The people of Bangladesh and China are bound together by ancient ties that far outdate the formal diplomatic relations, that only commenced in 1975. From Atish Dipankar’s pioneering role in taking Buddhism to China, to the exchange of culture and knowledge that took place amid the churn of commerce along the old Silk Route, the people of Mengjiala (as the Chinese refer to Bengal) and Chin (the Bengali name for China) have almost never allowed hostility to creep in and sully their bond.
The good news is that the state in both countries has shown itself to be sensitive to the historic depth of people-to-people contacts.
As China embarked on its inexorable march to prosperity in the opening decades of the 21st century, it emerged as a valued partner to Bangladesh’s own development. And new heights were scaled, undoubtedly, during President Xi Jinping’s landmark 2016 visit to Dhaka, the first by a Chinese head of state to the Bangladeshi capital in 30 years.
That visit served to cement Bangladesh as a key outpost in the “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI), President Xi’s grand vision for the world that aims to connect the countries of Southeast Asia to Western Europe, and is often touted as today’s Chinese equivalent of the Marshall Plan.
Now in light of a new impetus to relations between the two countries, Cosmos Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Bangladeshi conglomerate The Cosmos Group (parent company of Dhaka Courier), organised a symposium on ‘Bangladesh-China Relations: Prognosis for the Future’ in Dhaka on December 8.
The symposium assessed the Bangladesh-China relationship in this present context, and identified challenges and opportunities for the future. It was part of the Foundation’s ‘Dialogue’ series, in which a high-level expert panel was tasked with tackling a particularly pressing issue of the day, followed by the participation of an informed and engaging audience.
The panel was comprised of Professor Li Tao, executive director of the Institute of South Asian Studies at Sichuan University in China; Yuan Jirong, Chief Journalist at the India Bureau of the People’s Daily; historian and media personality Afsan Chowdhury; and Dr Imtiaz Ahmed, professor at the Department of International Relations of Dhaka University.
The programme was be chaired by Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury, Principal Research Fellow at the ISAS in Singapore, and ex-adviser on foreign affairs to a caretaker government.
Chinese Ambassador to Bangladesh Zhang Zuo was the chief guest, while Chairman of Cosmos Foundation Enayetullah Khan delivered the welcome speech.
Deepening Strategic Mutual Trust
China has placed five specific suggestions for deepening the Bangladesh-China strategic partnership of cooperation in the new era with an emphasis on deepening “strategic mutual trust”, saying the next decade will see “faster changes” in the international alignment of forces.
“First, we need to deepen strategic mutual trust and then we need to deepen economic integration,” said Ambassador Zuo while sharing his thoughts at the Cosmos Dialogue looking into the future of the relations that brings “unprecedented opportunities” for cooperation.
Three other suggestions, put forward by the Chinese Ambassador, are to deepen innovation and interaction; have stronger cooperation on experience sharing on security; and deepen cultural and people’s connectivity.
“We should join hands to become good partners with equality and mutual trust. We should work together to improve the level of global governance,” he said.
The symposium was part of the Cosmos Foundation’s ‘Dialogue’ series, in which a high-level expert panel was tasked with tackling a particularly pressing issue of the day, followed by the participation of an informed and engaging audience.
The panel comprised of Prof Li Tao, Executive Director of the Institute of South Asian Studies at Sichuan University in China; Yuan Jirong, Chief Journalist at the India Bureau of the People’s Daily; historian and media personality Afsan Chowdhury; and Dr Imtiaz Ahmed, a professor at the Department of International Relations of Dhaka University.
Chinese Ambassador Zuo hoped that the next national election in Bangladesh, scheduled for December 30, will go very “well and smooth” saying that China will deepen its ties with Bangladesh on all fronts.
“We hope, you’ll have a very smooth election. Bangladeshis and political parties can have that (well and smooth polls),” he told reporters after attending Cosmos Dialogue on Bangladesh-China relations in the city.
The Chinese Ambassador said the two countries will further deepen political, economic and people-to-people relationship.
Ambassador Zuo said China will continue to play a constructive role in properly solving the problem of Rakhine State in accordance with the three-phase solution to stopping violence, repatriation and development.
He said China will continue to support Bangladesh and Myanmar to find a proper way for the repatriation of the displaced people, as well as a proper solution to the issue of Rakhine State through dialogue and consultation.
The Chinese Ambassador encouraged all to respect the social systems and development paths chosen independently by every nation, respect each other’s core interests and major concerns, and take the new road of dialogue without confrontation, partnership instead of alliances.
“We need to make the full use of bilateral and multilateral mechanisms to explore the possibility of China-Bangladesh plus cooperation, enhance South-South cooperation, and strengthen collaborations within the multilateral framework of the UN Security Council,” he said.
Ambassador Zuo laid emphasis on enhancing the political position of China-Bangladesh relations, and strengthening exchanges in governance, development concepts, and social culture to deepen bilateral cooperation.
On deepening economic integration, the envoy said the next 10 years will be a decade of the transition from the old to new growth drivers in world economy, as well as of profound adjustments and reforms.
“Both China and Bangladesh have highly prosperous markets that attract businessmen from all over the world. Faced with opportunities and challenges, we should join hands to become good partners of mutual benefits,” he said adding, “Let’s work together to promote free trade.”
Ambassador Zuo said the two countries should accelerate the feasibility study for China-Bangladesh FTA (free trade agreement), and then start the negotiation as soon as possible for fruitful outcomes.
He said they will complete the exchange of letters for zero-tariff treatment to 97 percent of tariff items exported from Bangladesh to China within a short time, to further boost the export of Bangladeshi goods to Chinese market.
The Chinese Ambassador said Bangladesh is an important converging point for the land and maritime Silk Roads, so it becomes a natural partner for the joint construction of the “Belt and Road” initiative. “We need to promote infrastructure connectivity.”
He said they are making efforts to accelerate the construction of major projects such as the Padma Bridge, as well as the construction of the BCIM (Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar) Economic Corridor, and are focusing on promoting the four-in-one connectivity of land, sea, sky and the Internet.
In April next, the Ambassador said, China will host the second ‘Belt and Road’ Forum for International Cooperation. “We welcome Bangladeshi government and various social groups to identify our common interests, to actively participate in and share opportunities of the forum, and to promote the transformation of BRI towards high-quality development.”
Ambassador Zuo said China is willing to support the construction of 100 economic zones, blue economy, digital Bangladesh and other projects through development assistance, economic and trade investment, and infrastructure cooperation.
“By paying special attention to Payra power station, the Chittagong China Industrial Park, and the Kunming Steel Industrial Park, we will comprehensively improve the international competitiveness of industries,” he said.
Innovation and Interaction
Ambassador Zuo said the next decade will see a new round of technological revolution and a transformation where new things will replace the old ones.
“In the face of opportunities and challenges, we should work together as good partners for innovation,” he said putting importance on seizing the opportunity to promote innovation-driven development.
The Ambassador said the rapid development of a new generation of information technologies such as artificial intelligence, big data, quantum information, and biotechnology have brought about earth-shaking changes in global development and human production and life. “We can promote innovation together to lead development.”
He said they need to promote the intelligent development of machinery, aviation, shipbuilding, automobile, light industry, textile, food, electronics and other industries, and expand the applications of smart technologies and equipment.
Sharing on Security
Ambassador Zuo said the next decade will see a profound reshaping of the global governance system and the international security situation. “China and Bangladesh are neighbours who look out for each other during either safe or disturbing times.”
In the face of opportunities and challenges, the Ambassador said, “We should work together to be good partners for peace and cooperation. We need to build a solid foundation for peace, security and mutual trust.” The Ambassador mentioned that they should actively participate in mediation to solve geopolitical hotspot issues.
The Chinese Ambassador said the next 10 years will be a decade of deepening cultural diversity and social informatisation. He said the two countries should strengthen the emotional ties between the Chinese and Bangladeshi people.
Chairman of Cosmos Foundation Enayetullah Khan termed the relationship between Bangladesh and China as “all-weather and time-tested friendship.”
“I see a happy future in the relationship between Bangladesh and China; and my prognosis is that our mutual trust, especially political trust; and friendship will help us march together towards the fruition of our common goals and aspirations,” he said adding that they are witnessing a most remarkable feature of current international politics which is the rise of China.
Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury, sharing his long years of observation on China, said, “I believe an understanding of how China relates to the world will better help understand how China relates to individual components of the global stage system, Bangladesh included.”
China Dream, as per his own perception, broadly comprises of three elements. “One is big power relationship of equality with America, second one is a win-win relationship with partners and the third one is stimulating domestic demand,” said the former adviser on foreign affairs to a caretaker government.
Dr Chowdhury thinks a major fruition of China Dream is the BRI and as the implementation process has begun, there have been and will be hiccups around the way.
Veteran journalist Afsan Chowdhury criticized China for its role over Rohingya issue while China says it always plays a constructive role.
Speakers said people are not happy with the Chinese government’s role on the Rohingya crisis but appreciated its good relations with Bangladesh. They feared that initiatives like Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor and BRI might get negatively affected if the Rohingya crisis is not resolved.
UNB Chairman Amanullah Khan, UNB Director Masud Khan, Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies (BIISS) Chairman Munshi Faiz Ahmad, Secretary-Bilateral (Asia & Pacific) at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Mahbub Uz Zaman, foreign affairs experts and business leaders also spoke at the symposium.
Bangladesh in BRI
Bangladesh holds an important ‘geopolitical strategic position’ in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that offers ‘great potential’ to strengthen economic and trade cooperation between Bangladesh and China, says a Chinese expert.
“We should strengthen cooperation between the two governments, and at the same time focus on strengthening inter-party exchanges,” Prof Li Tao, Executive Director of the Institute of South Asian Studies at Sichuan University in China, told Dhaka Courier.
The BRI is a multi-billion-dollar initiative launched by Chinese President Xi Jinping. This mega initiative emerged when President Xi came to power in 2013.
During Xi’s historic visit to Dhaka in 2016, Bangladesh formally joined the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’, a drive which has already drawn the close attention of the world. Sharing her thoughts on development of Bangladesh-China relationship under the BRI, Prof Li Tao said the two countries can accelerate the feasibility study on Bangladesh-China Free Trade Agreement (FTA) and then start the negotiation accordingly.
“The FTA between Bangladesh and China can effectively reduce the trade deficit. This is very important,” she said emphasising the importance of actively promoting the feasibility studies to that end.
Bangladesh and China will complete the exchange of letters for zero-tariff treatment to 97 percent of tariff items exported from Bangladesh to China within a short time, to further boost the export of Bangladeshi goods to Chinese market, according to Chinese Embassy in Dhaka.
Earlier, Chinese Ambassador in Dhaka Zhang Zuo said both Bangladesh and China have highly prosperous markets that attract businesspeople from all over the world. “Faced with opportunities and challenges, we should join hands to become good partners of mutual benefits.”
Ambassador Zuo said Bangladesh and China should maintain communication and consultation, adhere to the basic principles of free trade, make necessary reforms to the World Trade Organization while fully taking into consideration the interests of all parties, and safeguard the developing interests and policy space of developing countries.
Prof Li Tao, who attended Cosmos Dialogue here on Bangladesh China relations on Saturday, also shed lights on how to deal with big powers and importance of Bangladesh’s political stability and policy continuity.
She also laid emphasis on overcoming administrative efficiency, social stability and investment in infrastructure and energy sector for faster growth of Bangladesh.
Sharing some suggestions for stronger Bangladesh-China relations, Prof Li Tao said the two countries should strengthen intergovernmental cooperation and promote more cities in the two countries to turn those into friendly cities.
“We need to enhance cooperation in infrastructure sector,” she said focusing on close cooperation in big infrastructure projects like airports in Bangladesh. Prof Li Tao also said China’s investment in Bangladesh should promote the “localization” of projects, dock local labour and employment needs, truly benefit both sides, and earnestly increase local incomes.
She also laid emphasis on strengthening exchanges in the personnel, media cooperation, cooperation in higher education and mutual recognition of academic qualifications. Appreciating Bangladesh-China longstanding friendly relations, the Chinese expert said similar development concepts of the two countries is the core of cooperation.
In 2017, bilateral trade value between the two countries reached US$ 16 billion, 5.8 percent higher than last year, with China remaining the number one 1 trade partner to Bangladesh, data shows. In the first 9 months of this year, the bilateral trade value stands at US$ 13.9 billion, with a growth rate of 19.3 percent year on year, according to the Chinese Embassy.