US Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun is paying an official visit to Bangladesh today, according to an official announcement. The timing of the visit indicates its unmistakable geo-strategic implications. After hiatus of seven years, a top-level official of the state department is coming to Bangladesh. The visit comes in the wake of Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD), a forum to counter Chinese aggression in the Indo-Pacific region, held on 6-7 October. Besides, it comes against the backdrop of burgeoning Chinese investment in Bangladesh and with recent Chinese support of $1billion engineering scheme in Bangladesh which has unnerved India.
The United States is one of the important development partners of Bangladesh. In economic terms, the relationship with the US is, has long been, and will for the foreseeable future continue to be a very important one for Bangladesh. Bangladesh exported $5.5 billion worth of products, primarily apparel and textiles, to the United States in 2018, making the United States the single largest market for Bangladeshi goods in the world.?This large volume of export is consequential or economy of Bangladesh. The United States accounts for 23 per cent of the stock of foreign direct investment in Bangladesh.?
Historically, the US-Bangladesh relation is mainly focused on the economic relations. The recent pre-eminence of security and geo-strategic dimension in the relation between two countries is evident. For the United States, the significance of Bangladesh lies in its geo-strategic position. Bangladesh is in lynchpin position along the coastline of Indian Ocean. Sustained US influence in the Indian Ocean region presupposes the requirement of security partnership between two countries. According to State Department statement, Deputy Secretary’s engagement in Bangladesh will focus on advancing the “common vision of a free, open, inclusive, peaceful, and secure Indo-Pacific region with shared prosperity for all”.
Indian Ocean Region (IOR) is of supreme importance to the United States. Like the location, among other things it is important for much of world’s energy supplies, key trade routes and the incipient Sino-US and Sino-Indian rivalries. The Indian Ocean region will, in the coming decade, command the attention of US policymakers and strategists in a way that will be matched by few other regions. The importance of the region is also evident because of US engagement with India in QUAD which strives to counter Chinese initiatives in Indo-Pacific.
The geostrategic interests of the US in the Indian Ocean Region are many-sided. The “Rise of China” is jeopardizing the interest of the US foreign policy. Besides, the Indian Ocean Region is also the important route of energy supplies accounting for most of US exports of energy from the Middle East. Navigation through this route is indispensable to the US economy.
However, Chinese posture with regards to Indian Ocean Region is a source of disquietude to the United States. China is ambitious to dominating the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). It has employed a geopolitical scheme of “string of pearl” which refers to the network of Chinese military and commercial facilities and relationships along its sea lines of communication, which extend from the Chinese mainland to Port Sudan in the Horn of Africa. Chinese actions are manifestations of the paranoia of disruption of its trade routes by India and US alliance.
It is, however, jeopardizing US interests in the region. The United States, therefore, remain wary of china’s growing dominance in the region. Moreover, Chinese involvement in Bangladesh and its investments translate to the US as china’s attempt to access the Indian Ocean through Bangladesh. Perhaps this calculation has prompted the US to seek closer security ties with Bangladesh.
Another telling agenda of this visit include telecommunications security. The tussle between US and China for 5G race is in order.US State Department is laying more importance on 5G security. US government is calumniating about the intention of Chinese companies likes of Huawei and ZTE. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg warned that Chinese advances in 5G wireless networks, facial recognition and other technologies pose a threat to world security. The United States, therefore, will want Bangladesh to secure its 5G network by establishing relations with its tech companies.
In this visit, US might demand Bangladesh to scale down its growing co-operation with China.US may try to preclude Bangladesh from giving China access to the Indian Ocean. In response, Bangladesh should demand undeterred access to more Bangladeshi goods to the United States and should seek more FDI (Foreign Direct Investment) from the US.
However, Bangladesh should be prudent not to alienate China by succumbing to US demands. The stakes are high for Bangladesh. Chinese investment is the one of the mainstay of Bangladesh’s “development story”. Moreover, Bangladesh ought to maintain proper balance between these two global powers.