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Why US official Donald Lu 'embraced' Bangladesh with open arms, pledged support

By Sufian Siddique* 

In the midst of rapidly shifting geopolitical dynamics, US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Donald Lu visited Bangladesh for two days from January 14 to January 15. There was massive propaganda in the media regarding this visit given Lu’s controversial role in the region, especially in Pakistan, Nepal, and Sri Lanka, which has created a negative image of him. In the media, there were speculations that Lu would apply the same "coercive" diplomatic method in Bangladesh.
But considering the aspects of the visit, it is worth mentioning here that it is rated as a very successful visit among diplomatic circles. It has provided an opportunity to cement the traditional ties as well as understand each other through face-to-face contact and dispel misconceptions harboured by both parties. 
When Lu embraced Bangladesh with open arms and pledged the Biden administration's ongoing support and cooperation for all future undertakings in Bangladesh, all outlets spreading negativism were disappointed.
This is the second high-profile visit by a US official in a week after the US National Security Council's Senior Director for South Asia, Rear Admiral Eileen Laubacher, who came to Dhaka on January 7 for a four-day visit. 
Although Lu visited several countries in the region, this was his first solo visit to Dhaka. It is worth mentioning that Lu has been working in the US administration for three decades, and his role is very important in the decision-making of the US State Department.
As a result of his deep engagement and long list of priorities, Lu’s visit has several implications for Bangladesh. As part of his visit, he had separate meetings with Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen, State Minister for Foreign Affairs Md Shahriar Alam, and Foreign Secretary Masud Bin Momen on January 15. 
During the meetings, they discussed the entire gamut of bilateral and political issues of mutual priority between Bangladesh and the US. Both sides expressed satisfaction with the current good relations between Dhaka and Washington. In addition to continuing this trend, emphasis has been placed on exploring new ways to expand bilateral trade and mutual cooperation.
In the meetings, Lu has given a strong message to strengthen friendship with Bangladesh and discussed in detail a wide range of bilateral issues of mutual interest, including trade and investment, development cooperation, defense, security, the Indo-Pacific strategy, labor, human rights, and democracy. Also, the issues of humanitarian assistance, repatriation, and rehabilitation for the 10 lakh forcibly displaced Myanmar citizens in Bangladesh came up the discussion.
Referring to the tremendous socio-economic development of the country since its independence, Lu deeply appreciated Bangladesh's humanitarian gesture extended towards over a million Rohingyas. He also lauded Bangladesh's success in vaccinating the "entire targeted population." The US expressed its interest in working collectively in case of any such future crisis.
The visit comes more than a year after the US imposed sanctions on the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and seven of its former and current officials. Bangladesh has been trying to convince the US to withdraw the sanctions. During the visit, Donald Lu appreciated the "significant progress" made by the RAB in "respecting human rights" while performing its duties. 
Lu said they had a good discussion on RAB, and he referred to the recent statement by the Human Rights Watch that recognized "tremendous progress" in reducing extrajudicial killings. It shows that RAB is able to carry out its counterterrorism efforts and other important functions while respecting human rights.
According to diplomatic sources in Dhaka and Washington, both countries are in favour of advancing relations by eliminating differences. Both sides are ready to advance relations based on democracy and human rights. The Bangladesh government will take into account the allegations of human rights violations against this force and make necessary reforms. 
Bangladesh has been demanding duty-free and quota-free access to the US market since 2013. But until now, Bangladesh has not gotten this facility, which the US provides to 46 countries. Besides, Bangladesh has also been waiting to get GSP benefits since 2013, which have been suspended by the US government. 
Lu referred to recent statement by Human Rights Watch that recognized tremendous progress in reducing extrajudicial killings
Lu said that his country is working very closely with Bangladesh regarding the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) facilities. He confirmed that if the GSP is relaunched, Bangladesh would be the first country on the list.
Bangladesh's significance in the Bay of Bengal region and the US's special focus on the Indo-Pacific region have created a new area for cooperation. This opens up an opportunity for Bangladesh to focus on its naval capabilities and blue economy. 
The US has expressed its desire to allocate more resources and more attention to the Indo-Pacific, including Bangladesh. During the visit, both sides had a very open discussion regarding the Indo-Pacific strategy. Lu said, "It's just strategy; it's not a club." So,you don't join if you don't want to.
Lu discussed ways to strengthen the bilateral relationship, expand economic engagement, and go over the labour and human rights situation. The US is "committed" to continued cooperation with Bangladesh in its efforts to improve labour rights, he said.
Needless to say, Bangladesh and the US can strengthen cooperation based on mutual interests in the changing context of regional and global politics. Hence, top US officials, policymakers, and experts have occasionally visited Bangladesh over the past few years. In these engagements, a positive view of Bangladesh can be seen. It is easy to imagine that not only Bangladesh but also the US President himself give great importance to this bilateral relationship.
Emphasizing the long-standing relationship between Dhaka and Washington, Joe Biden had said Bangladesh's economic success in the last 50 years is an "extraordinary story." The US President had also said that as the US moves towards the opportunities and challenges ahead, his administration looks forward to working with Bangladesh to strengthen the relationship between the two countries.
It is clear that the line of relationship is moving upward, and thus it will remain an example of ever-expanding and growing cooperation. Undoubtedly, these regular top-level visits would play a significant role in consolidating the dynamism of contemporary ties. It is also true that every visit has room for improvement. 
It is not possible to explain the Dhaka-Washington relationship by focusing on any one specific event or topic. Indeed, the visit of Lu is positive and fruitful, and will act as a catalyst for closer coordination and cooperation on a host of issues including trade, investment, geopolitics, education, culture, health, energy, and so forth between the two countries based on democracy and human rights.
---
*Independent researcher and freelance columnist, Dhaka

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