We believe not only in regional stability, but also in geo-strategic partnership to further our own socio-economic development and economic growth. Over the last seven years during the present government, we have seen a pro-active foreign policy that has targeted not only international peace and security, but also focused on becoming a sub-regional and regional partner with other countries in South Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Far East.
Our participation in international conferences, as an outreach partner, has also reiterated the precept that we are willing to engage with the partnership process. Our efforts in this regard within the BBIN, the BCIM, and BIMSTEC as well as Saarc have underlined our commitment and drawn international attention towards Bangladesh.
The presence of the Bangladesh prime minister as a representative member of BIMSTEC during the BRICS Summit held in Goa, India in the third week of October was consistent with this trend.
The visit of President Xi to Bangladesh this time round has, however, been crucial and different. It has elevated the dimensions of cooperation that exist between the two countries.
In an article titled “China-Bangladesh cooperation will bear golden fruits” written by President Xi Jinping, that was published in Dhaka on October 14, he went on to recall the role of Bangabandhu and mentioned that the “seed of friendship […] planted by the veteran leaders of our two countries long before diplomatic ties were established has now grown into a giant tree with deep roots and rich fruits.” It is this aspect that has been reflected in the various agreements reached during his visit to Dhaka.
In this context he has also observed that: “There is huge potential and complementarity in our cooperation. China is ready to synergise its 13th Five Year Plan with Bangladesh’s Seventh Five Year Plan with a view to leveraging our respective comparative advantages, increasing economic exchanges and trade, building key projects in areas such as infrastructure, production capacity, energy, electricity, transportation, information, telecommunications, and agriculture.” From this point of view, he has also reiterated the need for our two countries to enhance South-South cooperation for common development.
This was reflected through the signing of 27 agreements and memoranda of understanding on October 14, pertaining to facilitating growth in Bangladesh in infrastructure, industrial capacity cooperation, energy and power, transportation, information and communication technology, human resource development, and agriculture.
There was also reference to the expected production capacity of companies and financial institutions which are expected to play a pivotal role in the construction and operation of infrastructure, resource processing, equipment manufacturing, light industry, electronics and textiles, semiconductors and nanotechnology (required for the ICT sector), and industry clusters.
The two sides also agreed to continue their cooperation on river management, including dredging with land reclamation, in maritime affairs (with reference to the latent Blue Economy potential of Bangladesh), towards the implementation of 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, tackling the effect of climate change and land reclamation from the sea, and skill development for carrying out future investment efficiently and meaningfully.
There has also been discussion about the possibilities of expanding the matrix of renewable energy with Chinese partnership.
Consistent with this positive approach, the two sides have also agreed to observe 2017 as the “Year of Friendship and Exchanges” aimed at expanding cooperation in culture, education, and tourism. Efforts will also be made to promote interactions between the media, think tanks, and NGOs. This has been a constructive decision.
In keeping with Bangladesh’s stand of “zero tolerance” with regard to terrorism, leaders of both countries not only condemned terrorism in all its forms but also expressed their readiness to cooperate through sharing of information, capacity building and training, particularly with regard to cyber security which is so essential in this digital age. This viewpoint was also reiterated by us in the BRICS Summit in Goa.
This newly proposed active profile within the strategic dimension of our bilateral relationship will also play an important role in the context of not only promoting practical cooperation among the BCIM-EC countries but also within the paradigm of BIMSTEC.
The visit of President Xi to Bangladesh this time round has, however, been crucial and different. It has elevated the dimensions of cooperation that exist between the two countries
This practical and philosophical approach in promoting strategic cooperation between China and Bangladesh was taken forward not only through government-to-government agreements, but also through the pro-active engagement of the private sectors of the two countries.
This was reflected in deals worth around $13.6 billion that will increase active involvement in agro-processed goods, leather, ICT products, frozen food, jute and jute goods, pharmaceuticals, and the shipbuilding sector.
Of the 13 Chinese companies, two-thirds were state-owned, and the rest were from the private sector. On the other hand, 11 companies from Bangladesh were from the private sector. The Federation of Bangladesh Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FBCCI) facilitated this exercise.
It is being hoped by the Bangladesh government as well as the various Bangladesh Chambers of Commerce that this will help to boost the diversification of our exportable products, add quality, and also reduce the growing adverse balance in our trade equation with China. It may be recalled that in fiscal 2015, Bangladesh exported only $819 million of goods to China but imported goods worth $9.65bn from that country.
Economists have pointed out that though China has agreed to import 4,762 different items from Bangladesh on a duty free basis (most of which are not produced here), there is still the non-tariff barrier with regard to RMG products which have to satisfy the requirement of 40% of Rules of Origin principle.
This time, during the visit, requests have been made for full duty-free facilities for all Bangladeshi products. This, however, appears to be unlikely in the immediate future. However, if we can re-locate Chinese RMG and textile factories and other manufacturing facilities associated with electronics, digital, and transport manufacturing sectors to the proposed Economic Zones to be set aside for China, we can then meet the Rules of Origin requirement and also benefit from the export of locally produced goods to the growing consumer community in China.
Such re-location will also enable us to produce high-end products that we can sell to countries where we presently enjoy duty and quota free access facility as a least developed country but might lose this advantage as a middle-income country. This visit of President Xi Jinping and the efforts undertaken by the government as well as the private sector will be lauded by posterity as a step that helped to create the necessary conditions for Bangladesh to emerge out of the poverty trap and take a firm stride towards greater development.
The desired outcome will, however, only be possible if we can maintain stability within the country and if all factions work together with commitment, in a transparent and accountable manner to promote our national interest.
In conclusion, I will refer to an economic adage that has gained currency in this era of digitalisation and globalisation, which is: “Everything tastes better with butter, and everything works better with growth.”
The Chinese believe in this maxim, and have proved it to be true over the last three decades. The connotation of this evolving dynamics has also not been lost on Bangladesh.
Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialising in foreign affairs, right to information, and good governance. He can be reached at [email protected]