‘Long-term interests should dictate engagement’

Thursday, May 25th, 2017


Pre-eminent political scientist and chair of the Department of Politics and Government at Illinois State University, Dr Ali Riaz, answers three key questions relating to Bangladesh as part of the Belt and Road Initiative, and how it plays off against its other diplomatic ties in the region.


Dhaka Courier (DC): Are you satisfied with the level of Bangladesh’s participation at last week’s OBOR, or BRI Forum, in light of being a key outpost on the Silk Route and Xi Jinping’s rather magnanimous turn in Dhaka last October?


Ali Riaz (AR): To date, Bangladesh’s participation in the OBOR appears to be enthusiastic but cautious. The reason is not difficult to ascertain. Political rather than economic consideration is causing some hesitations from the part of Bangladesh. The close relationship between India and Bangladesh, particularly the present Bangladesh government, has put them on a slow path. Chinese efforts to embrace various countries of South Asia including Bangladesh is not viewed by Indian policymakers very kindly; they view it as a challenge to Indian influence.


While undoubtedly Bangladesh will benefit from the connectivity the OBOR will offer, it should emphasize other aspects of Bangladesh-China economic relationships. For example, the trade gap. The request for duty free access to Chinese market has not been responded yet. These should be a part of the negotiations.


DC: In plain and simple terms: what’s in it for Bangladesh?


AR: The most obvious benefit for Bangladesh is the connectivity with various countries in Asia. The BCIM (Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar) economic corridor is a case in point. Understandably, it’s an important part of the OBOR project. But the third  Joint Study Group (JSG) meeting held in April showed that the tug of war between China and India is holding back its progress. Beyond the connectivity is the potentials for significant investments. Bangladesh may qualify for the newly Silk Road Fund announced at the Forum. Chinese investments are on the rise and is expected to grow further.


However, I would like to ring a bell of caution here. Chinese investments in various countries, particularly in African continent in the past decades, have faced enormous criticisms ranging from controversial business practices to failure to promote good governance and human rights. Environmental concerns and lack of resource transparency have been cited as major worries with respect to Chinese investments. These are equally true to several projects taken elsewhere under the OBOR.


However, I must acknowledge that some of these pitfalls are associated with investments or grants/loans of other countries too. For example, many Indian investments in Bangladesh in the past years, are guilty of some of these charges. Agreements signed at the government-level lack transparency, very little details have been made available to the public.


My concern is that without proper oversight,  in a country with rampant corruption and little accountability, whether these loans, grants and investments will benefit a small group of people rather than the nation at large. This is not to suggest that Bangladesh should shy away from OBOR but instead Bangladeshis should remain vigilant of these potential downsides and hold the government accountable.


DC: The Big-B initiative offered by Japan under Prime Minister Abe; Naya Disha with India under Modi (although arguably that represents merely the christening of a set of policies set in motion under the last Congress govt in Delhi); and OBOR with China. How important is it for Bangladesh to balance the three?


AR: The efforts to include Bangladesh into the Bay of Bengal Industrial Growth Belt (BIG-B) initiative of Japan, the OBOR of China and the Naya Disha policy of India point to the fact that Bangladesh’s geopolitical and geostrategic importance have grown. Both the geographical location and the economic growth of the country in the past two decades are to be credited for the attention the country is now receiving. It is equally important to bear in mind that the center of global economic activities is shifting to Asia. This is an opportune moment for Bangladesh. It shouldn’t let this opportunity go by. But it must be very careful in making its choices. Because none of these initiatives are devoid of the strategic objectives of these countries.


It’s not only a matter of balancing between these three but also necessary to consider the future trajectories. Long-term interests of the country should dictate the nature, scope and degree of engagement; decisions based on immediate political gains or ad-hoc measures will be immensely harmful. These issues warrant public discussions and involvement of all political forces, citizens and the members of the civil society. Unfortunately, currently environment for such conversation is absent in the country; decisions are taken without transparency and accountability.

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