The US is optimistic about deepening ties with Bangladesh as the country's exports to American markets have maintained a robust growth while investors are looking to widen their footprint in the South Asian nation, US Ambassador Earl R Miller said.
"The bilateral relationship between Bangladesh and the US is beyond business relations because of the country's geopolitical location," he said during an interview with The Daily Star recently.
He said Bangladesh's exports would continue to grow to the US markets despite the transition of the government as Washington sees the country as one of the major trading partners.
"The changeover in power in the US will not affect bilateral trade and investment. I think our engagement will grow across the board," Miller said.
The US is the largest export destination of Bangladesh, with the world's biggest economy importing more than $6 billion worth of goods every year. Of the goods, more than 90 per cent are apparel items.
The shipment to the American market is a little less this year because of the fallouts of the coronavirus pandemic.
Miller was sworn in as the US ambassador to Bangladesh in November 2018. He served as his country's envoy to the Republic of Botswana from 2014 to 2018.
During the interview, he shared the latest position of the US markets and the generalised system of preferences (GSP), US investors' interest in Bangladesh, the growing student enrollment in American universities, Bangladesh's economic growth and private sector development.
"The relationship between the two countries is strengthening because of the interest in what is happening in the country," he said.
The economic growth that is happening in the country, US investors should visit here to see by themselves, he said.
In September, a group of American investors held a meeting on investment in Bangladesh with local investors and Salman F Rahman, prime minister's adviser on private industry and investment.
Some issues on investment and strengthening of bilateral trade and relations were discussed, the envoy said. Since the meeting, some US companies have been contacting the embassy for investment.
US companies like Chevron have been expanding in Bangladesh. At Chevron, 90 per cent of employees are Bangladeshis.
Similarly, US company Coca-Cola has a plan to invest $200 million in Bangladesh over the next five years, and Oracle opened its own office in Dhaka in March.
"Many more US companies are coming to invest in agro-processing, information and communications technology, energy and power, LNG and even in dredging of rivers," Miller said.
The diplomat said Bangladesh has a young entrepreneurial workforce, the economy is growing, and there is a potential consumer base of 170 million people.
The companies that are already in Bangladesh are interested in expansion.
The American Chamber of Commerce in Bangladesh (AmCham) is active. "We have regular phone calls for possible investment from US investors."
The growing interest of the US is also noticed in the enrollment of Bangladeshi students at American universities, he said.
Bangladesh has improved three notches to 17th this year from 20th last year in sending students to the US. "It is amazing," he said.
He praised the garment sector as many local factories were able to personal protective equipment (PPE) in such a short time and sent to retailers in the US.
The envoy also touched upon the business and investment climate in Bangladesh for foreign investors.
"When US companies look to invest, they are hungry to invest in a country that operates transparently, upholds the rule of law and protects intellectual property rights (IPR)."
Any weakened situation, corruption and poor human rights conditions are all risks for businesses and deter investment, prompting companies to look elsewhere, he said.
Level-playing field is essential for a foreign company, and it encourages them to invest here, Miller said.
"Bangladesh should improve its ranking in the Ease of Doing Business Index of the World Bank to attract more foreign investment," he said.
Bangladesh ranked 168th out of 190 countries in the latest edition of the index, up from 176th a year ago, the biggest climb in recent years.
Regarding the reinstatement of the GSP, the ambassador said the US Congress sets the preferential trade privilege eligibility.
"Bangladesh does not meet the criteria now," he said, adding that the criteria apply to IPR and internationally recognised labour rights.
The US government suspended the GSP status for Bangladesh in June 2013 after the Rana Plaza building collapse in April in the same year, citing poor labour rights and workplace safety.
Before the suspension of the GSP, Bangladesh used to export goods like dry fish, ceramics and tobacco items worth $24 million a month under the scheme.
Bangladesh has taken some steps to regain the GSP, but still, some workers face challenges to join in unions and the unions, the envoy said.
"Still, there is some form of unfair labour practices."
The US and Bangladesh met several times to discuss the progress on labour rights, and American trade experts are ready to provide guidance on the GSP criteria. "We will continue to do so," the envoy said.
He praised Bangladesh's steps towards protecting the labour rights and amendment to the labour law. However, US law prohibits GSP to most textile and leather goods worldwide.
Bangladesh is a very important partner under the US's Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy, which aims to facilitate the rule of law and peace and develop infrastructure in Asia and the Pacific, the envoy said.
He said Bangladesh is an active player in this area and the country needs to play an important role in international and regional.
Bangladesh will also be greatly benefited from the Indo-Pacific Strategy as the US government has a plan to invest billions of US dollars in infrastructure development under the initiative.
"The Indo-Pacific Strategy is not a counter to the Belt and Road Initiative of China. We can work together. The way we do that is multifaceted," Miller said.
Regarding the possibility of a duty reduction on the export of Bangladeshi goods to the US, the ambassador said the duty is usually reduced under the regional agreements like the African Growth and Opportunity Act and the Caribbean Basin Initiative.
Since the duty on exports of goods from Bangladesh to the US is calculated on the most-favoured-nation category, the structure of duty is higher for Bangladesh compared to other countries.
Bangladeshi exports, especially the garment items, face 15.62 per cent duty on shipment to the US. On the other hand, the shipment from the countries like China and Vietnam is charged way lower.
For instance, apparel items from China, the largest garment supplier to the world, face about 3 per cent duty in the US market.
The ambassador praised the growth of start-ups in Bangladesh. Over the last few years, Bangladesh has got a lot of young and talented start-ups in various sectors.
The US embassy has programmes to nurture start-ups.