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Watching Bangladesh Closely amid Indo-China Trouble

Top diplomats of Bangladesh and Pakistan held very rare talks recently to promote bilateral relations. Pakistan is quietly making efforts to mend its ties with Bangladesh after certain developments in the region have provided a window of opportunity to Pakistan to seek rapprochement.

Diplomatic sources familiar with the development believe that the current regional environment has compelled Islamabad to seek re-engagement with Dhaka.

History of bitterness

Relations between the two countries have remained tense for the last many years. The two countries have yet to overcome the bitter memories of 1971 events that led to the creation of Bangladesh.

What led to the current low in their ties was the decision taken a few years ago by the incumbent government of Shaikh Hasina Wajid to try and execute several leaders of Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami on charges of committing war crimes in 1971. Pakistan was against such politically motivated trials.

Relationship between the two countries worsened to the extent that Pakistan’s National Assembly in 2016 passed a unanimous resolution condemning the execution of JI leaders.

Not just that, the Bangladesh government refused to approve the appointment of Pakistani High Commissioner for 20 months. Islamabad eventually had to make the fresh proposal for the appointment of Imran Ahmed Siddiqui as envoy to Dhaka. His name was finally approved by Dhaka in November last year. Siddiqui joined the Pakistani mission in Dhaka in January, raising hopes of a thaw in their ties.

Looks like Islamabad is trying to take advantage of India’s preoccupation with other issues like engagement with other neighbours.

Pakistan in a rush to reset ties

Pakistan’s efforts to reach out to Bangladesh have suddenly spiked with the Pakistani envoy holding a quite meeting with Bangladeshi Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen.. It is clear that the appointment of Imran Ahmed Siddiqui is like the opening of a secret back door for Pakistan through which they tend to creep in closer.

It is also surprising how this meeting is timed just as the news of tensions between India and China at the LAC are rife. Coincidence? And then Prime minister Imran Khan spoke to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina about COVID-19 issues. But Pakistan PM’s efforts to strike a chord with his Bangladeshi counterpart Sheikh Hasina over Kashmir and SAARC was snubbed with Dhaka’s statement on telephone conversation totally ignoring both the issues.
While Pakistan‘s statement said that Imran Khan spoke of the “grave situation” in what he called “Indian occupied Jammu and Kashmir,” and the need for an early resolution of the problem, the Bangladesh government statement is totally silent on Jammu and Kashmir, thereby indicating their stand on the issue.

China woos Bangladesh

In a bid to woo Bangladesh, China has provided a huge trade boost to the country by announcing tariff exemption for 97 per cent of Bangladeshi products. Surprisingly, this generous offer comes just Days after India-China Galwan valley faceoff.

With this announcement, a total of 8,256 Bangladeshi products will come under the 97 per cent of products that would be exempted from tariff. Currently, 3095 Bangladeshi products enjoy duty-free access to Chinese market under Asia-Pacific Trade Agreement (APTA). With the new announcement, 97 per cent of Bangladeshi products will join this zero-tariff club. This move only looks like an attempt to over buy Bangladeshi products and destroy their economic main-stay of exporting goods to the west world. It seems like China is trying hard to contain the growth of Bangladesh.

Many see Bangladesh as a ‘market’ of over 30 million middle- and affluent-class people and a ‘development miracle’. The South Asian nation is known to be the world’s second-largest garment exporter. Bangladesh has seen the value of its overseas sales rise to a record $3.81 billion in May, coinciding with Trump boosting tariffs on $200 billion of Chinese goods to 25% from 10%. Bangladesh is quickly moving to a high-value, knowledge-intensive society, beyond apparel manufacturing. Bangladesh also has 600,000 IT freelancers – the largest freelancing community. This all speaks to a quiet transformation where people have taken risks and faced challenges by becoming more innovative and adopting the technology.  Bangladesh offers the most liberal investment regime in South Asia.
China continues to woo Bangladesh as a member of the Belt and Road Initiative. Yet the Hambantota debt trap in Sri Lanka has imposed a caution on Bangladesh: development of Sonadia port through Chinese assistance has been shelved. Bangladesh knows better whom to trust.

No worries for Bangladesh

It is understandable that in the post-Covid era, many major US and Japanese firms might want to pull out of China and seek alternative partners to bolster their supply chain. And this seems lika a good opportunity for Bangladesh to expect a major influx of foreign investment, particularly any capital being diverted from China.

There is no doubt that after the US imposed tariffs on Chinese products, and after the outbreak of Covid-19, the US, the EU and Japan are looking elsewhere for cost-savings and to ensure safety and security. Japan has earmarked USD 2.2 billion of its record economic stimulus package to help its manufacturers shift production out of China. On May 21, Bangladesh’s Embassy in Beijing sent our Foreign Office a message indicating that some Japanese investors were exploring Bangladesh as a possible sourcing destination.

Therefore, we see a lot of hope in the future that Japanese firms are packing up from China and heading for Bangladesh. As they say, there are so many steps “between the cup and the lip”. Bangladesh needs to act in a proactive manner to seize the opportunity that the new circumstances have offered.

Bangladesh has special ties with many Korean business establishments and it needs to seek them out. Bangladesh is planning to form a task force to make a strategic plan on “how to attract the companies, which are leaving from China” to invest here. The task force of the Government of Bangladesh must work hard to ensure that existing investment is not in jeopardy and that new investment is forthcoming. Earlier this year, in March, Japanese Ambassador to Bangladesh Naoki sounded very optimistic. “The coronavirus outbreak will leave no scar on the flow of Japanese investment into Bangladesh and trade between the two countries will remain unscathed in the mid- and long-term”. While the Ambassador has to be lauded for his reassurance, it needs to be seen in the post-pandemic era whether this rosy scenario will materialise. Bangladesh cannot take for granted any of the pre-pandemic projections.

Viewpoint

The ongoing tensions and stalemate between India and China in Ladakh along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) has brought not only the Sino-Indian rivalry into the spotlight, but also India’s relationships with its neighbours. Unlike previous instances, when India used to enjoy unqualified support from all its neighbours save Pakistan, the clash with Beijing has produced a deafening silence. Worse, the Nepalese parliament chose this as the moment to approve a revised map of the country, including three areas it disputes with India. In Bangladesh, the government received an offer from Beijing for tariff exemptions for 97 percent of Bangladeshi products with immediate effect.

While attention on that particular media report has now faded, the Bangladesh-India relationship has remained in the spotlight, but with a new twist to it—the looming shadow of China. What was previously a matter of academic discussion has now become a standard media talking point. For the past months, the Indian media had intensified its concerns that China has made inroads to Bangladesh through massive investments and fear that now Bangladesh is tilting against India. However, Bangladesh cannot forget that India has been the staunch backer of the Hasina regime since it came to power in 2009. The memoir of former Indian President Pranab Mukherjee provides an impression that India played a role in ensuring the transition of power from the military-backed government to the Awami League in 2008. There is a widespread understanding that without the active support of India, it would have been difficult for the AL to proceed with the 2014 controversial election. For the past decade, India has extended unqualified support to the ruling AL. Faced with Chinese competition, India has extended its economic relationship by offering the Bangladesh government credit lines twice, and Bangladesh has expressed several times to reassure India that it need not to worry. And it is very clear that in future India will definitely not let its all-weather ally slip away from its orbit.

23 Jul 20/Thursday                                                         Source:  Saima Ibrahim

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