a lot together—advancing economic development, strengthening people-to-people ties, addressing global health and climate issues, partnering on the humanitarian response to Rohingya refugees’. 

According to the US State Department (2023), ‘Bangladesh is an important regional partner on economic, climate, humanitarian and security priorities’. These statements offer a comprehensive picture on different dimensions of Bangladesh-US relations. 

Economic development

Impressive economic development happened between the US and Bangladesh in the last decade. For instance, in 2008, the volume of bilateral trade in goods amounted to $4,216.5m, which increased to $14,115.5m in 2022. According to the Office of the United States Trade Representative, there has been a dramatic increase in export and import between the two countries since 2012. US goods export to Bangladesh has increased by a staggering 483 per cent since 2012, rising to $3b in the year 2022. Bangladesh goods export to the US shows a similar trend, with a 127 percent increase in the US import from Bangladesh since 2012, reaching a high point of $11.2bn in 2022.

In addition, the US has been the largest source of FDI in Bangladesh. The total net FDI from the US in FY22 was $661.12m, accounting for 19.2 percent of the total FDI inflow to Bangladesh. Chevron has invested over $3.6bn of FDI, including over $500m in contracts with local suppliers and contractors, over the last 12 years, according to Peter Haas, the US’ ambassador to Bangladesh. Procter and Gamble (P&G) has been operating in Bangladesh and has had a significant impact on the country’s market. P&G, the American personal care product giant, has collaborated with the Bangladeshi manufacturer PRAN to invest $1m. 

Arun Venkataraman, assistant secretary of commerce for global markets and director-general at the US and Foreign Commercial Service, has said that the US is “well-prepared to invest in the energy sector of Bangladesh”. In November 2023, the global giant ExxonMobil showed its keen interest to explore oil and gas in the Bay of Bengal with an expected investment of $30bn. Additionally, the company asked for permission to conduct an early two-dimension seismic survey that may cost $40 to $50m.

The General Electric (GE) has collaborated with the Bangladesh Power Development Board on many projects in Fenchuganj, Shahjibazar, Sylhet, Syedpur, Bhola, Khulna and Ghorashal. It has supplied world-class gas turbines to power the plants. GE has also made an investment in the forthcoming Summit 583-MW and Unique 584-MW Combined Cycle Power Plant (CCPPs) in Meghnaghat, which will be driven by the most sophisticated GE 9HA.01 gas turbine technology.

Security and strategic development

According to the US Department of State (October 26, 2012), Bangladesh’s ‘efforts at development, countering violent extremism, assisting international peacekeeping and improving regional connectivity are vital to regional and global stability’. In addition, in the United State's Country Reports on Terrorism 2011, Country Reports on Terrorism 2012, Bangladesh’s cooperation with the United States in combating transnational terrorist groups was acknowledged. In December 2022, US’ Deputy Assistant Secretary Afreen Akhter defined Bangladesh as a ‘truly important strategic partner’ of the United States. 

The US has expressed gratitude to Bangladesh for its role in combating terrorism and hopes that Bangladesh will continue to demonstrate its strong commitment in this respect. This is also reflected in the words of the then US Ambassador to Bangladesh, Marcia Bernicat, “Bangladesh has remained a strong partner in the fight against terrorism. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina herself is a very, very strong leader in the fight against terrorism”.

In fact, in the last decade, the world witnessed a growing security cooperation between Bangladesh and the US. For instance, the US-Bangladesh Bilateral Security Dialogue was introduced in 2012 and its ninth edition was held in Dhaka on 5 Sept 2023, with its main focus on efforts to expand partnerships in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, peacekeeping, defense trade, military cooperation, and counterterrorism, as well as maritime security and regional issues. 

One can also add that the geopolitical location of Bangladesh makes it an important country to the US for its Indo-Pacific Strategy. Additionally, Bangladesh is a prospective regional hub in terms of maritime connectivity. It is also seen that sometimes, the US wants to pursue its geostrategic interest by interfering in the domestic affairs of Bangladesh, in violation of international norms of sovereignty and Vienna convention on diplomatic norms. 

Sociocultural development

According to data from the US Embassy in Dhaka, during the past decade, Bangladeshi students in the US have increased by more than 300 percent, from 3,314 students during the 2011-2012 academic years to 13,563 students during the 2022-2023 academic years. Bangladesh ranks seventh in the world for graduate student enrollment in the United States. In the words of US ambassador Haas, ‘Bangladeshi students continue to make impressive achievements across US campuses’.

The number of Bangladeshi diasporas to the US has also increased tremendously in the last two decades. For example, according to the data of Pew Research, the Bangladeshi population in the United States was 57, 000 in 2000, which increased to 208, 000 in 2019. These educated Bangladeshi people contribute immensely to the socio-economic development of the United States.

There have been impressive developments in Bangladesh-US relations in different dimensions from trade and investment to socio-cultural aspects in the last decade. However, the fullest potential of bilateral partnership is yet to be explored and harnessed. In that case, new avenues of cooperation such as the blue economy cooperation need to be accelerated. 

Bangladesh exports of readymade garments is helping tens of thousands of women communities in Bangladesh while the Bangladeshi diaspora in America is helping the American economy. The increasing volume of trade and investment between Bangladesh and the US impact tens of thousands of people in Bangladesh. 

The bottom-line is that the positive outcome in Bangladesh-US partnership impacts millions of people in both countries, highlighting its importance. 

The author is an associate professor of international relations at the University of Rajshahi, Bangladesh. He is also an adjunct research fellow at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs, Dhaka

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