Ambassador Li Jiming eyes stronger partnership with Bangladesh; identifies 5 key areas of cooperation

Foreign affairs experts at an online symposium discussed the efforts of Bangladesh and China to transform all potentials into reality in the building of brighter future keeping the growing relationship unhurt amidst the crossfire of geopolitics.

Experts both from Bangladesh and China assessed the state of relations between Bangladesh and China and identified the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead in the efforts to take it forward.

The virtual roundtable titled "Bangladesh China Relations: Prognosis of the Future" was hosted by the Cosmos Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the Cosmos Group, as a part of its ongoing Ambassador's Lecture Series.

The opening remarks were delivered by the Cosmos Foundation Chairman, Enayetullah Khan. The session was chaired by Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury, renowned scholar-diplomat and former Advisor on Foreign Affairs of Bangladesh Caretaker Government.

Ambassador (retd) Tariq A. Karim, CPD Distinguished Fellow Dr. Debapriya Bhattacharya, former Foreign Secretary Shamsher M. Chowdhury BB, Assistant Researcher of the Institute for International Studies at Yunnan University Dr Zou Yingmeng, Assistant Research Fellow at China Institute of International Studies Dr Ning Shengnan, former Ambassador Serajul Islam and Dhaka University Professor Dr Rashed Al Mahmud Titumir comprised the panel of discussants.

A Strategic Partnership of Cooporation: Li

Delivering the keynote address, the Ambassador of China to Bangladesh, Li Jiming said "Looking into the future, we've every reason to expect a stronger Strategic Partnership of Cooperation between China and Bangladesh."

Ambassador Li highlighted five key areas where Bangladesh and China can strengthen the current partnership. These are namely deepening anti-pandemic cooperation, advancing the Belt and Road Initiative, fighting climate change, resolving hotspot issues and upholding multilateralism.

The Chinese envoy emphasised that the 100th Anniversary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) is coming soon and said the CPC, under the leadership of General-Secretary Xi Jiming, is ready to work with the government and political parties of Bangladesh to make our Strategic Partnership of Cooperation stronger and more vibrant.

History as Mirror to Move Forward

In his inaugural remarks, Chairman Enayetullah Khan, underscored the importance of the bilateral relationship to both China and Bangladesh.

In this regard, the contribution of the Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman would be "indelibly etched" in our minds.

He said the sheer volume and breadth of contacts between the two peoples covered a vast terrain in history that is often overlooked.

He recalled the interview he had done long ago with the current Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi.

"One of the pearls of wisdom Wang Yi told me was that China's basic policy is to look at history as a mirror to move forward".

He added that Bangladesh China ties are civilizational and stakeholders on both sides must do everything possible to widen and deepen the full range of the relationship.

In his chair's remarks, Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury, focused on China's world view and the implications of its phenomenal rise for the world including Bangladesh. He said, "the rise of China is perhaps the key feature of contemporary times".

He added that already the second largest economy in the world, China is poised to be the first sooner than expected.

The eyes of China, Dr Chowdhury said, are fixed on more than the development and prosperity. International good will was being sought through its vaccine diplomacy. In global politics, there was always possibility of a friction between a rising power and the currently preponderant one.

He added that the World hoped that such a conflict could be avoided and ultimately the major powers, China and the United States could bind themselves into a web of collaboration leading to global stability.

"That would be the true fruition of what president Xi Jinping calls China Dream. That is also the broad global metrics on which the Bangladesh-China relations will be played out".

Geopolitical Matrix of Bangla-China Relations

Former Foreign Secretary Shamsher Mubin Chowdhury said that in the area of foreign policy, Bangladesh believed in using diplomacy as the first line of defence and as the major tool for the resolution of disputes.

"It has been consistent in perusing mutually beneficial and multilateral, regional and trans-regional relationship. It has demonstrated its capacity and resolve to deal firmly with extremism and terrorism."

The former ambassador said there are of course analysts who want to look at Bangladesh's relationship and ties with the countries of the region as there are competitions among some of the major countries in this regard. "I personally view this as a healthy development that can benefit all, especially the major countries."

As Ambassador Li Jiming has talked about the issue of climate change, Shamsher thinks it is very important that all keep this practice in mind.

He added, "We have to work this context, Bangladesh's relation with China is very critical and very important. I also want to maintain here that we believe in enhanced connectivity, and we believe in close strategic partnerships, not just bilaterally, but also in the border Asia Pacifica context."

He agreed with Ambassador Li that vaccine nationalism should be replaced by vaccine internationalism. "This is where I think all have to come forward and play our role together because the virus will stay at least for some more time."

Dr Zou, another Chinese expert, said Sino Bangladesh relations were acquiring a life of their own, driven by common goals and mutual benefits.

"With the friendly diplomatic ties, we Chinese and Bangladeshis have shared views, opinions and have truly tested friendship, which is the central theme of making Sino-Bangladesh relations stronger," he said.

Dr Zou expressed the hope that the experience of cooperation will fulfil the two nations with confidence and expectations of joining hands and moving forward in the future.

Dr. Debapriya Bhattacharya said China-Bangladesh relationship should not get hurt in the crossfire of geopolitics as their projections suggest that the economic relationship in the coming days will become more and more politicised.

Within that politicised economic relationship architecture, he is, it is important how they really protect the Chino-Bangla relationship on its own ground.

"The independence of policymaking and the sovereignty of policy making will be critical for Bangladesh in the coming days," Dr. Debapriya said adding that Bangladesh, most importantly, as an equal and a substantive partner retains its independence of policymaking.

He urged that following Bangladesh's graduation from the list of least developed countries, China should continue to provide preferential market access.

Relations Beyond Diplomacy

Chinese expert Dr Ning Shengnan said they believe Bangladesh is growing to be the model of development across South Asia region.

She said the Sino- Bangladesh friendship lies not only in their diplomatic relations, but also upon the same development philosophy. "China and Bangladesh both initiate the process of industrialization from labour-intensive industries."

She added "Therefore faced with this strong wave of anti-globalization, it is necessary for China and Bangladesh to jointly stand out and defend the global free trade system," she said.

Former Ambassador Serajul Islam said the prognosis leads to an excellent way by which Bangladesh and China can aspire to a future of excellent cooperation.

He listed a number of critical projects and said that Bangladesh and China were creating a basis of collaboration in order to implement them in a mutually beneficial manner.

Dr Rashed Titumir said that there are at least three necessary conditions for growth and stability - production networks between the two countries; capital invested on risk-sharing basis rather than transfer of risk, that may lead to accumulated debt and transfer of technology.

The analyst said realizing potentials is also plagued by a number of geo-strategic intricacies. "Bangladesh does not share borders with China. For Bangladesh to join in any connectivity initiative involves a third country."

Most importantly, he said, sustenance of a partnership is contingent upon normative legitimacy, which arises out of broad-based social approval across the political spectrum and peoples in both countries.

Speaking at the end, former Ambassador Tariq Karim explained Bangladesh's foreign policy as inundated by the father of the nation as "Friendship towards all and malice towards none".

He underscored the need to be pragmatic and the necessity of keeping sovereign independence of Bangladesh intact with dignity and self respect.

He observed that "It will focus on economic development, cooperation and trade with all countries in its own national interests. I emphasize that whatever we do and whatever any country does is essentially to consolidate, to promote, to project and to advance its own national interests".

Bangla-China: A Shared Dream

In his concluding remarks, Chairman Enayetullah Khan referred to China's Road and Belt Initiative which holds out enormous promise for enhancing connectivity with nations far and near.

He added "It is a great source of pride and happiness to Bangladeshis as they see China's rise in the global scene. We know that the Chinese people have a dream; so do we in Bangladesh as we endeavour to achieve our goal of a middle-income status."

Shouldn't Worry about Debt Trap?

Ambassador to Bangladesh Li has said Bangladesh should never worry about bad debt or so-called "debt trap" noting that Bangladesh has managed foreign debt very well with an excellent system in place.

"I would say that you've managed foreign debt very, very well and there's no such bad debt so far at all. You've earned a very, very high credit (recognition) internationally in terms of (managing) international debts. So, never worry about that," he said while responding to a question.

Sri Lanka is often portrayed as a country that fell into a "debt trap" as a result of public investment projects financed by China and the issue came for discussion at the symposium.

Ambassador Li, however, said there is no proven evidence that China created any 'debt trap' in any country, including in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.

"I think you've an excellent system and you've excellent officials and Ministers to take care of that. So, never worry about that," said the Ambassador.

Referring to an article he read regarding Sri Lanka's debt situation, the Chinese envoy said the total Chinese debt accounts for only less than 8 percent of the whole debts of that country and of this 8 percent Chinese debts, much less is related to the Belt and Road projects.

The Ambassador also said there is governmental to governmental debt, which is normally a soft, concessional loan with a very low interest and for a very long period of time.

Dr. Debapriya said China has emerged as a big financial investor in Bangladesh involving major projects and those projects have major infrastructural implications.

Now there is a debated issue across the world whether this kind of financial flow is debt trap for the countries like Bangladesh as it happened in Sri Lanka, he said.

"Thankfully Bangladesh's external debt remains moderately manageable and most of the country's debts are from the multinational agencies and at this moment it is not China," said the economist.

Dr. Debapriya, however, said they should be really mindful about the debt repayment issue although they are at a comfortable at this stage. "But there are projections that this debt issue would be a challenging point for the Bangladesh-China relationship beyond 2024."

Bangladesh's total outstanding debt burden is well under 40 percent of GDP.

Ambassador Li said the two countries - Bangladesh and China - need to advance the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), noting that there is no doubt that closer cooperation under BRI will strengthen Strategic Partnership of Cooperation.

Bangladesh is the first South Asian country to sign up for BRI, which was first proposed by President Xi Jinping in 2013.

Ambassador Li said last year, braving the huge threat of COVID-19, many Chinese managers, engineers, technicians and workers in Bangladesh chose not to leave for home, thus ensuring the steady progress of major BRI projects in Bangladesh.

He said the Karnaphuli Tunnel Project, the first underwater tunnel project in Bangladesh and in South Asia, has achieved a "breakthrough" with the completion of its left line; the Bangabandhu Bangladesh-China Friendship Exhibition Center, so far the largest of its kind in the country, has been handed over to the government of Bangladesh; the completion of Padma Bridge, the "dream bridge" of the Bangladeshi people, as well as its rail way link, is also within their reach.

Statistics show that the accumulated infrastructure construction contract volume between our two countries has reached 72.6 billion dollars by the end of 2020, said Ambassador Li.

He mentioned another BRI project - the Project of Expansion and Strengthening of Power System Network under DPDC Area.

Bridge between India and China

The Chinese Ambassador emphasized that China had never taken India as a "strategic rival" rather they considered India a good neighbour of China.

"I would say, we never took India as a strategic rival. We still hope that the China-India relationship can be improved. So, never imagine that China would like to have any hostile or rival attitude to India. That's not the case," said the envoy, mentioning a number of platforms where the two countries are working together. "We're still working very, very well together, very closely."

He, as the Chinese Ambassador to India's neighbouring country - Bangladesh, hoped that this China-India relationship would be improved more in the future.

Historically, Ambassador Li said, they have more than 2000 to 3000 years of good relationship with India, and for any Chinese intellectual like him has a special feeling to Indian culture.

"Any Chinese intellectual, who is well-educated, would have a special feeling. A good feeling, towards India - that is something untold publicly probably," he said.

Enayetullah Khan fondly recalled interviewing the present Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Beijing back in 2004 (he was the Vice-Foreign Minister) when Minister Yi talked about new foreign policy which is good neighbourly relations with their neighbours. "I asked, where does Bangladesh stand? His immediate answer was - Bangladesh could be the bridge between India and China," Khan said, going down to his memory lane.

Technology Transfer

Responding to a question about technology transfer, the Ambassador said there are more and more technology transfers happening between China and Bangladesh.

He mentioned that a couple of years ago, China was not used to purchasing any garment from Bangladesh, which is the number one export product of Bangladesh.

But these days, he said, a lot of readymade garment products have been exported to China from Bangladesh.

"What happened? Your garments industry has been upgraded to such a higher level, and that is why China is buying from Bangladesh. That is just one of the examples that you can tell that a lot of technology transfer is happening between these two countries," said the Ambassador adding that probably, China and Bangladesh can even work together on space technology too in the future

The Quad

As one of the discussants raised the Quad issue - the 4-country alliance between the USA, Australia, Japan and India, that is seen as anti-Beijing. The Ambassador took the opportunity to explain what he said on the issue of Bangladesh possibly being invited to join, at a particular programme.

"As an Ambassador to Bangladesh, the first foreign policy lesson I learned is that Bangladesh adheres to the idea of "friendship to all and malice to none." So, I have full confidence that Bangladesh will not be part of that small clique," he said.

"But when I was asked if you would like to see or do you think this is a good idea for Bangladesh to do so, of course, I would say no. What else can you expect from me? Should I say yes? That would have been ridiculous. So that is the story about Quad," Ambassador Li added.

He said he has full confidence and China has full confidence in Bangladesh that it would never take part in any small clique, especially involving military or security purposes. "This is the history that already taught us that Bangladesh would never do that."

Teesta Project

Asked about the Teesta river project, Ambassador Li said competent authorities of Bangladesh did propose to China for the Teesta river project but unfortunately the proposal is too simple. "It's not with a feasibility study report, not a formal project proposal."

"I would say please, make a more complete feasibility study report, and only after that, we can start to assess it to make an evaluation," said Ambassador Li.

He said they also have to make some feasibility studies - economically, environmentally and even geopolitically.

"But unfortunately, till today, there's nothing new yet. If, as some guessed, China should be excluded from this kind of project - that's okay for us, as we were invited, we weren't trying to persuade the Bangladesh government. No, that's not the case here," Ambassador Li added.

Bridge to Facilitate Early Repatriation

Ambassador Li has said China will continue to serve as a "bridge of communication and try its best to facilitate early results" as Bangladesh seeks early repatriation of Rohingyas to their place of origin in Myanmar.

"We fully understand the keenness of Bangladesh to start repatriation, and our determination to help the two friendly neighbours resolve this long-standing issue will never change," he said.

While delivering the keynote speech, Ambassador Li said the sudden change in Myanmar earlier this year caught them all by surprise, and created some uncertainties over the repatriation process.

Right now, he said, China is closely observing the situation in Myanmar, hoping the country could return to normal soon.

Referring to Ambassador Li's remarks about the Rohingya issue, Shamsher said Bangladesh had got many promises and assurances of the satisfactory resolution of this issue.

"It is a humanitarian issue which has a potential of becoming a security issue if it's not resolved satisfactorily keeping in mind the dignity, and honour of this community of people who are facing the UN described the textbook example of ethnic cleansing," he said.

The former diplomat thinks the countries that have the leverage to play the right kind of role in finding a solution should step up and look to finding a peaceful resolution without any further delay.

He questioned whether the Rohingyas are the victims of regional geopolitics and geostrategic interests. "I think this is the question Bangladesh needs to ask the major players in the region very frankly and candidly... It's a much more humanitarian issue and I think it has to be faced effectively and timely."

Shamsher said Bangladesh has a sizable military that is professional and has developed a global character and it is widely respected for its disaster management capabilities and for keeping peace under the United Nations in far off lands.

More recently, he said Bangladesh has earned universal accolades for readily providing shelter to more than a million Rohingya refugees fleeing persecution at their own home.

He also said Bangladesh has earned recognition as a responsible neighbour and a regional player by hosting Rohingya refugees from Myanmar.

Former Ambassador Tariq Karim said, "I would request China to support us in our efforts to augment regional and sub-regional cooperation on a number of issues which will have consequences with China, particularly in resolving the Rohingya Issue, not just in Bangladesh, but particularly in its point of origin where China has the capacity to help us resolve it."

About the current volatile situation in Myanmar, he said he sees the flame in the centre and it is on the point of imploding, and imploding Myanmar will lead to an explosion that will not leave any country including China, Bangladesh, India and any of the Asean countries, untouched.

"So, I would urge them to look afresh at this and use their influence and make sure that this flame is put out quickly so that their looking west aspirations and our looking east aspirations can actually start moving towards each other," Tariq Karim said.

Dr Rashed Titumir said citing the crisis in the Rakhine state as a complex and historic one, China has defended the Myanmar government.

The analyst said India is also competing for influence in Myanmar and is critical of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) of China.

Bangladesh has long been exploring ways with the international community to begin repatriation of the Rohingyas to their place of origin in Rakhine state.

The repatriation, however, could not be commenced in the last four years with two "failed attempts" amid "lack of confidence" among Rohingyas and "lack of conducive environment" in Rakhine State.

Discussion with Myanmar remains halted for a long time amid Covid situation and subsequent military coup in Myanmar.

In Cosmos Foundation's Ambassador Lecture Series, the envoys of various countries stationed in Dhaka are invited to deliver a keynote and engage with a high-level expert panel on bilateral ties between Bangladesh and the country they represent.

Cosmos Foundation, brings together the finest minds to arrive at a prognosis for the future of the relationship, in line with its commitment to eliciting strategic insights and policy solutions for Bangladesh as it charts its course toward a future that is ever brighter.

With inputs from AR Jahangir, Muhammad Syfullah and Md. Ishtiak Hossain

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