Can Donald Lu’s Bangladesh visit restore his credibility in South Asia?
Sufian Siddique: US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Donald Lu has recently been mentioned frequently in the media while talking about US relations with South Asian nations. This time his visit to Dhaka has generated a buzz in the diplomatic community against the backdrop of unease in Bangladesh-US relations. According to a diplomatic source, he will come to Bangladesh on January 14 to talk about a number of important topics, including trade, business, and collaboration in the areas of security and human rights.
We already knew that US Ambassador to Dhaka Peter Haas unexpectedly visited the residence of a controversial leader of a political organization in Shaheenbagh, Dhaka, on December 14. Soon after his arrival, a group called “Mayer Kanna” attempted to deliver a memo to him, which has forced the US ambassador to depart that area in an awkward scenario. Donald Lu brought up the security issue of the US Ambassador to Bangladesh at that time with the Bangladesh High Commissioner in Washington. Lu’s trip to Dhaka is particularly relevant from that perspective.
Who is Donald Lu?
Donald Lu is the main driver of US foreign policy regarding South and Central Asia. He is a Foreign Service officer with more than 30 years of US government service. During his long diplomatic career, he has served as a political officer in the Peshawar Consulate of Pakistan, a consular officer in Tbilisi, Georgia, and a special assistant and political officer to the ambassador in New Delhi, India. A former US ambassador to Kyrgyzstan and Albania, he has also served as deputy chief of mission in the US embassy in New Delhi from 2010 to 2013. Lu became assistant secretary of state for south and central Asian affairs in the Biden administration in September 2021.
Lu’s role in South Asia
When Nepal was dragging its feet on ratifying the US-led controversial Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) compact for the last few years, Lu had warned Nepalese Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba that there could be “cuts on US aid and assistance” and that the US could deny support and investment that Nepal is receiving from various bilateral and multilateral agencies if the MCC compact was not ratified. Lu had conveyed the same warning to CPN-UML chairman K.P. Sharma Oli and Maoist Center chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal alias Prachanda. This was the first strong message to the Nepali political leadership from Washington since Nepal and the US established diplomatic relations in 1947.
Donald Lu has visited Nepal twice since the beginning of the political impasse that started with the dissolution of the parliament in the middle of 2021. Amidst the political upheaval and election atmosphere, he met then Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba and Foreign Minister Narayan Kharka in November. Within three months of this visit, the Millennium Challenge Cooperation Project, the largest in the history of Nepal, which has been stalled since 2012, received the approval of the Nepali Parliament.
It is no longer a secret that the United States and India see the Ukraine crisis differently. After the start of the Russia-Ukraine war in February, the West imposed a series of sanctions on Moscow. Despite this, India maintains trade relations with Russia by purchasing fuel oil there. Against this backdrop, Donald Lu visited India in September 2022, where he led the US delegation that participated in the Two Plus Two meeting with the partner countries of the Quad Alliance. After that, in October last year, Donald Lu visited Sri Lanka, which was devastated by the economic and political crisis, and offered full support to the Ranil Wickremesinghe government.
However, Donald Lu’s name has been discussed the most after the ouster of Imran Khan in Pakistan. Former PM Khan accused Donald Lu of sending threatening letters and conspiring to oust him. Khan even suggested in an interview with CNN that Lu be fired for interfering with Pakistan’s domestic politics and for “bad manners and sheer arrogance.” Furthermore, Pakistan’s National Security Council (NSC) issued a “strong demarche” over the “threat letter,” terming it “blatant interference in the internal affairs of Pakistan.”
Undeniably, given South Asia’s growing strategic significance for the US, it has taken aggressive or proactive diplomacy to get governments in the region to toe their line. But, these forms of coercive diplomacy may cause “anti-Americanism” to spread in South Asian countries, which may harm the US’s long-standing relations with those states.
Bangladesh case and message to Lu
In light of the shifting global environment, a closer relationship with the United States is in both countries’ best interests. Bangladesh believes in the US’s free and open Indo-Pacific strategy and is looking into the “pros and cons” of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) to determine if the country will benefit from joining it. Bangladesh made it clear that, if it is in Bangladesh’s best interests, it will join the US-led Indo-Pacific Business Forum. The United States should extend its hand of friendship to Bangladesh as a major partner in this undertaking.
Since the inception of diplomatic ties, bilateral relations between the two countries have come a long way and improved to a great extent. Washington and Dhaka have extensive cooperation in regional and global security, counterterrorism, and climate change. With regard to trade, education, travel, investments, and other areas, it goes without saying that Bangladesh has closer ties with and more communication with the United States.
Chinese influence in Bangladesh must not be a cause for concern for the US. Because Dhaka is skillfully balancing relations with major nations, especially China, and is aware of and sensitive to the US’s concerns in the region, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has openly said that Bangladesh has no military aspirations and sees China, a regional adversary of the US, as a development partner.
It is illogical for Bangladesh to get involved in any power struggles, given geopolitical calculations and high development goals. Dhaka could become a pawn in a global confrontation if it participates in any geopolitical rivalries. Bangladesh thus upholds its foreign policy guiding concept of “friendship to all and malice to none” and supports peaceful coexistence in the area.
Bangladesh expects that Donald Lu would contribute positively to elevating the bilateral relations to a new height where Bangladesh will be taken into account on its own merits. Apart from economic benefits, a strategic partnership with Bangladesh can help the US achieve its goals in South Asia and beyond. In order to clear up misunderstandings and clarify each other’s perspectives, both nations must strengthen dialogue and communication at all levels.
Finally, given Donald Lu’s unfavorable reputation in the region, his visit to Bangladesh offers him a second chance to demonstrate that promoting regime change in the region is not his assigned task. Instead, it is his duty to maintain cordial relations with the countries. The misperception that he was the mastermind behind the region’s regime change can be dispelled if he plays a constructive role in enhancing US-Bangladesh relations.
Writer: Sufian Siddique is a Dhaka based independent researcher and freelance columnist.