In Bangladesh, the US ambassador enjoys a seemingly prophetic status, who with a mere diplomatic statement shakes the hearts of many politicians. While many dismiss the ambassador's statements, others ascribe them considerable merit. One might expect politicians in Bangladesh, a nation with a full grasp of 21st-century information technology and 48 years of experience in diplomatic rhetoric, to be adept solvers of interest equations of different countries or analysers of geopolitical trends. Yet it remains common for leaders of the two largest parties to openly base their hopes and frustrations on the latest comments from the US ambassador in the media.
Often, the disadvantaged party will react in the most alarming way, and in the name of diplomatic solutions start knocking on the doors of diplomats in the naïve hope of solving some of Bangladesh's biggest internal crises. All of this begs the question, where does Bangladesh fall in the geopolitical landscape, and how important is Bangladesh to the policies of the US and its allies? Fresh insights to these questions may boost the collective political wisdom of all competing parties.
The foreign policy of the United States under Donald Trump has shifted dramatically from the long-held status quo. Originally an isolationist republic, the US has since established itself as the global hegemon. Critics of traditional US foreign policy, such as Noam Chomsky, argue the US has forcefully established a geopolitical landscape that suits American business interests.
American colonialism evolved from prior European mercantilism into the forced liberalisation of global markets, with a torrid history of guerrilla warfare and support of revolutionaries to depose of implacable governments, all justified under the guise of anti-terrorism. For nearly a century, it's been a reliable axiom that US foreign policy remains consistent, regardless of the elected government. Republicans and Democrats alike are expected to unequivocally support foreign allies such as Japan, South Korea, and Israel.
The geopolitical landscape has shifted in the past two years of Donald Trump's term. The US president and his highly unsure administrative coterie announced an alternative foreign policy, claiming past foreign policies have portrayed America as “weak and soft.” Regarding friends and foes, Trump has stated a belief in “no permanent ally” and “no owes to its current allies,” leaving many of its decades-long East Asian allies guessing. Specifically, he stated the US will not protect Japan and South Korea forever because the nation can't afford it. This narrowly defined national interest marks a departure from “America first” to “America only”. Trump focuses on US short-run financial interests, a narrow perspective devoid of the values like democracy and liberty that America at least purported to treasure in the past.
Trump clearly evaluates foreign affairs in economic terms. Nothing exhibits this more clearly than his beloved trade war. Under President Trump, America has waged economic war to level its trade gap with China to USD 200 billion from the current USD 370 billion. Upon entering office, Trump enacted a 25 percent tariff policy on the USD 34 billion worth of Chinese imports. The figure under tariff is now a staggering USD 250 billion worth of import from China. Many have criticised the president's trade war as reckless and economically short-sighted. Whether the president's trade war is poor “zero-sum” economics or appropriately hard-ball negotiating is the subject of debate. In either case, it's clear the economy will be at the heart of US foreign policy for at least the next two years, while the fight on terrorism as he dispassionately said will “maintain a status quo”. No wonder, Donald Trump earned his fame as a businessman!
The US-China trade war represents a drastic shift in US foreign policy and a rare window of opportunity for Bangladesh. The most critical question Bangladesh faces is how it fits into this renewed “Trump America” especially the US-China trade war? As things currently stand, trade between the US and Bangladesh was a 4.2 billion-dollar surplus in 2017 for Bangladesh, an insignificant amount for the nearly 20 trillion-dollar US economy. The key industry in US-Bangladesh trade relation is ready-made garments (RMG). Bangladesh ranks fifth among the RMG exporters to the US (roughly 5 percent of US apparel import). China is currently the biggest exporter of RMG and Textile to the US supplying 33.7 percent of total US imports.
If the escalating trade war results in tariffs on Chinese apparel, the American economy will need to fill the void, from alternative sources. In this respect, Vietnam, India, Mexico, Bangladesh, and Pakistan all stand to gain from the trade war. As long as Bangladesh supplies price competitive apparel to the US, US foreign policy should consider Bangladesh an ally. This conclusion may seem at odds with Obama's GSP suspension and Trump's continuation of that suspension. But, as rightly pointed out by the commerce minister of Bangladesh, GSP is slowly becoming irrelevant for Bangladesh since Bangladesh is progressing fast to become a middle-income country.
Given the burgeoning economy of Bangladesh and the US tensions with China, there may be an opportunity for Bangladesh to achieve the economic-ally status of Malaysia and Singapore. The only other US foreign policy issues that are pertinent for Bangladesh include fighting terrorism and fighting potential global powers. And the war is significantly different across the geography. Trump's protectionist view toward Israel or Taiwan is not at all comparable to what seems to be a drowsy look at South Asia. The version of terror on war in South Asia is complicated because of the region's complicated interest equations.
On the one hand, US is determined to wipe and thwart Islamist terrorism for which the most potential geography could be Pakistan and Afghanistan but, on the other, US has not yet totally come out of its Cold War era affair with Pakistan. Therefore, fighting terrorism with a partner like Pakistan is becoming increasingly hard for the US. The problem is, US has never been in a comfortable relationship with India either. The United States is an unreliable power, and India is a reluctant partner. Starting from the US support to India's border conflict against China in 1956 to impose sanctions for Indian's nuclear weapons programme in 1998, the relationship has been a turbulent journey. During the Liberation War of Bangladesh, the geometric measure of the relationship was a 180 degree where a Cold War orchestra was staged and America's so-called values for human rights were proven hypocritical.
But, since then the relationship dwindled pretty much between good and bad. It is a story of confusion and hesitation which Narendra Modi in his 2016 address in American Congress hoped that both the democracy, one is the largest and the other is the strongest, according to Modi, can “shrug off” and look forward. Though many seem to be quite a sceptical about such high voltage rhetoric by statesmen, Trump sounded extremely welcoming to that proposition. Trump, recalling his election campaign, said that he had pledged true friendship with India. “I pledged that if elected, India would have a true friend in the White House.” Though Trump believes in no permanent friendship, these dialogues and impending actions of the US like backing India up in its dream to become a security council member may mean a favourable interest equation for Indians in this region.
Therefore, the interest equation of US in the sub-continent is a sum of three factors: i) Continued distance and distrust with Pakistan; ii) A passionate trade and influence war with China; and iii) a firm and unconfused relationship with India.
Where is Bangladesh in this equation? Bangladesh's recent close and benefitting relationship with India which has its root established during its liberation is a meaningful relationship both countries want to focus on. India would certainly want to continue it and the US under the light of its recent policies will certainly want India to be on their side in its stated war against China and terror. As a result, India's position regarding its closest neighbour Bangladesh will continue to matter to US foreign policy even if it means a sharp divergence from the US foreign policy values like human rights and democratic ideals which according to Trump administration is a distraction from its core ideals of influence and strength in foreign policy.
To conclude: the US is happy to see a stable Bangladesh economy. Regarding terrorism and war on influence, Bangladesh hardly matters to US foreign policy and the recent geopolitical trend suggests that the Trump administration respects India's say on the matter more than ever.
Within the geopolitics of the US-China trade war, Bangladesh is well positioned to use the “America First” foreign policy to its own benefit. Politicians in Bangladesh should carefully consider what steps might be taken to solidify this advantageous relationship with US trade in this strange time and political landscape in which the US is an unpredictable ally.
Sohel Rana and Alex Ingulsrud, are pursuing their Master of Public Policy (MPP) degree at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities with a focus on global policy. Sohel also works for the government of Bangladesh as an Assistant Secretary in the Ministry of Public Administration and is currently in the US on deputation.