The United States is seeking an expanded military relationship with Bangladesh under a security initiative that would help Dhaka build its maritime and border security capacity, Alice Wells, the U.S. acting assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian Affairs, said here on Tuesday.
The Bay of Bengal Initiative, a new U.S. State Department program, involves foreign military financing that would build maritime and border security capacity for Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and the Maldives.
“We … look forward under our Bay of Bengal Initiative to the expanding ties between our militaries,” Wells told reporters after she met with Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen in Dhaka.
“Our militaries have a long history of cooperation and humanitarian assistance in disaster response as well as in maritime domain awareness,” said Wells, who arrived in Dhaka on Tuesday for a three-day trip that would include a visit to Rohingya refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar district on Thursday.
Washington’s offer comes after Dhaka confirmed recently that it would construct its first submarine base, with technical and training assistance from China, in a southeastern district on the Bay of Bengal.
On June 13, Wells sought Congressional support for the Bay of Bengal Initiative when she spoke before a House foreign affairs subcommittee. She urged lawmakers to support her department’s request for a U.S. $30-million in funding for the initiative, in addition to the $64 million already announced by the Trump administration to support the region’s digital connectivity and bolster cyber security.
She said the United States “cannot allow China, or any other country, to subvert our partners through unsustainable infrastructure projects that push economies into unsustainable debt, or by contributing to an erosion of transparency and democratic norms.”
India’s largest news agency, PTI, had described Washington’s initiative as aimed at “countering increasing Chinese influence in key South Asian countries.”
Momen told reporters that Wells asked him whether Bangladesh was worried about China.
“She told me that we are tilting towards China. But I told her that we actually need foreign investment. China has been investing in Bangladesh. We are smart enough to diversify our foreign investment mobilization,” Momen said.
Rohingya relocation discussed
Momen said Wells also asked him about the nation’s plan to relocate Rohingya refugees to Bhashan Char, an isolated island in the Bay of Bengal.
“I told her that we want to relocate them to Bhashan Char to reduce pressure on Cox’s Bazar, where they die in landslides,” he said. “But we will not send any Rohingya to Bhashan Char by force or against their consent.”
The Bangladeshi government, in an effort to take pressure off overcrowded refugee camps, had announced plans to relocate Rohingya families to the island by early November, but officials have since said that they were still waiting for the U.N. to agree to the plan.
Last month, a U.N. official told BenarNews that the UNHCR refugee agency was seeking clarifications from the government on the relocation plan and that relocating refugees must be done on a voluntary basis.
Before meeting the foreign minister, Wells met with Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan at his office in Dhaka.
“She raised the issue of enhancing cooperation on counter-terrorism efforts and so-called extrajudicial killings in Bangladesh,” Khan told BenarNews.
“I told her that no extrajudicial killings take place in Bangladesh. Our law enforcers are forced to fire when they are attacked by the criminals,” he said.
On Monday, Amnesty International called on Bangladesh to end extrajudicial killings as it released a report examining allegations that 466 people were killed in 2018 as part of a government crackdown on illegal drugs.
Security analysts: Grab offer for tighter ties
Bangladesh in recent years has taken steps to modernize its armed forces. The South Asian nation is also negotiating to purchase fighter jets, missiles systems and combat helicopters from the United States, according to retired Col. Faruk Khan, chairman of the parliamentary Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs.
“We have been in negotiation with the United States regarding procurement of attack helicopters, fighter planes and missiles,” Khan told BenarNews last month.
The negotiation marks the first time that Dhaka, which has relied heavily on purchases of military hardware from China, has approached Washington for defense equipment since Bangladesh broke free from Pakistan in 1971, security analysts told BenarNews.
Since the 1980s, Bangladesh’s 157,000-member military had purchased equipment from China, its traditional main weapons supplier, Russia, Great Britain and South Korea.
“The U.S. offer to strengthen ties between militaries under the initiative is an opportunity for us,” security analyst Abdur Rashid, a retired major general, told BenarNews. “We have to grab it.”
Rashid noted that the United States, China and India had been competing for dominance in the Bay of Bengal.
“Each of the big and powerful countries have been trying to woo Bangladesh for its support due to the [competition] among the three countries,” he said.
Rashid said Bangladesh depended heavily on China for military supplies.
Beijing is Dhaka’s biggest supplier of weapons. China provided almost U.S. $2 billion of weapons to Bangladesh between 2008 and 2018, about 71.8 percent of the South Asian nation’s military acquisitions, according to the Washington-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Two submarines that Dhaka purchased from Beijing for U.S. $205 million are berthed at a Bangladeshi naval base in Chittagong. They will be housed in the future submarine base in a southeastern district, Bangladeshi officials told BenarNews.
Rashid said Washington had also been in talks with Dhaka for the sale of sophisticated military equipment meant for the Bangladesh air force and army.
“So, we have to utilize the U.S. military support offer in a balanced way,” he said. “We cannot side with any of the superpowers as our foreign policy does not allow it.”