Renewed US interest in South Asia: Impact on Bangladesh

Ron Chepesiuk

South Asia contains more than a billion people or a fifth of the world population and its population growth is one of the world's highest. It's a region of the world in which two big and very dissimilar countries with nuclear weapons often have sharp disagreements.

For these facts alone, what happens in South Asia should be important for the US foreign policy. Yet in reality, until the events of 9-11 and the President George Bush's 'subsequent declaration of war on terror, South Asia has never been a priority on the US foreign policy agenda. During the Cold War, the region stood on the periphery of the US' efforts to contain Soviet power and expansion. Americans, moreover, have historically paid little attention to developments in South Asia, viewing the region as some exotic, if not strange, place on the other side of the world.

In this context, the US relations with India and Pakistan, South Asia's two biggest powers, remained cool during the twentieth century. In an Asia Society report titled “South Asia and the United States after the Cold War”, Satu Limaye summed up the US -South Asia relationship as one that has “vacillated between close embrace and uneasy distance.” Limaye put most of the blame for this inconsistent policy on the US, whose interests, he noted, “have risen and fallen, often abruptly with Cold War cycles, leaving an impression in South Asia of US fickleness, if not as time betrayal.”

As for Bangladesh, its relationship with Uncle Sam got off to a rocky start in the decade after its founding. The US supported Pakistan in Bangladesh's war of independence and many Bangladeshis couldn't help but have a negative image of Uncle Sam. Relations didn't begin to change until the visits to Washington in the early 1980s of Bangladesh presidents Ziaur Rahman and Hussain Mohammed Ershad. The US subsequently became a major donor to Bangladesh, and US agencies began operating a wide variety of development projects in Bangladesh that worked to further such worthy initiatives as reducing population growth and increasing agricultural production.

Several developments in the 1990s and early 21st century have helped to strengthen the US-Bangladesh relationship. In 1991 Bangladesh participated in the US led Gulf War coalition against Iraq. In the same year, a US naval task force helped Bangladesh recover from a devastating March cyclone. According to the US State Department, “the relief efforts of US troops are credited with having saved as many as 200,000 lives.” Visits to Bangladesh by high ranking US officials in the early 21st century, including the first ever by a sitting president (Bill Clinton) in March 2000, further boosted relations. They said the right things. Former US Secretary of State Colin Powell said on his visit to Bangladesh in 2003, “Bangladesh's democracy, Bangladesh's economic progress, Bangladesh's friendship and the Bangladesh people do matter to us (the US).” By 2004 the US had provided more than $43 billion in food and development assistance to Bangladesh.

The traumatic events of 9-11 were a wake-up call for the US. Although the Bush administration's penchant for unilateralism may suggest otherwise, the world's sole super power now realises that events in a seemingly far away region like South Asia can affect its security and economic interests. In July 2003 Mary Peters, the then US ambassador to Bangladesh, noted that the developments of September 11, 2001, had made counter terrorism a new key factor for US policy in South Asia. She explained, “These terrible attacks sharpened our focus and put South Asia on the counter terrorism map. Counter terrorism is bound to remain a focus of the U.S.'s South Asia policy for the foreseeable future.”

Given this development, much of the U.S.'s attention has been focused on Pakistan, its ally and strategic partner on the front lines of the War on Terrorism. The US is committed big-time to providing security assistance to Pakistan that will strengthen its ability to fight the war on terrorism and economic assistance to help the country combat poverty and reform public education and health care services so as to negate the root causes of extremism. Christine Rocca, Assistant Secretary for South Asian Affairs, said that the US intends to move forward with the sale of F-16 fighter aircraft to Pakistan. “This sale sends a clear signal of our determination to stand by Pakistan for the long haul,” she explained. The other prime object of Uncle Sam's attention will be India, the emerging economic giant. That's a fact of foreign policy life with which Bangladesh, as well as the other countries of South Asia (Nepal,

Sri Lanka, Bhutan, and Maldives Islands) will have to live.
Last March, the US announced its plan to help India become a major power in the twenty-first century. Rocca told the House International Relations Subcommittee for Asia and the Pacific last June what's in for the US and India. “We are supporting India as it moves forward with financial, trade, energy, water and agricultural reform designed to assist and elevate India's impressive rate of growth and reduce poverty,” she said. “Reforms in these areas would allow pursuit of new opportunities with the US in a variety of high tech fields and would allow Indian consumers a greater choice of goods and services.” Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's visit to Washington last July marked a watershed in US-Indo relations.

The US also sees India undertaking regional responsibilities commensurate with its growing power - for example, helping Nepal and Sri Lanka deal with their political problems. The strengthening of US-Indo bilateral relations will have implications for Bangladesh and other countries in South Asia. The Bush administration, for example, has shown support for India's nuclear ambitions, and this will certainly make Pakistan uneasy. China could also view the US's determination to help India become a major world power as a threat to its influence in Asia.

So where does Bangladesh fit in the US' post 9-11 South Asia foreign policy? One would think that Bangladesh would merit significant attention, given the Bush administration's stated goals of spreading democracy and encouraging moderation in Muslim world. Bangladesh is certainly democratic and moderate when compared to the Jordan, Egypt, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the U.S.'s other allies in the Muslim world.

But the fact is, ever since Bangladesh's independence in 1971, the US has not considered Bangladesh of strategic importance. This attitude has filtered down to the body politic. Ask some Americans what images come to mind when they think of Bangladesh, as I did recently, and they will most likely say flooding or some other mega disaster, which is about the only time Bangladesh makes the news here in the US.

Bangladesh is a US ally located in a region important to US foreign policy, and it is the world's fourth largest Muslim nation with a sizeable population of about 141 million. But this means nothing when it comes to coverage in the US media. For instance, American television had zero coverage of the recent bombings that terrorized Bangladesh. I had to access the Daily Star web site to learn about the shocking event. About the only thing that will probably change this state of affairs is a couple of reports in the major media about how Bangladesh may be becoming a base for international terrorism.

The US has praised Bangladesh for its support against international terrorism and its role in UN peacekeeping operations. Yet while Bangladesh has been a reliable ally, Uncle Sam should not take for granted that Bangladesh will continue to be democratic and offer a moderate alternative to Taliban or Wahabi like fundamentalism.

That doesn't appear likely, given recent US government statements. Last March the US. State Department expressed concern that problems of corruption, lawlessness, poor governance and political violence plague Bangladesh and impede its economic growth. The department also noted that, “poverty, lack of education and endemic corruption combined with porous borders and a lack of public faith in elected government has increased the appeal of radicalism.”

The US has helped by putting development programs in place that aim to strengthen Bangladesh's democratic institutions. For instance, the US has pledged to make $1.5 million to Bangladesh to help ensure that the forthcoming national elections are fair and democratic.

American influence and money, however, can only go so far. It can, for example, encourage the Bangladesh government to establish an Anti Corruption Commission, but it's up to the country's elected leaders to compel the Commission to take action and show that corruption has no place in the country's future. Working to improve its governance, not relying on foreign development programmes, is the best way for a country to negate the growth of violent fundamentalism.

The author is Daily Star columnist and a visiting professor of journalism at Chittagong University and a research associate with the National Defence College in Dhaka.

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