Bangladesh comes into US focus on South Asia

US Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun, left, and Bangladesh‘s Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen at a press conference in Dhaka

The Unites States’ higher engagement with Bangladesh in recent times is part of its attempt to find partners for its Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS), especially aimed at countering China, according to an analysis by South China Morning Post.

However, the Hong Long-based newspaper says, other South Asian states want better relations with the US independent of its relations with India.

US Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun’s visit to Dhaka this past week was seen as part of Washington’s attempt to raise its visibility in South Asia, writes Pranay Sharma in the analysis titled “As US hones its Indo-Pacific strategy, South Asian nations come into focus”.

The visit took place, the analyst adds, “at a time when China has increased engagement with countries in the region through its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, which promises billions of dollars of investments in infrastructure projects, as well as enhanced trade and defence ties.”

Biegun’s thee-day stay in Dhaka, following US Defence Secretary Mark Esper’s phone conversation with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in September, shows America’s enthusiasm for Bangladesh’s geographical location. “The US sees Bangladesh as a key partner in the Indo-Pacific region,” Biegun was quoted to have said.

Usually, high-level visits from Washington to Dhaka in the past have typically taken place just before US presidential elections, the Post quoted Shahab Enam Khan, professor of international relations at Jahangirnagar University, as saying. Then-US Secretary of State John Kerry came in August 2016, his predecessor Hillary Clinton visited in May 2012, and now Biegun, barely a fortnight before the November election.

The context of Biegun’s visit – aside from the current US administration trying to win the support of the 200,000-plus Bangladeshi-Americans, who are traditionally Democratic Party supporters – had more to do with finding partners for Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy. “Certainly, counterbalancing China would be the rules of engagement,” Khan was quoted to have said.

According to the Post, Biegun’s visits are part of a larger trend in US policy to engage with not just India in South Asia, but also with other smaller countries in the region.

Ashley J Tellis, Tata Chair for Strategic Affairs at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, was said to have explained that the US aim is to build strong partnerships with all the key South Asian states as a complement to the deepening ties the US has with India.

Although both the US and India have made common cause to meet the challenges posed by Beijing’s growing presence in the region, the other South Asian nations don’t want their relationship with Washington seen only through the prism of US-India ties, the Post observed.

“The smaller South Asian states want better relations with the United States independent of India’s relations with the US and also independent of India’s relations with them,” Tellis was quoted to have said.❐

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