In the build up to Bangladesh's next election, it is clear to see that ruling party Awami League has decided on projecting its most bankable asset, in the form of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, as its biggest advantage over rival party BNP, where questions continue to persist over the leadership at the very top of the tree, for reasons that are fairly obvious. The BNP's own most bankable asset, thrice-former prime minister and party chairperson Begum Khaleda Zia, remains politically inactive since being jailed (although out now on specific conditions set by the government) on corruption charges in 2018. Considerable question marks persist over the acceptability of acting chair Tarique Rahman, holed up in London since 2008, among the wider Bangladeshi population, even if not within the rank and file of the BNP itself. On the other hand, the leadership on the ground at present, represented by general secretary Mirza Fakhrul Alamgir, is questioned within the party itself.

In this situation, the AL is more than happy to build its entire campaign centred on the figure of the prime minister. Foreign engagements present opportunities to show off this advantage in terms of leadership that they enjoy. Within the region, the Sheikh Hasina government is acknowledged as India's closest and only reliable partner in a neighbourhood fraught with anti-Indian feelings and shifting loyalties. Hasina is currently basking in the glory of her successful trip to India where she not only participated at the G20 summit on the host's quota, but also rubbed shoulders with several world leaders including Joe Biden, Narendra Modi, Rishi Sunak and others. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and French President Emmanuel Macron visiting Dhaka either side of the Delhi summit, the last week or so has been action-packed on the diplomatic front.

While Lavrov landed in Dhaka for a day ahead of the summit and held talks with senior leaders including Hasina, Macron arrived right after the summit, looking to build ties in the region as part of a deeper push in the "Indo-Pacific" region. It also represented an opportunity for the French president to once again set himself and his nation apart from US-led Western initiatives, at a time when Washington's focus on trying to ensure an acceptable election in Bangladesh is well-known in international politics.

"Based on democratic principles and the rule of law, in a region facing new imperialism, we want to propose a third way - with no intention to bully our partners or to lead them to an unsustainable scheme," Macron told Bangladesh's Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, speaking in English. The United States and China are competing for influence in the wider region, and Macron has pushed France as offering an alternative.

"Bangladesh is progressively retrieving its place on the world stage," Macron said, speaking after he arrived in the capital Dhaka on Sunday (Sep. 10). He praised what he called "the tremendous success" of the country, a rapidly growing economy and the world's eighth most populous nation, with more than 170 million people.

Hasina said Macron's "push for strategic autonomy aligns with our own foreign policy," speaking at a dinner to welcome him. "We find you to be a breath of fresh air in international politics."

Trade, cultural ties dominate

Macron and Hasina on Monday discussed a "commitment" from the country's Biman airline to purchase 10 A350s from European aircraft maker Airbus, a potential contract that could be worth as much as $3.2 billion. Biman had previously always bought aircraft from the US manufacturer Boeing, and the hope of a purchase from Airbus was "an important point," Macron told reporters, standing alongside Hasina.

Macron held talks with Hasina on Monday and visited a memorial to her father, Bangladesh's first president Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. "We both hope that this new strategic move between Bangladesh and France will play an effective role in establishing regional and global stability and peace," Hasina said Monday.

The visit to Dhaka will also be "an opportunity to deepen the bilateral relationship with a country which is experiencing rapid economic development (...) and which seeks to diversify its partnerships," Macron's office said.

His visit follows a Pacific trip in July to the French overseas territory of New Caledonia, Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea, as well as a stopover in Sri Lanka, in which he outlined his Indo-Pacific strategy aimed at "recommitting" France to the region. On Sunday, Macron met with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the sidelines of the G20 summit in New Delhi, who he hosted in Paris in July.

The French presidency claimed that Macron in the past six months had "done more about South Asia than in the space of a decade."

'Partnership for Peace, Prosperity and People'

The joint communique issued at the conclusion of the visit asserted that Bangladesh and France share a deep-seated friendship, based on shared democratic values, promotion of human rights, sustaining peace and sustainable development.

This friendship is rooted in multi-layered historical ties that notably saw André Malraux, France's former Minister of Culture, launch his memorable call for supporting Bangladesh during the Liberation War in 1971 and his subsequent meeting with Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in Dhaka in April 1973.

Building on Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's visit to France in November 2021, the two leaders resolved in Dhaka to give a strong impetus to the bilateral relations, and stated their common conviction to develop a trusted and meaningful partnership fostering strategic autonomy - in support of global peace and security, resilience and prosperity, and people-centric connectivity.

Bangladesh and France believe in the strength of bilateral and international cooperation in the face of the climate emergency. Following up on the Paris Summit for a New Global Finance Pact, whose recommendations Bangladesh endorses, Bangladesh and France jointly called for the swift implementation of the Paris Pact for People and the Planet and for the mobilisation of additional financing from all sources for development, climate and biodiversity. Both countries recognize the need for a more inclusive governance of the global financing architecture, following four key principles: ensuring that no country should have to choose between fighting poverty and conserving the planet; guaranteeing country ownership of transition strategies; delivering a financial stimulus with enhanced and predictable resources to support vulnerable economies; and mobilising additional private capital to achieve a net-zero and nature-positive world.

Bangladesh and France believe global efforts to facilitate access to climate finance for developing countries should be accelerated further. France will continue to support vulnerable countries in facing extreme events and responding to loss and damage, including through the V20-G7 Global Shield against Climate Risks of which Bangladesh is a priority country, and through the further implementation of climate-resilient debt clauses. Bangladesh and France support the operationalization of the new funding arrangements, including a fund for assisting developing countries vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change in responding to loss and damage. France reasserted its will to support the aspirations of the Climate Vulnerable Forum, in particular by promoting the use of the notion of vulnerability and fine-tuning it towards resilience and prosperity in all relevant fora, including multilateral development banks.

They also agreed to join their efforts to ensure a result-oriented COP28 in Dubai this year. They share the expectation to chart a course at COP28 towards an urgent transition to a climate resilient world, including through investments in renewable and clean energy. They reiterate the necessity to accelerate the global energy transition away from fossil fuels, and to set and meet ambitious targets for renewable energy production and energy efficiency around the world, while ensuring that this transition is just and equitable. France reiterates its aim to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 and move away from its dependency on fossil fuels, while Bangladesh underscores the need for a sustained collaborative approach to support its energy transition efforts through access to affordable finances and technologies.

It was observed during the leaders' talks that climate change and supply chain disruptions are having a disastrous toll on food sovereignty, food security and nutrition worldwide. Bangladesh and France agree to strengthen their cooperation in sustainable and resilient food and agriculture systems in support of food security through regular dialogues. In this regard, France appreciated Bangladesh's joining the Food and Agriculture Resilience Mission (FARM) initiative led by France.

Bangladesh deeply appreciated France's development cooperation support in various areas, e.g. from water treatment to clean energy, from urban development to inclusive health services, featuring climate-oriented projects. A $200 million financing agreement was signed today with the French Agency for Development alongside the Government of Bangladesh and the Asian Development Bank to support the urban development of more than 86 municipalities across Bangladesh.

The two countries stressed the importance of the crucial ecosystem services provided by forests and wetlands and commit to deepening their cooperation to conserve and expand Bangladesh's rich mangroves that are vital reserves of both biodiversity and carbon. France appreciates Bangladesh's continued efforts in conserving its mangrove forest in the southwest region and the biodiversity therein.

Bangladesh and France are also determined to step up their joint efforts ahead of the UN conference on Oceans, co-chaired by France and Costa Rica, to be held in Nice in 2025. Bangladesh invites France to jointly explore ventures in leveraging marine resources in the Bay of Bengal in a sustainable manner. They welcome the adoption of the Agreement under UNCLOS on the Conservation and Sustainable Use of Marine Biological Diversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction in August 2023.

Both countries reiterated their interest in expanding bilateral trade and exploring potentials for investment in quality and resilient infrastructure development in Bangladesh, including in the railway sector. The Prime Minister of Bangladesh and the President of the French Republic express the hope that Bangladesh-France Investment Summit to be held on 23 and 25 October 2023 in Paris and Toulouse would inject new impetus to bilateral trade and investment relations.

France expressed its confidence in the economic prospects offered by Bangladesh for shared growth and inclusive development. They recall the depth of their economic partnership, spanning every sector from industry to services, and express their willingness to further deepen and widen it through business-to-business collaboration. France lauds the adoption of the National Action Plan on the Labour sector of Bangladesh (2021-2026) and stresses the importance of its implementation and the diversification of Bangladesh's economy in order to facilitate a smooth and sustainable transition under the Generalised Scheme of Preferences (GSP) of the European Union.

Strategic autonomy, stability and security

Bangladesh and France reaffirmed their unwavering commitment to international law and the UN Charter, notably the principle of peaceful resolution of conflicts, and an abiding faith in multilateralism.

In that regard, France and Bangladesh reiterated their commitment to territorial integrity and sovereignty of all nations. They affirmed that the war in Ukraine constitutes a violation of international law, in particular of the UN Charter and is a serious threat to the rules-based international order. They expressed their support for all efforts towards the establishment of a just and lasting peace in line with the principles of the UN Charter. They expressed concern over the global consequences of the war - be it financial, economic and on food and energy security - bearing on all nations, and state their readiness to engage together in order to address those challenges.

Macron appreciated Bangladesh's leading contribution to the UN peacekeeping and peacebuilding processes, particularly in Africa. Bangladesh and France reiterated their support for UN peacekeeping operations and express their willingness to regularly consult on mission mandates and their implementation in relevant contexts.

Both countries condemned unconstitutional change of government and unlawful military takeover in any country, and call for urgent and unimpeded humanitarian assistance for those displaced due to conflicts, violence and atrocity crimes.

France commended Bangladesh's generosity in providing shelter and humanitarian support to the forcibly displaced Rohingyas from Myanmar over the years. Both countries reiterated their commitment to maintaining the situation and repatriation of Rohingyas high on the international agenda and the need to create conditions inside Myanmar that allow for their voluntary, safe, dignified and sustainable return to their ancestral homeland at an early date. France announced its decision to intervene, along with other partners, in the Gambia v. Myanmar case before the International Court of Justice, in support of the international efforts to ensure justice and accountability. Bangladesh urged France to help mobilise adequate international support for the UN's Joint Response Plan to the Rohingya humanitarian crisis. In this context, France announced an additional contribution of one million Euros to the World Food Programme's activities in Rohingya camps in Bangladesh.

As two resident powers in the Indian Ocean, Bangladesh and France reiterated their vision of a free, open, inclusive, secure and peaceful Indo-Pacific. They are determined to deepen cooperation among the members of the Indian Ocean Rim Association, building on the impetus given by Bangladesh's presidency of the organisation, and state their willingness to cooperate with other like-minded countries in the region. Both countries expressed their common endeavour to maintaining the region free of illegal traffics, illicit fishing and favouring freedom of trade and navigation. They recalled the port call at Chattogram by FS Surcouf, a French Frigate deployed in the Indian Ocean, in July 2023.

Bangladesh and France also took note of the progress with implementing the EU-Bangladesh Standard Operating Procedures for the Identification and Return of Persons without an Authorisation to Stay, and decided to enhance cooperation to address the challenges related to irregular migration flows, including people's smuggling and trafficking in persons.

Bangladesh and France recalled the Letter of Intent on Cooperation and Exchanges in the Field of Defence signed between the two governments during the visit of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to France in November 2021 and state their willingness to step up defence cooperation, with a focus on naval, air and terrestrial capacity, including equipment and transfer of technology, in support of Bangladesh's strategic autonomy. Both countries support the strengthening of cooperation on non-traditional security issues, notably cooperation on maritime domain awareness under the CRIMARIO (Critical Maritime Routes Indian Ocean) programme.

Bangladesh and France regard sovereignty and strategic autonomy as key principles for a stable, multi-polar world. Both countries therefore welcome enhanced cooperation in strategic sectors. France thanks Bangladesh for its commitment concerning the acquisition of 10 A350 from Airbus. The two countries underline as well the importance of continued cooperation on improved air traffic management in all airports of Bangladesh. Likewise, as a contribution to the 2041 Vision of a Smart Bangladesh, the two countries welcome the conclusion of a space partnership between Airbus DS and Bangladesh Satellite Company Ltd. (BSCL) that will strengthen Bangladesh's position as a Space nation after it masters its own sovereign earth-observation satellite. Bangladesh and France agree to cooperate in the fields of ICT and digital technology, including artificial intelligence. In this regard, France invites Bangladesh to consider joining initiatives such as the Global Partnership on Artificial Intelligence. They also stress the importance of joining their efforts towards an enhanced management of cybersecurity issues for a global, open and secure cyberspace governed by international law. France will work towards identification of technical assistance to Bangladesh in dealing with cybersecurity threats and will work together on the Global Digital Compact under the aegis of the UN.

'People-centric' connectivity

Bangladesh and France regard culture as a major asset to underpin a strong, renewed people-centric connectivity. They commended their long-standing cooperation in the field of archaeology, particularly through the unique Mahasthangarh archaeological mission, and agree to discuss other possible excavation and restoration missions. Both countries acknowledged interest in further developing their cultural cooperation, and note the major role played by the Alliances Françaises in Dhaka and Chattogram in that regard. Both countries recognized the importance of multilingualism and commit to promoting the learning of the French language in Bangladesh and the Bangla language in France. France agreed to provide diplomatic and French language training in France for the young diplomats of Bangladesh. Bangladesh and France agreed to continue their mutual cooperation within the UNESCO, including for promoting a Culture of Peace.

Bangladesh and France wish to strengthen their scientific, technological and research cooperation and welcome the deployment of a French oceanography expert at the International Centre for Ocean Governance at Dhaka University as a means to bolster research cooperation in this crucial field. Both countries reiterated their willingness to encourage more student, teacher and academic exchanges, including through training human resources at the higher educational and post-graduate level in diverse fields, with a focus on priority topics such as architecture, engineering, medicine, oceanography, seismology, climate action, sustainable tourism and development studies. The French Indian Health Campus in which the Université de La Réunion is involved can also contribute to this objective.

All in all, the summit of the two leaders committed their countries to launch regular high-level dialogues to deepen the strategic dimension of their partnership. It was agreed to work towards elevating ties to a strategic level based on 3 P's: Peace, Prosperity and People. By the time the French president left, his visit had served as an important marker that no matter what transpires over the issue of the election in the months ahead, the government in Dhaka is not going to be isolated on the international stage.

The instruments were signed and exchanged in the presence of Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and French President Emmanuel Macron at the Karobi Hall at the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) in the capital Dhaka on Monday, September 11, 2023

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