Bangladeshi Foreign Minister Dipu Moni welcomes US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Dhaka on March 5, 2012.

Story highlights

Washington sees Bangladesh as a viable alternative to extremism

The Muslim-majority nation is moderate and democratic

But it has seen political turmoil after the disappearance of an opposition leader

Clinton next goes to India

CNN  — 

Muslim and moderate.Two words that describe Bangladesh, where Hillary Clinton arrived Saturday as part of a three-nation tour of Asia.

She left China where diplomatic drama over a Chinese human rights activist overshadowed all else and stepped foot in Bangladesh amid political turmoil involving the disappearance of a key opposition leader.

Her presence, the first by a secretary of state since 2003, reflects America’s interest in growing ties with Asian nations and puts Bangladesh, one of the world’s most impoverished nations strategically located near India, China and Myanmar, on center stage.

Cinton’s trip, said a senior State Department official, is an opportunity to improve America’s bilateral relationship with Bangladesh, a democratic Muslim-majority nation that is seen by Washington as a viable alternative to extremism.

It’s a bilateral relationship that was initially troubled because of U.S. support for Pakistan in Bangladesh’s war of independence, won in 1971. But ties between the two nations have improved considerably and the United States is now Bangladesh’s largest trading partner.

Clinton will meet with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Foreign Minister Dipu Moni, and is expected to stress the importance of democratic institutions and ways to improve conditions for the 160 million Bangladeshis who live in a country the size of Iowa.

Washington sees Bangladesh, the world’s largest contributor of personnel to U.N. peacekeeping forces, as a willing partner on counterterrorism and global security, the State Department official said.

Clinton will discuss development issues with micro-credit guru and Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus and Fazle Hasan Abed, the founder of BRAC, a large non-profit that works to alleviate poverty.

Clinton will also meet with Khaleda Zia, leader of the opposition Bangladesh National Party (BNP) amid considerable political tension.

Zia’s party and the ruling Awami League have accused each other in the abduction of key BNP lawmaker Ilyas Ali.

The disappearance has sparked rallies and strikes that have led to deaths of at least four people, according to Amnesty International.

Ali’s disappearance is the latest in a spate of disappearances in which security forces have been implicated, although they deny detaining those missing, Amnesty said.

More than 20 people have “disappeared” in Bangladesh this year, the global monitoring group said.

Clinton is visiting Bangladesh 12 years after her husband, Bill Clinton, did so as the first U.S. president to make such a trip.

Hillary Clinton goes next to neighboring India, where she is scheduled to stop in Kolkata, near the Bangladeshi border, and New Delhi. There, she will meet with the feisty chief minister, Mamata Bannerji, who dismantled 34 years of communism in last year’s West Bengal state elections but is very much opposed to allowing large foreign retailers like Wal-Mart in India.

Ironically, Clinton’s visit to New Delhi coincides with that of an Iranian trade delegation that is looking for ways to circumvent tough U.S. sanctions that have proven crippling to the economy of the Islamic republic.