A senior US State Department official has said Washington does not define its relationship with Bangladesh taking into account Dhaka’s ties with Russia, China or any other country.
“US-Bangladesh relationship isn’t defined by China, by Russia and any other country,” US Deputy Assistant Secretary Afreen Akhter told BSS diplomatic correspondent Tanzim Anwar in an exclusive interview this week in the capital.
She said that Washington had a broad range in multifaceted, multi-dimensional relationship with Bangladesh found lots of synergies as Dhaka recently released its Indo-Pacific Outlook (IPO) as many of its elements were common with US Indo Pacific Strategy (IPS).
“Broadly, we see lot of synergies between our two documents, our strategy, and your (Bangladesh’s) outlook. We both are focused on building economic prosperity in the region and through infrastructure, through our substantial development projects,” the senior state department official said.
Bangladesh last month released its IPO envisioning a free, open, peaceful, secure, and inclusive indo-pacific region that appeared Dhaka’s expression its cohesion with the IPS which has been pursuing by the US in the region.
The State department official’s comments came months after US Ambassador in Dhaka Peter Haas said Washington does not force countries to choose sides over relations with other countries and particularly with Beijing as “we don’t expect every country to have the same exact assessment of China as we do”.
Haas, however, said the Russian actions in Ukraine currently appeared as the “most pressing strategic challenge” for the US vision for an “open, interconnected prosperous, secure and resilient Indo-pacific”.
Talking to BSS Akhter pointed out with note of thanks Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s recent joint statement with Japanese premier Fumio Kishida “condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a violation of an International law and the UN charter”.
“I just want to say Prime Minister (Sheikh) Hasina’s recent statement on Russia . . . we really welcome it very positively,” she said.
Indo Pacific Outlook (IPO)
The US diplomat welcomed Dhaka’s announcement of IPO and said the two documents – US’s IPS and Bangladesh’s IPO – share “tremendous amount in common”.
Apart from the US, the other members of QUAD – an informal strategic forum of the US, Australia, India and Japan – welcomed Bangladesh IPO with Indian external affair minister Dr S Jaishankar this week saying “we are glad” about Bangladesh’s Outlook.
Akhtar said Bangladesh’s IPO laid emphasis on “maritime security” issue which was a key focus of the US and the other QUAD partners and “so we will look for opportunities to continue to collaborate on that”.
She said economic growth is a key component of Bangladesh IPO while the US is the top export destination for Bangladesh as well as the top investor in Bangladesh and “so again we really look to build that out in the years to come”.
The US official said that the US was currently working “very closely” with Bangladesh government on the remaining elements of General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), a foundational government-to-government agreement that permits greater collaboration.
“We hope that (GSOMIA) will be signed in the coming months,” she said without any elaboration further.
GSOMIA is a reciprocal legally-binding agreement between US and other governments to protecting classified military information regarding their security cooperation.
Akhter said that the US embassy defense attaché in Dhaka was in very regular consultation with concerned Bangladesh authorities on security cooperation.
She said the US planned to provide radar technology in countries throughout the Indo-pacific region to develop a common operating picture in the maritime domain under its Indo-Pacific Maritime Domain Awareness Initiative (IPMDA).
The US deputy assistant secretary said Washington was pleased to see “a substantial decrease of extra judicial killings” after its sanction on Bangladesh’s elite anti-crime Rapid Action Battalion (RAB).
“We welcome that decrease (of in extra judicial killing) . . . (but) we need to see a long time sustained trend, positive changes of behavior (in RAB),” she said adding that Washington focused on ensuring accountability, reform and transparency of RAB.
“I would say that with respect to lifting sanctions on the RAB, we need to see long term systemic change for sanctions to be considered to be removed,” the state department official said.
The deputy assistant secretary also said Washington was concerned about the application Bangladesh’s Digital Security and particularly “where the Digital Security Act has been applied”.
The state department official said that her country was working to find out a longer term durable solution to the crisis through repatriation of Rohinyas to Myanmar under the right condition, a task she termed as “difficult and challenging”.
“We believe very firmly that the conditions in Myanmar right now do not warrant a safe voluntary dignified return and so we would oppose any effort to forcibly repatriate individuals to Myanmar,” she added.
Akhter said the US might take more Rohingyas to the USA in future under its third country resettlement initiative which has started last December.
“We started a very small pilot programme to relocate some of the most vulnerable Rohingya refugees to the US . . . we are hoping for increase the number of third country relocation,” she said.
Akhter said the US was the largest donor by far to the Rohingya crisis and regretted that other members of the UN Security Council “have not provided a Dime (as humanitarian support for the Rohingyas)”.
Akhter said that the US government was giving priority on Bangladesh’s clean energy sector for investment. “We will be looking for opportunities to collaborate with Bangladesh on and looking forward (about energy sector cooperation).”
She said the US private sector’s relationships with Bangladesh was incredibly strong though Bangladesh’s regulatory environment needed to be improved to attract US business.
“Our trade attaché here is working with the government of Bangladesh for making Bangladesh economy more transparent and more attractive for the US private sector investors”.
Besides, Akhter said that the US embassy’s labor attaché here is also working very closely with Bangladesh government on improving labor conditions with respect of union registration and uniform application of the labour laws.
Akhter led the US delegation at the 6th Indian Ocean Conference (IOC) hosted by Dhaka from May 12 to 13.