Vol. 4 Num 76 Mon. August 11, 2003  

Does TIFA spell trouble?
Unilateral move may cause domestic instability
As time nears to the signing of a Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) with the USA, one hears more about what it stands for and how is it going to affect lives of our people. Outwardly, TIFA carries the odour of a purely commercial undertaking, but it isn't sans political ramifications.

Of the three most populated Muslim nations, Bangladesh is the one (the other two are Indonesia and Pakistan) with a stable democracy, pluralistic political infrastructure, laissez faire economy and devoid of ethno-religious tensions. The US' post 9/11 political inclination hence finds Bangladesh as an ideal Muslim partner for multifarious collaborations amid a barrage of accusations relating its lowest trade interactions with the Muslim world.

While visiting Dhaka last week, US' assistant trade representative for South Asia, Ashley Wills, seemed to have acknowledged this fact. While conversing with the Bangla Daily Prothom Alo, Wills maintained, "Bangladesh plays important roles in the WTO among the Least Developed Countries (LDCs)."

He was however less optimistic of Dhaka's prospect for success in obtaining duty free access of a basket of goods into US market, unless-- as he sees it-- the proposed Middle East Trade and Investment Act is passed by the Congress. Wills advised Dhaka to lobby with the Congress to get the bill passed.

Trade concessions do constitute an integral part of every bilateral and multilateral trade agreement. Yet, the US expects Dhaka to play a constructive role in the WTO too-- by bridging perceptions among the LDC members and the US.

While Dhaka might resort to such undertakings on US' behalf, it must not be unmindful of its commitment to upholding the WTO regulations in sofar as they relate to the legal requirements of the TIFA-like bilateral instruments.

Interestingly, Wills did not conceal his observation on India's regional trading pattern with her neighbours. "US trades more with India's neighbours than does India", he commented.

He also hinted of the US' resolve to get the stalled gas export and the container port building issues through. The first will allow US energy companies to regain invested bucks sooner if the extracted gas finds a major buyer in the region. The second will make available a modern port facility in the Indian ocean littoral and increase US' leverage for enhanced economic and military relationships in the region, including with India's North Eastern states.

These are issues that had hovered over our political horizon ever since the AL failed to respond positively to the signing of the US-proposed Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). The gas export and container port building bids too faced opposition from the AL in particular.

Days ago, the AL threatened of incessant strikes if the BNP consented to gas exporting in compliance with the US desire. Besides the AL, people too seem to think that the US is asking for too much too soon from a nation that finds such issues too important to be rushed about and handled cavalierly.

Hence, unless the government and its main opposition come to a consensus on how to meet US's trade and investment demands, any unilateral move of the government to sign the TIFA may act as a potent recipe for domestic instability.