US–Bangladeshi Partnership: Revisiting Historical And Current Dynamics – OpEd


On 14–15 May, the United States (US) Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Donald Lu visited Bangladesh, met with government leaders, representatives of the civil society, social media influencers and other Bangladeshis, and stated that Washington is willing to reset, rebuild and strengthen its decades-old partnership with Dhaka. This presents an appropriate context to revisit some positive dynamics of the US–Bangladeshi relations since the independence of the latter in 1971.

Economic Collaboration

During the Bangladeshi War of Independence, the US opposed the Bangladeshi independence movement owing to geopolitical calculations rooted in the Cold War. However, during the war, more than 9 million refugees from the erstwhile East Pakistan took shelter in India, and the Indian government was hard-pressed to accommodate the refugees. The US accorded $8.9 million ($69 million in 2024 value) for the Bengali refugees in India through the United Nations (UN), and thus, it was the foremost in providing financial aid for the refugees.

After the war, the US was quick to adjust to the new reality and emerged as the primary source of external aid for war-ravaged Bangladesh. By March 1973, the US had provided Bangladesh with $318 million in aid, surpassing the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and India, which were the main backers of Bangladesh during the war. In fact, since 1971, the US and the World Bank (where the US has the most voting power) collectively provided the largest amount of foreign aid to Bangladesh.

Also, the US has assisted Bangladesh in implementing health and economic development programs. For instance, the US Peace Corps deployed its personnel to Bangladesh for assisting the country’s health, education, community development and other sectors. Moreover, the US provided the country with food aid under Public Law 480 (PL 480). In 1984, the provision of US food aid to Bangladesh played a crucial role in averting a serious food crisis in the country. Thus, the US has been a crucial source of economic and food aid for Bangladesh for decades.

However, as Bangladesh steadily built up its economy to emerge as the 35th largest economy of the world, the pattern of US–Bangladeshi economic interactions shifted from aid to trade. At present, the US is the largest export market for Bangladeshi products and the largest source of foreign direct investment (FDI) in Bangladesh. In addition, it has surpassed Saudi Arabia as the largest source of remittances for Bangladesh.

Humanitarian Concord

The US has been one of the leading states in providing Bangladesh with humanitarian assistance, particularly during natural disasters. For instance, on 29–30 April 1991, Bangladesh was struck by a devastating cyclone (named Marian), which killed more than 139,000 people and made millions homeless. Following the cyclone, the US undertook a sea-based disaster relief operation, codenamed Operation Sea Angel, to assist the beleaguered country. During the operation, US troops provided Bangladeshi citizens with approximately 4,021.5 tons of relief supplies and 266,000 gallons of purified water, as well as treated some 15,000 Bangladeshis. Similarly, following the cyclone Sidr on 15 November 2007, US troops conducted a similar disaster response operation in Bangladesh, dubbed Operation Sea Angel II.

In addition, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the US was the largest source of COVID-19 vaccines for Bangladesh. In fact, Bangladesh was the largest recipient of US-donated vaccines under the COVAX program. Under this initiative, the country received more than 114 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines free of cost. This helped the country substantially in implementing one of the world’s largest COVID-19 immunization program.

On its part, Bangladesh, with its limited capability, has been steadfast in providing similar kind of support to the US in dealing with humanitarian crises. For instance, the Eastern US was hit by hurricane Katrina, which killed some 1,392 US citizens and caused material damage worth $190 billion. Following the hurricane, Bangladesh provided the US with $1 million in financial aid and offered to send rescuers. Thus, Dhaka and Washington have always closely cooperated with each other in tackling humanitarian crises.

Technological Cooperation

The US has accorded substantial cooperation to Bangladesh in implementing several high-technological endeavours. For instance, following Bangladesh’s signing and ratification of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1979, Washington promised Dhaka cooperation in the development of civilian nuclear facilities. Under this arrangement, the US helped establish the first nuclear research reactor in Dhaka in 1985. Moreover, the Bangabandhu-1, the first Bangladeshi communications and broadcasting satellite, was launched on 12 May 2018 by the US company SpaceX from the John F. Kennedy Space Center in the US state of Florida. Thus, the US has assisted Bangladesh in making strides towards technological advances.

Security Partnership

Since the 1980s, Bangladesh and the US have gradually built up a comprehensive security partnership in numerous areas, including counterterrorism, maritime security, border security, peacekeeping, defense trade, and defense institution-building. The first visit of the Commander of the US Pacific Command (currently, the US Indo-Pacific Command) to Bangladesh in 1985 was an watershed event in this regard. During the Gulf War (1990–1991), Bangladesh participated in the US-led coalition against Iraq and sent a 2,300-strong military contingent to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. In the ensuing years, 270 Bangladeshi servicemen lost their lives while involved in demining Kuwait. This bolstered the US–Bangladeshi security ties. Since 1992, the two states have regularly held joint military exercises.

In the early 21st century, the US Department of State included Bangladesh in its Anti-terrorism Assistance Program. Bangladesh is one of the top troop-contributing countries (TCCs) to the UN peace operations, and accordingly, the US has provided the country with nearly $44 million since 2005 to enhance its peacekeeping capabilities. The US also provided economic assistance to the Bangladesh Institute of Peace Support Operation Training (BIPSOT), an institution operated by the Bangladesh Armed Forces and aimed at providing standardized training to peacekeepers.

Since 2014, the US has accorded Bangladesh $78.45 million in Foreign Military Financing (FMF) and $14.5 million in International Military Education and Training (IMET) assistance. Moreover, the US has supplied Bangladesh with patrol boats, other patrol vessels, cutters, mine-resistant ambush-protected (MRAP) vehicles, and other military equipment. Furthermore, Dhaka has expressed its willingness to acquire advanced military hardware, including Apache helicopters, from the US.

Meanwhile, Dhaka and Washington have held nine bilateral security dialogues since 2012 in order to further enhance their security partnership. Also, negotiations over the conclusion of the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) between the two countries are at the final phase, and another military cooperation treaty, the Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA), is being negotiated. Hence, Dhaka’s security partnership with Washington is growing at a rapid pace.

Envisioning A Cooperative Future

An overview of the history of the US–Bangladeshi relations demonstrates that Dhaka and Washington have always preferred pragmatic cooperation to mutual antagonism in their bilateral ties. The two countries have cooperated with each other in every sector, ranging from economy to technology to security. Thus, Washington’s willingness to bring about a ‘reset’ in its relations with Dhaka is symptomatic of its traditional positive partnership  with Bangladesh, and under the current circumstances, the two states are likely to continue their cooperation in the near future.

Md. Himel Rahman

Md. Himel Rahman is a Dhaka-based freelance analyst on international and strategic affairs. His articles have been published on a number of platforms, including The Interpreter, The Diplomat, South Asian Voices, Eurasia Review, The Daily Star, and The Daily Observer.

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