Donald Lu, the United States Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, paid a visit to India and Bangladesh from January 12 to 15 for consultations on various issues, including energy, commerce, security cooperation, religious freedom, labour, and human rights.
Lu is the United States' top diplomat in South and Central Asia, where he has long served as a State Department official. However, given the current state of Bangladesh-US ties, his visit will certainly have multiple ramifications, including the resolution of political discontent, the future of the Rohingya, investment, and the Indo-Pacific strategy.
Lu also looks at ways to boost economic involvement and hear about labour and human rights from civic society. His visit took place when the world is divided regarding geopolitical flashpoints like the Ukraine war and Taiwan Crisis, food and energy prices are skyrocketing. Therefore, the visit was anticipated to centre on ongoing issues about security cooperation and defence treaties (namely GSOMIA and ACSA).
Furthermore, geopolitics in the Indo-Pacific is most certainly covered, as the US is currently placing a high priority on it.
Lu's visit may also be considered a continuation of the two nations' growing diplomatic contact over the last two years. There have been 17 mid and high-level bilateral visits, including Eileen Laubacher's most recent.
More importantly, it reveals the geo-strategic significance of Bangladesh's geographical rapport and emerging economic potential, transforming this Bay of Bengal littoral as a theatre of growing rivalry.
As a part of this game, newly appointed Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang made a brief stopover at Dhaka on his way to Africa when the National Security Council's Senior Director for South Asia Eileen Laubacher's just-concluded visit underscored the United States continued commitment to strengthening the Bangladesh-US bilateral relationship.
Against such a backdrop, striking a balance in relations with the US and China is challenging; Bangladesh is trying its best to maintain a neutral position regarding its geopolitical rivalry as it has discrete foreign policy goals and interests.
However, Donald Lu's current visit has profound geopolitical implications for Bangladesh following the growing militarisation in the Bay of Bengal and neo-cold war syndrome in the 21st century.
Why Lu's visit is important
Lu is the United States' senior diplomat in the area, and the meeting will allow both countries to discuss important concerns. Lu's visit will be the 11th in the last two years. Prior to it, Bangladesh sent seven delegations to the US, while the US sent ten to its equivalent.
The rationale for such a significant number of visits is the expansion of relationships and the resolution of short-term problems. This increased involvement is also motivated by the Indo-Pacific strategy and Bangladesh's geo-strategic importance.
Moreover, in the annual Global Firepower 2023 Military Strength Ranking, Bangladesh is placed 40th out of 145 nations. On the other hand, Bangladesh came in 12th place on the GFP review's list of 'Strengths on the Rise,' which emphasises national military powers based on strong growth patterns until 2023.
Following the rise of Bangladesh's defence capacity, the US wants to expand its security cooperation with Bangladesh, while Bangladesh wants the GSP reinstated and more US investment.
Finally, the United States wishes to include Bangladesh in its Indo-Pacific Strategy. As a result, Donald Lu's visit will have several consequences for Bangladesh.
It will improve bilateral diplomatic communication and strengthen mutual trust and understanding in the strategic domain. As a result, Bangladesh can bargain for lifting the sanctions on RAB, one of its elite forces. Also, Donald Lu has already delivered his positive remarks on the issue of RAB and revealed that RAB could be a very effective force in the joint counter-terrorism operation which will open a new horizon in their defence cooperation in the non-traditional security arena.
Bangladesh and the US both can be benefited from this deal as they share common values and norms against religious extremists.
A clear message to Lu
Following the US-China struggle for Indo-Pacific allies and a steady change in strategic attention toward the Indian Ocean littorals, Bangladesh rose to prominence in the eyes of major global and regional powers.
As the strategic conflict between the United States and China took on a military component on both sides of the equation, the urgency to transform the strategic cooperation with Bangladesh into a military-to-military alliance appeared to be the way ahead.
Against the background of concern in Bangladesh-US ties, Lu's visit to Dhaka has created a stir among the diplomatic community.
Bangladesh remained noncommittal in response to professions of interest from both China and the United States in establishing some type of defence-security relationship.
In contrast, Bangladesh's current foreign policy practice prioritises economic growth in its negotiations with external powers, frequently neglecting any attempts to forge security or defence relationships.
During his visit, Donald Lu wanted to portray Indo-Pacific Strategy as an idea for like-minded states who valued rule-based order, democracy, and economic cooperation.
Lu said, "It's not a club, and it is a matter of joining or not joining."
Bangladesh supports the United States' free and open Indo-Pacific strategy and is researching the benefits and disadvantages of joining the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF).
Bangladesh has stated unequivocally that it will join the US-led Indo-Pacific Business Forum if it is in Bangladesh's best interests. Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen said, "The govt. is still studying issues related to our Indo-Pacific strategy and is ready to do whatever is needed for the people's welfare."
Hence, Dhaka has given a clear message to the world that If Dhaka becomes involved in any geopolitical disputes, it risks becoming a pawn in a global conflict. As a result, Bangladesh preserves its foreign policy guiding philosophy of 'friendship to all, malice to none' and advocates for peaceful coexistence in the region.
Optimism in strategic domain
Bilateral relations between the two nations have gone a long way and developed significantly since the establishment of diplomatic relations.
Dhaka is adept at balancing relations with major powers, particularly China, and is aware of and sensitive to the United States' concerns in the region.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has openly stated that Bangladesh has no military ambitions and views China, a regional adversary of the United States, as a development partner; given geopolitical considerations and lofty economic purposes, it is unrealistic for Bangladesh to become embroiled in any power battles.
Washington and Dhaka work closely on regional and global security, counter-terrorism, and climate change. Given the changing global climate, a tighter partnership with the US is in both nations' best interests.
Bangladesh anticipates that Donald Lu will contribute positively to boosting bilateral ties to a new level in which Bangladesh will be considered on its own merits.
Washington must extend its greater support to Bangladesh for the successful Rohingya Repatriation as this issue has become a national security issue for Bangladesh and poses greater challenges to the region.
A strategic engagement with Bangladesh may assist the US in accomplishing its goals in South Asia and beyond, in addition to economic rewards.
Both nations must improve conversation and communication to clear up misconceptions and clarify each other's viewpoints. As a significant participant in this endeavour, the United States should give a kind hand to Bangladesh.
Saume Saptaparna Nath is a Research Associate at The KRF CBGA