US Deputy Secretary of State Stephen E Biegun, during his first-ever two-day (October 14-15) visit in Dhaka, tried to convey in many ways that there are enormous potentials and benefits for Bangladesh under the Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS), though Bangladesh gives much importance to its economic aspect.
Bangladesh is strategically located at a crossroads between South and Southeast Asia, and the US thinks Bangladesh plays an important role in their Indo-Pacific vision, and shares goals of building a more prosperous, secure and interconnected region.
Bangladesh has apparently shown no interest about the defence aspect of the IPS but both sides touched upon security cooperation during the discussion.
The United States sees Bangladesh as a key partner in the Indo-Pacific region. "We’re committed to growing our partnership in this regard to advance a free and open Indo-Pacific. Bangladesh will be a centerpiece of our work in the region," Biegun said.
Foreign Minister Dr AK Abdul Momen, however, said the US sise did not discuss the IPS issue and there was no discussion on defence cooperation during their talks.
He said Bangladesh is gaining more US and global attention due to its robust economic growth, stability and geopolitical position.
"The good news is that Bangladesh is getting more attention due to (our) economic growth, stability and geopolitical location. We'll have more solid relations achieving more goals," Dr Momen said at a joint briefing with the US Deputy Secretary of State at State guesthouse Padma after their meeting on October 15.
Dr Momen said Bangladesh sought US investment in the infrastructure sector, raised students visa issues and repatriation of Bangabandhu's killer Rashed Chowdhury and sought support in blue economy and climate issues.
He ruled out a notion that US sees Bangladesh in the eyes of India and mentioned that the US sees Bangladesh as an independent country.
"This (the visit) shows the relationship between Bangladesh and the US is becoming more and more solid. This will continue to improve. I have no doubt about it. We hope to achieve many goals," said the Foreign Minister.
Bangladesh has invited the United States to explore opportunities in offshore blocks as Bangladesh identified 20 blocks through maritime boundary settlement.
The US side assured Bangladesh of encouraging their companies to invest in Bangladesh.
State Minister for Foreign Affairs M Shahriar Alam, while briefing reporters after bilateral meeting with Stephen Biegun, said they discussed it apart from other issues.
Responding to a question, the State Minister said this is an open invitation but not for any specific US company.
He said the two sides discussed ways to ensure faster economic recovery for Bangladesh in the post Covid-19 scenario and the US side encouraged for larger discussion on Free Trade Agreement considering Bangladesh's growing economy.
Bangladesh also sought preferential trade support for its products from the US to accelerate the economic recovery during the post-Covid-19 era.
The State Minister thankfully mentioned that the US is Bangladesh’s single largest export destination country and also the largest investor.
Discussions were also held on the future trade possibilities of the US in the large market of Bangladesh.
Both sides expressed their optimism that the US companies may take advantage of the competitiveness of Bangladesh and invest in the country in greater volume particularly in the areas of jute, ship building, leather, ICT, energy, pharmaceuticals and infrastructural development.
The US side expressed satisfaction that an American company has started supplying LNG to Bangladesh.
The United States has granted all approvals for the establishment of a new Bangladeshi Consulate in the city of Miami in the United States of America, and they look forward to broadening the official diplomatic presence of Bangladeshi friends to serve the interests of Americans and the large Bangladeshi American community which is a robust part of American society.
Rehabilitate Rohingyas in Myanmar
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has renewed her call to the international community, including the United States, to help Bangladesh rehabilitate Rohingyas in their homeland of Myanmar.
She also put emphasis on immediate repatriation of them and said Myanmar should take their citizens back.
"We want immediate repatriation of the Rohingyas and the world community, including the United States, should help rehabilitate them in their homeland of Myanmar," she told the US Secretary of State.
PM's Press Secretary Ihsanul Karim briefed reporters after the meeting with US Deputy Secretary of State at her official residence Ganobhaban.
Stephen Beigun said the United States also wants a permanent solution to the protracted Rohingya crisis. "We'll continue to extend our support to Bangladesh on this issue," Karim quoted Beigun as saying.
The Prime Minister mentioned that over 1.1 million forcibly displaced Rohingya nationals are living in Bangladesh at the moment, which is an extra burden on the country.
"The problem has been created by Myanmar and we're holding dialogue with them ... they should take their citizens back," she said.
Sheikh Hasina said the Rohingya issue is a social problem, and a large number of the displaced Myanmar nationals are living at camps in Cox's Bazar.
"Some quarters could mislead them to be involved in anti-social activities. So, we need their immediate repatriation to their homeland," she said.
Responding to a question, the US Secretary of State said the US will continue to support to find a permanent solution to the Rohingya crisis.
The United States has been quite outspoken and used its political influence as much as possible to influence decisions inside Myanmar regarding the treatment and restoration of rights of these people.
"But this requires a regional and a global response. All countries need to work together shoulder to shoulder," said the US Deputy Secretary of State.
Of course, this is not simply the responsibility of the government of Bangladesh, as generous as that government has been.
"This is a global priority and one that every major country in the Indo-Pacific should be speaking with equal outspokenness to the government of Myanmar to take the steps necessary to ease this crisis," he said.
The US side agreed with the government of Bangladesh that a solution needs to be found to restore the rights and right of return of people who are currently in the refugee camps here in Bangladesh.
Meanwhile, State Minister Shahriar Alam conveyed thanks for USA’s principled stance and steadfast humanitarian and diplomatic support to Bangladesh in dealing with the Rohingya crisis.
Beigun appreciated the generosity shown by Bangladesh to shelter Rohingyas and assured to continue US support in bringing a peaceful and long-term solution to the problem.
The Bangladesh side raised the Rohingya repatriation issue and laid emphasis on quick repatriation of Rohingyas to their place of origin in Rakhine State.
The US reiterated its commitment to work to resolve the Rohingya crisis.
They intend to engage themselves in this effort after the national election of Myanmar in November, said the State Minister.
Tributes to Bangabandhu
On October 15, the US Deputy Secretary of State paid tribute to Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
He visited Bangabandhu Memorial Museum at Dhanmondi 32 and placed a wreath at the portrait of Bangabandhu.
The visiting US Deputy Secretary of State signed visitors' book kept there after paying homage to Bangabandhu.
"The United States is proud to be a partner, and a friend, as it prepares to celebrate the 50th anniversary of its founding, and celebrates 100 years since the birth of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. We look forward to the next 50 years and beyond towards a strong, independent and prosperous Bangladesh that would make Bangabandhu proud," he wrote.
He was received, and given a tour of the museum, by the Curator of Bangabandbu Memorial Museum N. I. Khan.
The US Ambassador to Bangladesh Earl Miller and Special Assistant to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Barrister Shah Ali Farhad were also present.
"Self-confessed killer Rashed is residing in the USA. The US shouldn't be the home for murderers," the Foreign Minister said adding that the US Attorney General is looking into the issue.
Biegun has assured Bangladesh of extending cooperation in repatriating Rashed Chowdhury, the killer of Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman living in the USA, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
State Minister Shahriar Alam raised the issue with the US Deputy Secretary of State during their meeting and sought support from the United States in repatriating killer Rashed Chowdhury.
Last July, US portal POLITICO reported that Rashed Chowdhury might lose his current protection and face deportation from the US. It reported that US attorney general William Barr had quietly reopened the case of his asylum in June, and made the case that there could have been no other reason other than to send him back as a favour to the government.
“It’s purely a favor the Trump administration is doing for Bangladesh,” it quoted Marc Van Der Hout, a lawyer for Rashed Chowdhury, as saying. “And the question is, why are they doing it?”
Bangladesh’s government has for years been open about its efforts to persuade the US to extradite Chowdhury—whom it calls a cold-blooded assassin. And there’s no question it will be delighted by Barr’s move, said the report based on exclusive interviews and legal documents reviewed by POLITICO.
Bangladesh, on a number of occasions, urged the United States to send back Rashed Chowdhury, now staying in the US with political asylum.
"I urged him (US Ambassador) to send Rashed Chowdhury back," Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen told reporters after one of his several meetings with the US Ambassador to Bangladesh Earl R Miller at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs last year. Momen said he informed the US envoy that the USA used to bring back their convicted fugitives from other countries. Following the US path, he said, Bangladesh wants to bring back the fugitive self-confessed killer (Rashed) who had been convicted by a court under a free judicial trial. The foreign minister referred that earlier the USA deported Mohiuddin Ahmed, another convicted killer of Bangabandhu, to Bangladesh.
“There is no doubt in my mind that this is a foregone conclusion,” Van Der Hout told POLITICO. “He’s doing the recertification and asking for briefs on this for appearance only. There’s no reason that he would have reopened this case if not to overturn the BIA (Board of Immigration Appeals, which granted Chowdhury asylum)) decision.”
Shahriar Alam also stressed the resumption of visas for Bangladeshi students going for studying in the US in the next Spring session.
Beigun said they are actively considering the resumption of this service at the US Embassy following appropriate health guidelines.
The State Minister hoped that both the countries will work together to restart Biman flights to New York.
The whole range of bilateral political and economic relations between Bangladesh and US including trade, investment, public health cooperation, agriculture and energy cooperation were discussed at length.
Principal Secretary to Prime Minister, Executive Chairman of BIDA, Chairman BEZA, Foreign Secretary, Commerce Secretary, CEO of Public Private Partnership and other senior officials attended the meeting.
Adviser for Private Industry and Investment to Prime Minister of Bangladesh Salman F Rahman was also present during the second segment of the meeting.
Both sides emphasised the need for close cooperation between the governments of the United States and Bangladesh to address the continually evolving challenges related to health and economy during the current and post-Covid-19 global pandemic situation.
During the meeting, Beigun also highlighted the productive discussion that took place in the last consultation on economic partnership in September and hoped that the two countries can build upon that in the days to come.
The Bangladesh side expressed condolences for the loss of lives in the USA and appreciated the support provided by the USA to Bangladesh in handling the Covid-19 pandemic.
The United States looks forward to Bangladesh participating in the upcoming Indo-Pacific Business Forum, an opportunity for them to continue discussions on economic cooperation on a bilateral and multilateral basis.
There is a perception that the US is worried about China's growing presence in the region. During a media roundtable with a select group of journalists in a city hotel, a journalist wanted to know from the US Deputy Secretary of State whether the US sees China's growing presence as a threat. But there was no direct answer to that question. However, the US made it clear that they are keen about deepening economic ties with Bangladesh with more investment. If that's the intention, Bangladesh is ready to engage deeply with the US.