Hillary’s Visit to Bangladesh: Trade, defence cooperation top agenda

By: Rezaul Karim

The USA is likely to push for a framework for defence cooperation between Dhaka and Washington during US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s May 5-6 visit to Bangladesh.

It will press for signing the much-talked-about Trade and Investment Cooperation Forum Agreement (Ticfa) and strategic partnership deals with Bangladesh.

Dhaka, however, wants to proceed with caution in respect of signing any deal with Washington, and it is not ready to ink any deal with Washington during Clinton’s 24-hour visit.

Duty-free and quota-free access of Bangladeshi apparel to the US market and deportation of Lt Col AM Rashed Chowdhury, condemned killer in Bangabandhu murder case, will figure prominently in the talks between the two sides.

Washington may offer stronger cooperation and partnership in gas exploration, and in power and energy sectors.

As part of her three-nation tour (Bangladesh, India and China), Clinton is expected to arrive in Dhaka at 4:00pm on May 5 and hold meetings with government high-ups, opposition leaders and civil society representatives to discuss US-Bangladesh cooperation in political, economic and security matters.

According to the draft programme schedule, on her arrival, she will first hold talks with her Bangladesh counterpart Dipu Moni at the foreign ministry. They will discuss political, security and economic cooperation between the two nations. The talks will be followed by a joint press conference.

Clinton will later call on Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and discuss a wide range of bilateral issues. The foreign minister will host a dinner in honour of the US Secretary of State.

On May 6, she will hold a meeting with the Leader of the Opposition Khaleda Zia, Nobel Laureate Prof Muhammad Yunus and civil society representatives. She is expected to leave Dhaka for Kolkata at about 3:30pm.

They said the top US diplomat would discuss with Dipu Moni the issue of the death of Aminul Islam, a leader of Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation, who was picked up and tortured to death allegedly by law enforcers.

International rights bodies strongly condemned the incident and demanded proper probe into his death.

Four US officials yesterday met high-ups at the foreign ministry and discussed issues relating to Clinton’s upcoming visit.

Sources said Clinton’s meeting with Khaleda will feature many issues including political repression and harassment, disappearance of political leaders, violation of human rights, the caretaker government and the next general election.

Diplomatic sources said her upcoming visit is very crucial and has a special significance in strengthening ties between the two nations.

They said the US that is still unhappy with Prof Yunus’ removal from Grameen Bank wants partnership with Bangladesh as it has special strategic importance to the USA in the present global and regional circumstances.

Officials at the foreign and the commerce ministries said Dhaka is yet to decide on signing the Ticfa agreement. It is still scrutinising the deal to figure out its future implications.

The Ticfa promises to protect investments, remove obstacles in bilateral trade and create a forum for discussing issues relating to trade and investment.

Although both the sides reached an understanding over the key issues laid down in the trade deal, Dhaka is yet to complete formalities to ink the agreement.

Similarly, no decision has been made about signing a “strategic partnership” or defence deal with Washington at this moment.

However, senior government officials said there wouldn’t be any big problem in completing all procedures to sign an agreement if both the governments wish so.

“In the past, we had completed procedures overnight. So, the possibility of signing agreements during Hillary Clinton’s visit cannot be ruled out,” said a government high-up.

Dhaka has proposed forming a joint commission to create a regular forum to discuss issues regarding security cooperation, said government officials.

Diplomatic sources said Washington wants more engagement with Dhaka in the area of security cooperation. The US believes that Bangladesh’s role is vital to maintaining security in the Bay of Bengal. Besides, it considers Bangladesh as an active partner in regional counterterrorism efforts, they said.

They said USA’s desire to enhance military engagement with Bangladesh is evident in the recent visits by US high-ups, including Andrew J Shapiro, US assistant secretary of state of Political-Military Affairs, and the first-ever Bangladesh-US Dialogue on Security Issues held in Dhaka on April 19.

On April 24, Shapiro said at the Carnegie Endowment Roundtable in Washington, DC that defence ties between the USA and Bangladesh are one of the most robust in South Asia.

“Bangladesh is a key player in maintaining security in the Bay of Bengal. They are an active partner in regional counterterrorism efforts and we are working to enhance their ability to respond to natural disasters,” he said.

“Our cooperation with Bangladesh is a prime example of how US security assistance can play a critically important role in our diplomatic engagement,” Shapiro said at the roundtable.

Diplomatic sources said the USA wants a “strategic partnership” deal with Bangladesh to create a regular forum to discuss issues like counterterrorism, food security, climate change and energy. But it is yet to put forward a formal proposal for signing such an agreement, they said.

Foreign ministry officials said the commerce ministry had sent the Ticfa draft to the Prime Minister’s Office for its opinion.

They said the ministry was of the opinion that the government should do an in-depth scrutiny of the Ticfa to know about its future implications and impacts.

“We [the foreign ministry) are not in favour of inking any deal hurriedly. But there are people in the government for signing agreements on trade and defence cooperation without delay to improve Bangladesh-US ties that suffered serious setbacks in recent times,” said a senior government official asking not to be named.

On December 1, last year, Dan Mozena, US ambassador in Dhaka, said at a press conference, “Washington wants to sign the trade agreement, which is moving forward, to create a forum for discussing full range of issues relating to trade and investment.”

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