Bangladesh can still view the decision to hop on the Belt and Road Initiative positively.
First announced in 2013, the overarching vision packed onto China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) includes highways and expressways, overland rail routes, ports, gas pipelines and building infrastructure.
It envisions a railway track to connect Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkey, Spain, Warsaw, Moscow and Germany and to connect Myanmar and Bangladesh. A proposed pipeline is to connect Russia to Europe, and Myanmar - Bangladesh. Ports are planned in Gwadar (Pakistan), Sittwe (Myanmar) and Chittagong (Bangladesh), and are intended to connect countries through the Maritime Silk Route.
Several more projects make up the nuts-and-bolts of the overarching vision, that bears the unmistakable imprint of Xi Jinping, the most charismatic Chinese president to have emerged in generations, a natural leader of men with a larger than life personality that often transcends the more staid workings of the Communist Party. In recognition of his brilliance, the Communist Party recently discarded the custom whereby leaders serve no more than two terms. Xi looks certain to take on at least a third - thereafter it depends on what checks and balances are devised to reward him on performance.
Bangladesh formally joined the BRI during Xi’s eye-catching visit to Dhaka in October 2016, during which Sheikh Hasina’s government got a taster of the extraordinary largesse on offer from the Chinese in their relentless march towards becoming not only the largest economy in the world, but a superpower in more than just name or ambition. Besides deals amounting to $38 billion in prospective investment in Bangladesh (from both state and private sources), a document of cooperation focusing on the Belt and Road Initiative was also signed during Xi’s stay in Dhaka.
At the time, Donald J. Lewis, Director of the Centre for International Economic Law, Trade & Development, wrote an article in China Daily, the Communist Party’s English-language mouthpiece, that “[t]he land dimensions of the OBOR consist of several interconnected corridors spanning the entire Eurasian continent. Bangladesh is centrally situated along the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) Economic Corridor. Bangladesh also occupies a strategic position along the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road with its bustling port of Chittagong as a major maritime hub through the Indian Ocean.”
Afterwards, the Bangladesh side said it was ‘appreciative’ of the Chinese initiative, believing it will bring important opportunities towards fulfilling its own goal of becoming a middle-income country by 2021 and a developed one by 2041. Thus the two sides agreed to enhance the alignment of their development strategies, and to fully tap the potential for cooperation in various areas through the Belt and Road Initiative. The BRI is meant to be a systematic project, in which the two main components (the belt and the road, see above) will be jointly built through consultation to meet the interests of all, and efforts will be made to integrate the development strategies of the countries along the Belt and Road.
On the Belt, the Road
The CSIS Reconnecting Asia Project has identified three key BRI projects in Bangladesh: the Dhaka-Jessore rail line, the Payra power plant and the Karnaphuli Tunnel -- the country’s first-ever underwater tunnel. Chinese development banks dominate the projects’ financing, while Chinese contractors often take over the construction process.
Construction has already started for the $1.65 billion coal-fired power plant by the port of Payra. The plant is a joint venture involving Chinese power company CMC and Bangladesh’s state-owned North-West Power Generation Co. While the equity will be split in half, the project’s financing is fully provided by China. The plant is scheduled to be operational by December 2019.
The $4.4 billion Dhaka-Jessore rail line is still in its preparatory phase. Announced in 2016, the line is expected to launch in 2022. State-owned China Railway Construction is the project’s contractor.
The construction stage for the Karnaphuli Tunnel is less clear. State-owned China Communications Construction Co. signed a $705 million contract with the Bangladesh Bridge Authority back in 2015. But in November 2017, Bangladeshi newspaper Financial Express reported that construction work had not started because the BBA was waiting for the Exim Bank of China to release funds for the project.
Whatever the delay, Naser Ejaz Bijoy, CEO of Standard Chartered Bangladesh notes that the two countries are a good fit. “China has overcapacity onshore and it’s not growing as fast as it did in the past, so it would require external demand to support its production. Countries like Bangladesh growing at 7% will have that demand.”
The principal benefit to Bangladesh in the short to medium term lies in the upgrading of infrastructure, the benefits of which stand to accrue to the whole country. Power supplies are a big part of this: by 2016, 78 percent of Bangladesh’s 163 million people had access to electricity, with outages common. In part under the aegis of the B&R initiative, Bangladesh has embarked on a programme to boost its generating capacity to 24,000MW by 2022, from around 16,000MW currently.
Sinosure, a Chinese export credit agency teamed up for the first time with its German counterpart Euler Hermes and the World Bank Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency to back the financing of a power plant in Sirajganj, which is now in commercial operation. Guangdong Power and Hubei Electric Engineering are also building plants in Shahjibazar and Chapai Nawabganj respectively.
The long-term goal is to make Bangladesh more attractive as a destination for foreign investment both to take advantage of its export-oriented garment sector and serve the large and young domestic population. Part of this will be achieved through Special Economic Zones (SEZs), building on the success the country has seen to date with a limited number of export processing zones. One of the earliest, the Korea Export Processing Zone near Chittagong, was established in 1996. The Korean sponsor, Youngone Corporation, alone exported $200 million worth of goods in 2017, and having already earned $100million earned in the first four months of 2018, hopes to close the year at $220million.
It is a success story the government wants to recreate: it now has ambitious plans to set up 100 SEZs by 2030, each with similar business-friendly provisions. So far some 55 government-owned and 11 private SEZ sites have been identified. Chinese companies are among those developing industrial parks near key infrastructure hubs, to be used by Chinese manufacturing firms. One, a 750-acre site near Chittagong, will be 70 per cent owned by China Harbour Engineering Company in a joint venture being formed for the park with the Bangladesh Special Economic Zone Authority.
While it is still early days, the net effect of better infrastructure and advantageous regulations within the new SEZs should lead to more FDI from South Korea, Japan and India as well as China.
China usually prefers a three-stage approach to involvement in foreign investment, in which they start as Engineering Procurement & Construction (EPC) contractors, thereafter invest small equity stakes and finally seek major equity stakes.
In Bangladesh too, the participation of Chinese institutions in B&R ventures commenced principally in an engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) role, or as suppliers of capital machinery. Having developed a strong familiarity, they are now seeking significant investments in sectors such as power, roads and the like,” Rangnekar says.
There are signs this is changing. The examples of Chinese banks and industry players taking a larger role in Bangladesh’s future, from taking equity stakes through JVs for new power plants and industrial parks to broader financing for crucial transport projects, are getting more numerous. And it’s not just infrastructure. Chinese companies are broadening their investment horizons, says Huque.
A recent example of major direct equity investment is the acquisition of a 25% stake in the Dhaka Stock Exchange by the bourses in Shanghai and Shenzhen. Signed in May 2018, the transaction is valued at $111.65 million and will see the Chinese exchanges help the Bangladesh bourse set up an enterprise board for small and medium-sized companies and launch more derivatives.
There is also more evidence of Chinese private firms being enticed by the prospect of servicing Bangladesh’s consumers in an economy growing at 7 per cent per year. Ant Financial, China’s dominant e-payments group, recently invested in Bangladesh’s bKash mobile payments service. More such investments will surely be forthcoming, particularly if Bangladesh seizes the full potential of its position as a crucial link in the BRI, as it surely was on the old Silk Route.