By Azzam Khan/South Asian Monitor
Trade connectivity and inclusive development, the key words emerging over the last decade, are tangible challenges for Bangladesh. Pragmatic measures and political consensus are imperative to meet these challenges. Also essential for trade, connectivity and inclusive development are cordial and sincere relations.
These views were expressed by speakers at a seminar on ‘Bangladesh in Regional Trade and Connectivity: A Politico-Economic Assessment’ held in the capital city Dhaka on 19 August 2017 at the Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies (BIISS). Organised by the Centre for Governance Studies (CGS), the seminar was addressed by prominent politicians, academics, economists, members of the business community, political scientists, the media, and others.
Presenting the keynote, researcher M Shahidul Islam highlighted major regional initiatives in Asia, prominent among which was the China-led Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and Japan’s Big-B, (Bay of Bengal Industrial Growth Belt), among others.
The keynote indicated that Bangladesh trade with China was on a steady increase, but trade with India was not steady. Until recently, India was dominant in trade with Bangladesh, but presently trade with China has been rapid. It has not been so rapid with India. The reasons behind this slow-down in trade with India were non-tariff barriers, high costs of trade, India’s negative list, no headway in trade and services under SAARC, India’s anti-dumping laws, Bangladesh’s narrow export basket and insignificant foreign direct investment (FDI).
Speaking on Bangladesh in regional connectivity, Shahidul Islam said that the potential of BCIM (Bangladesh–China–India–Myanmar Forum for Regional Cooperation) was stunted due to tensions between China and India. He said that Dhaka had spoken of a Look East policy, but this was not visible on ground. And connectivity with India was not as it should be.
He pointed to the integrated efforts on the border between Myanmar and China which rendered the border economically vibrant. This could offer a lesson for Bangladesh. Myanmar was also going to be vital for Bangladesh.
Highlighting the political constraints to Bangladesh taking advantage from regional trade and connectivity, the keynote pointed to Bangladesh-India transit, development of the deep-sea port in Chittagong, wider connectivity linking Bangladesh with East Asia and Southeast Asia. Certain big powers created constraints and pressures in these matters.
In conclusion, the keynote said that the existing trade, transit and connectivity were producing sub-optimal outcomes for Bangladesh. Dhaka required a two-pronged approach to increase trade and connectivity both bilaterally and multilaterally. Bangladesh’s economic future hinges largely on Asia and so there should be a strong drive to link the country physically with the world’s most dynamic regions, that is, East and Southeast Asia. There is political need for political consensus within Bangladesh to pursue the country’s strategic interests.
Political observer Manjur Ahmed Chowdhury said that talks on regional connectivity have been continuing over the last two years and Bangladesh imagined milk and honey would flow throughout the country when connectivity with India, Bhutan and Nepal was forged. But the picture of transit and connectivity is not a good one. Nepal was dependent on India, even using its currency to a great part. As for Bhutan, it was a vassal state of India. He said, “We need connectivity not with India, Bhutan and Nepal, but with East Asian countries.” He said when there was a call for tariff from India for transit, we were called uncivilised. This was worse as Bangladesh lacked bargaining ability. He said India clearly stated it would support one particular political party during the election, but there was no official protest from Bangladesh. “Any other country would have not hurled bouquets, but something quite the opposite,” he said.
Speaking as chief guest at the seminar, Commerce Minister of Bangladesh Tofail Ahmed said, Bangladesh had come a long way since being termed a basket case in the early seventies. The rise of Bangladesh was nothing short of a miracle. He said Bangladesh was capable of negotiating with India as was displayed by Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in 1972 when he told the Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi that Bangladesh was grateful for India’s help in the independence, but Indian troops would have to be withdrawn before she visited Bangladesh. The Indian troops were duly withdrawn before her visit.
The minister referred to the trade imbalance with India, saying that Bangladesh imported from India for its own purpose. He said, “We have to be liberal, we can’t be isolated. We will no longer be an LDC by 2021, marking the 50th anniversary of Bangladesh.” He rejected contentions that Bangladesh lacked competence in negotiations, saying, “We never go against national interests.”
Barrister Rumeen Farhana of BNP said the preconditions to trade, connectivity and inclusive development was sincere friendly relations. That required equal footing. The people were the driving force. It was the people’s views that counted, because governments changed, not the people. But with India, there were no sincere relations because of the border killings, the barbed wire fencing, the tariff barriers, the steadily widening trade gap and the unilateral withdrawal of river waters.
She said that with the transit facilities granted by Bangladesh, India was cutting down on 1100 kms in travel between Kolkata to Agartala, over Bangladesh territory. It thus saved up to 70 per cent in costs, but what did Bangladesh gain? she asked. The government was just giving all these facilities to India, without gaining anything. One had to beg on one’s knees just for a little water from India. In the dry season, they blocked the rivers and, like now, they opened the dams during the rains, and Bangladesh was deluged.
She said that the so-called multimodal transit meant nothing, as Nepal and Bangladesh couldn’t transport goods to each other because India did not permit use of just even a narrow strip of its territory.
Former NBR Chairman Dr Muhammed Abdul Mazid spoke of the need for a Pan Asian Stock Exchange, pointing out that India had obstructed initiatives in that regard. He said that balanced development was required to improve trade relations.
Ambassador Munshi Faiz Ahmed, chairman of BIISS, said that Bangladesh was surrounded all side by India, but connectivity needed to go beyond India. OBOR was essential, but needed to have good relations with India and Myanmar as their territory was required to be part of the BRI initiative.
Young economist Harunur Rashid said that while trade with India was not increasing rapidly, the trade gap was widening very rapidly. The anti-dumping list of India even included jute products from Bangladesh. The tariff structure hardly allowed Bangladesh to gain from transit with India.
Another young economist Zakir Hossain Khan said from Bangladesh’s UN peacekeeping experience in Africa, it was seen that there was a huge potential of business between Bangladesh and African countries. OBOR would facilitate such trade.
Veteran politician JSD leader ASM Abdur Rab said Bangladesh was weak in negotiations, not even able to connect with a submarine cable properly let alone have deep sea ports, Trans Asian Railway and other vital connectivity installations.
He questioned why the deep-sea port didn’t happen. He also said Bangladesh needed to blame itself for not being able to enter India’s market while India entered Bangladesh market easily. Bangladesh had to take more pragmatic and strong measures.
BNP leader and former minister Kamal Ibne Yusuf pointed out about transit that India would not pay the costs of investment in roads for heavy transport. He said the non-tariff barrier with India was a serious block. He said BCIM was a victim of Sino-Indian rivalry.
The former minister said, “It must been examined whether bilateral connectivity with India benefits Bangladesh or not. There must be no compromise. Trade has been overwhelmingly in India’s favour.”
Dr Zafrullah Chowdhury, trustee of Gonoshasthya Kendra, said there was no point in having bad relations with the neighbour, but if they had threatening elements, then there was no point in opening doors to them either.
Other speakers at the meeting included banker Mamunur Rashid, former president of DCCI Asif Ibrahim, Dhaka University teacher MA Khaleque and others.
The seminar was moderated by noted TV anchor and Executive Director of CGS Zillur Rahman and chaired by CGS chairman Prof Ataur Rahman.
(The featured image at the top Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi with his Bangladeshi counterpart Sheikh Hasina)