Speakers at a roundtable discussion on Wednesday highlighted the immense potential to gain from Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's forthcoming visit on trade, connectivity and financial cooperation fronts through engaging with China smartly with a view to take Bangladesh's development journey to the next level.

They shed light on why Bangladesh needs China in its development journey and how Bangladesh can take advantage of converting geopolitical competition into geopolitical cooperation.

There are new avenues that have been opened which came up for discussion including export diversification, discussion on possible free trade agreement (FTA), and Payra-centric comprehensive development initiative.

Former state ministers for Foreign Affairs Md Shahriar Alam and Abul Hasan Chowdhury; Nahim Razzak MP, Executive Director of Centre for Alternatives (CA) Prof Imtiaz Ahmed, Prof Shahab Enam Khan of Jahangirnagar University's Department of International Relations, BGMEA Director Shams Mahmud, Dhaka Tribune's Executive Editor Reaz Ahmad, General Secretary of Jatiya Press Club and daily Bhorer Kagoj Editor Shyamal Dutta, OCAB General Secretary Julhas Alam, Prof Rumana Islam, DCAB President Nurul Islam Hasib, former DCAB President Raheed Ejaz, among others, were present.

Bangladesh Foundation for Regional Studies (BFRS) hosted the discussion moderated by PM's former Special Assistant Barrister Shah Ali Farhad.

Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies (BIISS) Research Director Dr Mahfuz Kabir presented a paper at the beginning of the discussion while BFRS chairman ASM Shamsul Arefin delivered closing remarks.

"Payra (south-west comprehensive development) is going to be our focal point. This proposal will be placed very strongly. We hope this discussion will progress," said Shahriar Alam.

Regarding duty-free market access, he said the advantage that Bangladesh is getting from China is because of the bilateral relations that the two countries enjoy though it was given maintaining WTO guidelines.

He said despite the WTO guidelines, many countries like the USA do not provide duty-free trade benefit.

"I have every reason to believe that they (China) will extend that not just beyond 2026; it will be more like Canada which reviews such benefits every 10 years. Canada did its last review in 2023 which will last until 2033. I think similar rules will apply when it comes to China," Shahriar said.

He also said Bangladesh may seek around $5 billion for trade facilitation and there will be efforts to get a positive outcome to that end.

Meanwhile, he added, pressure on forex reserves will be reduced if repayment of ongoing projects worth USD 4.5 billion can be delayed through discussion.

On the Rohingya issue, Shahriar said he agrees that China must play a stronger role.

On workers' issues, he said, China will be inviting foreign workers in the coming years as their population dynamic is changing fast.

Shahriar said Bangladesh needs China for its rapid industrialization and noted the significant role that China has played over the last 15 years in socioeconomic development and infrastructure development, especially in the communication sector.

"Industrialised Bangladesh needs China," he said, noting that Bangladesh-China relations have deepened over the last decade.

Delivering his opening remarks at a roundtable discussion, Shahriar recalled the historical facts during the Liberation War but recognised China's contributions over the last one and a half decade.

The lawmaker said there is no reason to compare Bangladesh's relations with India and China. Shahriar remembered the historic role of India and shared sacrifice during the Liberation War in 1971.

He expressed displeasure over the propaganda centering Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's recent State visit to India.

Prof Imtiaz said the world is shifting from unipolar to a multipolar world and there is no way to stop that due to two factors - decolonization and globalization.

He said it is high time to think and imagine broadly on the connectivity front. The international affairs expert said only six high speed trains connecting divisions can make a huge change as they will not need more than one hour.

"China has shown how high speed trains can make a difference," Prof Imtiaz said, also highlighting opportunities in the health and education sector for collaboration.

Talking about visa regime, he said China should give five to ten-year visas in a reciprocal way, easing the visa process further.

Prof Imtiaz said it is time for converting the geopolitics of conflict into geopolitics of cooperation and noted that India and China have excellent relations on many fronts.

He said there is an opportunity for India and China to work together on Teesta River and it is time to start thinking of comprehensive management.

Prof Shahab said there is a scope for cooperation centering issues like deferral payment and soft loans.

He also talked about the "geopolitics of currency" which has emerged as an important issue considering the sanctions related issues and noted that there is a high growth momentum in Bangladesh.

The international affairs expert also laid emphasis on "market-driven relationship" with China and Bangladesh's required better preparation including addressing the issues of market diversification.

"The Chinese market is so high, so deep, so diverse and so vibrant. Here you need to give something alternative," he added.

Prof Shahab also highlighted the energy transition issues and said cheaper production will come from China.

He said there is potential of energy manufacture instead of energy import which needs to be maximized.

"There is no shortage of wish-lists, but you need a pragmatic wish-list," he said, highlighting the importance of preparing a pragmatic wish-list going beyond conspiracy theory.

Prof Shahab also said Bangladesh needs China but China also needs Bangladesh.

Editor Shyamal Dutta said Bangladesh is hungry for foreign investment but needs to improve the relations further.

In international relations, he said, there is no permanent friend or enemy and mentioned that there is competition centering Bangladesh.

The journalist, who had covered foreign affairs for a long time, said there is sensitivity on Bangladesh's projects from India and China. "Bangladesh is maintaining a balanced foreign policy. That is the best way."

Highlighting the importance of Chinese technology, he said Bangladesh needs China on its side in a new economic order and Chinese cooperation is essential for Bangladesh to reach the next phase of development.

Although Bangladesh-China diplomatic relations were established officially in January 1976, bilateral relations reached a new height since Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina took office for the second term in January 2009, according to a concept note.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's visits to China in 2010 and 2014 laid the foundation for the current warm relations between the two countries, it said.

Chinese President Xi Jinping's historic visit to Bangladesh in 2016 elevated the relations between the two countries to "strategic partnership of cooperation".

During the said visit, the two countries signed 21 agreements worth around US$ 40 billion. China has become a dependable partner of Bangladesh in terms of infrastructure development, having collaborated on such major projects as the Padma Bridge, the Karnaphuli River Underwater Tunnel, etc.

So far, China has helped Bangladesh build 21 bridges, 11 highways covering 550 km of roads, and 27 energy and power projects, with numerous more projects in the development and/or planning stages.

Trade too is flourishing between the two countries. China implemented duty-free facilities on 97% of Bangladeshi products on 1 July 2020. Later, it was increased to 98%.

In the 2022-23 fiscal year, China was Bangladesh's single largest trading partner, with bilateral trade amounting to US$ 24 billion, of which Bangladesh's exports amounted to US$ 677 million and imports amounted to US$ 22.9 billion.

Minister of the International Department of the CPC Central Committee Liu Jianchao, during his recent visit to Dhaka, expressed optimism that the forthcoming visit of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to China would be very fruitful one.

"I think that the forthcoming visit by the Prime Minister is going to be a very fruitful one," he told reporters after his meeting with Foreign Minister Hasan Mahmud.

"So we do have lots of expectations, and I am sure that our two governments and government agencies will work out a general plan for the cooperation between our two countries in time to come," said the Chinese minister.

He said they had a very in-depth and comprehensive discussion on bilateral relations, the history of the relationship, and friendship.

"Thus, the friendship was cemented throughout these years, nearly fifty years after ...since our bilateral relation was established in 1975," Jianchao said.

He said China shares the interest and also the very strong inspiration, enthusiasm in working with Bangladesh in its drive for prosperity, for example the Vision-2041 and also the goal to achieve a Smart Bangladesh.

"China remains a brand as a neighbour and a partner for your modernisation drives. So, we will do it within the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative," he added.

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