Even during the last week before the 2020 elections, the United States (US), under the Trump administration, initiated steps to build strategic relations with South Asia. Under a Biden administration, this can be expected to be followed up.
Relations with Bangladesh do not feature prominently in US foreign policy. Unlike India or even Pakistan, Bangladesh is a peripheral factor. US-Bangladesh relations, hover around a number of issues. From the US side, for example, there are questions of: human rights, labour rights and laws, human trafficking, democracy, the rule of law, etc. These are issues which feature in US foreign policy towards most third world countries.
The US has a system of issuing country reports on these issues periodically. In these reports, they express their views on the relevant country – which often are not very positive – on a respective issue. Now, whoever is the president – Biden or Trump; the Democrats or the Republicans – the mechanism will remain in place and reporting will continue.
From our side, we tried for duty and quota-free entry into the US market for the LDCs. This, however, was not successful. Among reasons for this was opposition from African countries, who got the privilege as part of the African Growth and Opportunities Act (AGOA) that is in place. The African countries did not want Bangladesh to have the same advantages because they would then not be able to compete with our garments industry, as Bangladesh is more competitive.
Likewise, I also think that the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) benefit that was withdrawn during the last Democrat government, is going to stay withdrawn. We are also unlikely to get any additional trade benefits either. For our Trade relations, it will just be business as usual. Our exports will continue to do well to the extent that our industries perform well.
If we look at the region, for Trump or Biden – whoever it is – the importance of India will remain paramount to the US. Globally, China is now the rival of the US. The more the Chinese influence grows in some Asian and many African countries, the US influence will diminish. So, if the US does not want to relinquish its preeminent position globally, in the face of the Chinese progress, it will need allies in the region.
In the context of the Indo-Pacific strategy, India is the US' natural ally. In that light, even under a Biden presidency, rivalry with China is unlikely to drastically diminish. The intensity might change, but the basic rivalry will remain. The US will look for a strong ally in the Indian Ocean region. In my opinion, the strategic relationship between India and the US can only grow – even with a Biden presidency.
For its own strategic reason, Myanmar is very important to China. She is dependent on Myanmar for access to the Bay of Bengal, and this gives Myanmar some leverage over China to our disadvantage – allowing Myanmar more negotiating power.
Not only that, to counter China in Myanmar, India, the United States, and the West may try to woo Myanmar in the coming days. That would give Myanmar an additional advantage in negotiations. That way, I think we are in for a bad time ahead because strategic interests will prevail over humanitarian issues.
Pakistan allows China access to the Arabian Sea through the Karakoram Highway and she will remain in the orbit of Chinese influence. China's relationship with Pakistan will remain strong. Conversely, Pakistan-US relations have not been all that smooth and will likely remain somewhat strained.
In Afghanistan, the Trump administration's peace initiative with the Taliban is expected to continue under the Biden administration. A peace deal between the Taliban and the Kabul government will afford a US a somewhat graceful exit from Afghanistan after a futile and costly war spanning over decades.
Beyond South Asia, we have seen that during the Trump presidency the US withdrew from international bodies and became sort of inward looking. I believe, with Joe Biden in the White House, that will change. He has already promised to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement. I would also expect him to rejoin the World Health Organization. Policies of the Trump administration displeased many of its allies in Europe, not to speak of the neighbors in the north and south. Relations with these allies can only get better.
The author is a former foreign secretary.