We're Live Bangla Wednesday, June 07, 2023

US engagement in Indo-Pacific not against any country: Miller

US Won't Lose Focus On Rohingya Crisis; Asks Myanmar To Create Conditions For Safe Repatriation

US Ambassador to Bangladesh Earl R Miller Photo: Collected

US Ambassador to Bangladesh Earl R Miller has said their engagement in the Indo-Pacific is not against any country and it is not designed to make anyone to choose between countries, noting that the US is not seeking a new Cold War or a world divided into rigid blocks.

While delivering his keynote speech at a virtual dialogue hosted by Cosmos Foundation, he said Bangladesh is a sovereign independent nation that decides itself what organization or partnership it chooses to join.

"The United States wants Bangladesh to succeed. We seek to grow the US-Bangladesh partnership because we believe it's in the best interest of both our people," said Ambassador Miller.

The Ambassador said their engagement in the Indo-Pacific is about advancing an optimistic vision that they have their participation and partnership in the region.

Cosmos Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the Cosmos Group, hosted the dialogue titled "Bangladesh-US Relations: Prognosis for the Future" as part of its ongoing Ambassadors' Lecture Series.

The opening remarks were delivered by Cosmos Foundation Chairman Enayetullah Khan. The session was chaired by Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury, a renowned scholar-diplomat and former Advisor on Foreign Affairs of Bangladesh Caretaker Government.

Distinguished Fellow & Board Member at Bangladesh Enterprise Institute (BEI) Ambassador Farooq Sobhan, President of Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies (BIPSS) Major Gen (Retd) ANM Muniruzzaman, Honorary Advisor Emeritus, Cosmos Foundation Ambassador (Retd) Tariq A Karim and former Principal Secretary to PM Md Nojibur Rahman comprised the panel of discussants.

Ambassador Miller said they share the goal of building a more prosperous, secure and interconnected Indo-Pacific region.

The United States, he said, is ready to work with any nation that steps up and pursues peaceful resolution to address the challenges if they have intense disagreements in other areas.

"And we welcome the opportunity to work with our regional partners to create a prosperous path towards a shared future based on freedom, good governance, respect for international law and transparency," he mentioned.

Enayetullah Khan said having had the opportunity to observe the relationship over the last 50 years, and seen it ebb and flow, or even at times standstill, "I myself remain convinced that the strongest tool we've in our combined armoury are the extensive people-to-people contacts."

He said direct government-to-government contact is of course helpful but these contacts over the years have always left something to be desired.

"Whether it's indifference on the part of some administrations in Washington, or Dhaka's inability to come to terms with the fact that Henry Kissinger is no longer crafting US foreign policy, governments I feel have always been confined in terms of how far they were willing to go," Khan said.

Dr Iftekhar Chowdhury highlighted the importance and significance of reviewing Bangladesh-US bilateral relations with a view to discussing how these could be widened and deepened further to mutual advantage.

With regard to the US, he said, Bangladesh is very much in that country's radar as a friend and partner.
As Bangladesh graduates out of the list of LDCs, Dr Iftekhar said, American support in obtaining market access will be critical in helping it grow and progress economically.

Bangladesh also must be able to learn to handle the complexities of dealing with America, he said, noting that the US is a unique system globally with many elements within that system both coordinate and compete with one another to contribute to policy making.

The challenge for Bangladesh's diplomacy is to be able to identify appropriate elements of desired outcome and engage them, Dr Iftekhar said.

Former Ambassador Farooq Sobhan highlighted Washington's deep concern and preoccupation currently with its relations with China, which in a sense, feeds into the QUAD, the Indo Pacific Strategy and more recently AUKUS.

"Where does a country like Bangladesh fit into this?" he said, adding that this will certainly appear to be a challenge for Bangladesh's diplomacy, as indeed, Bangladesh's ability to leverage its strengths in Washington.

Strategic Neutrality 

Maj Gen (Retd) Muniruzzaman said one of the cornerstones of the great relationship between Bangladesh and the USA, as the Ambassador has also mentioned, is the Indo-Pacific strategy, given by the United States and many of his allies around the world.

He said Bangladesh does believe in the key principles of the Indo-Pacific strategy, as it shares the vision of an open, free and secure Indo-Pacific.

"But at the same time, we'd also like to mention here that we want all our partners and friends to respect Bangladesh's position of strategic neutrality because we've got friends all around the world, in the regions and in other parts of the world, and we don't want any awful relationship which excludes others," said the analyst.

Strategically, Muniruzzaman said, Bangladesh is a key partner - not only on a regional scale but in the scale of the Indo-Pacific strategy and internationally.

"I would like to point out that very often we find that Bangladesh is viewed through the lens of India, and that's the approach that I strongly recommend should be avoided and Bangladesh should be viewed as all its own entity and on its all-geostrategic importance and its own position," he said.

Muniruzzaman said maritime cooperation is a key area for partnership as Bangladesh is a key strategic maritime nation. "We're a Bay of Bengal nation. We're an Indian Ocean nation. Bangladesh's strategic location provides a unique position and strength to Bangladesh as a key strategic access provider to the Bay of Bengal or access denial to the Bay of Bengal."

The security analyst said these are Bangladesh's strengths that must be fully explored and understood and therefore, joint cooperation should be brought around areas of the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean area.

He said Bangladesh should be partnering more effectively with the United States in building capacity and meeting the non-traditional security challenges and laid emphasis on cooperation in the areas of energy security, science and technology, R&D and cyber security.

Stating that Bangladesh is a key partner in the Indo-Pacific region due to its geographical location, noted diplomat Tariq Karim said, "We're at the epicentre of an Indo-Pacific that pre-existed before the advent of British Colonialism, even before any of the present powers thought about it."

He said Bangladesh was the connector between the western and eastern civilizations. "We're at heart and epics of the Bay of Bengal. That's why, in a sense, we facilitated this connectivity between the West and East."

In a sense, Tariq said, Bangladesh has no problem with the Indo-Pacific as a concept. "We've problems if we're forced to take sides with anyone against any other."

He said Bangladesh needs to maintain a positive or strategic neutrality in this regard as Switzerland has been doing in Europe.

The seasoned diplomat recalled that Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had also said on some occasions that Bangladesh would be the Switzerland of the East.

Switzerland is surrounded by all big powers all around it, but it has been a neutral power or a neutral state and has maintained this neutrality for over 200 years.

"That's perhaps the secret for Switzerland's survival not being absorbed by any of the big powers and Switzerland is becoming a major player in the global relations today," Tariq Karim observed.

Therefore, he said, they are with the Indo-Pacific but not against the BRI or any other such groupings coming up where economic and human developments are the core areas defined. 

"We're with the BRI, but not against the Indo-Pacific because we aren't taking sides with anyone against the other. In a sense, we're probably redefining or reimaging the non-alignment. I call it a positive non-alignment rather than abstaining completely from the hands of non-alignment," Tariq opined.

On security cooperation, Miller said the United States and Bangladesh have shared common interests that make them natural security partners.

"We want to build a flexible, resilient network of security partners to promote regional stability, advance maritime security and freedom of navigation and address shared challenges throughout the region," he said.

To that end, Miller said, they are expanding security cooperation with allies and partners like Bangladesh, mostly focused on maritime security, humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, peacekeeping operations and countering transnational crime.

Rohingya Crisis

Ambassador Miller who visited Rohingya camps many times said the United States will not lose focus on the Rohingya and they will continue to support Bangladesh and try to resolve it as soon as possible.

"We continue to call on the government of Burma (Myanmar) to create conditions for the safe, voluntary and dignified return of all refugees based on their informed consent," he said.

To ensure a high-level engagement, Miller said, they continue to urge all actors in Myanmar to play constructive roles in resolving the crisis, restoring the rule of law immediately.

He called for granting unhindered humanitarian and media access, guaranteeing those who voluntarily choose to return to their places of origin are able to do so in safety and dignity and addressing the root causes of conflict in Rakhine State.
"We also call for accountability for those responsible for crimes against this vulnerable population," Miller said.

He said, "One of my great regrets, as US Ambassador, is that not a single Rohingya refugee has had the chance to return home over the past years indeed, since the start of this great crisis."

Trade and Investment

Ambassador Miller said American businesses want to invest in countries that operate transparently, uphold the rule of law and protect individual rights, and they are watching developments in Bangladesh.

He said progress in these areas will protect the country's long-term growth and stability. "There's a growing list of very successful US investments in Bangladesh."

While significant progress has been made in improving the safety of garment factories in recent years, he said, several key issues, especially on labour rights remain unaddressed.

"The US government takes these seriously. We fund efforts to improve labour rights as well as occupational safety and health in the RMG sector, with international partners, civil society businesses, and the government of Bangladesh," Miller said.

He said they want to work together on trade, investment and commerce for sustainable and broadly shared economic prosperity that opens new markets for American businesses.

"We're your biggest economic fan," he said, adding that it is also important to remember that weak institutions and corruption and poor human rights conditions drive away private sector investment.