President of Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies (BIPSS) Major General (Retd) ANM Muniruzzaman has said Bangladesh needs to remain very careful keeping its national interest protected as the strategic landscape in the Asia Pacific region is rapidly changing.
"Strategic landscape is getting changed rapidly. We need to observe it very carefully," he said on Thursday at a virtual dialogue titled “Bangladesh-China Development Cooperation: Experience and Outlook”.
The objective of the event was to review Bangladesh’s economic relationship with China and discuss the outlook for future bi-lateral partnership through investment and trade, reports UNB.
The security analyst said they (Bangladesh) do not want to join in any defence pact, any defence grouping or any defence aligned grouping.
"Don't become part of military agreements or soft military agreements. We should be very careful in maintaining our status," he said, mentioning the recent agreement between India and the US.
He laid emphasis on maintaining strategic autonomy which is fundamental to maintaining economic autonomy or economic freedom with competitiveness.
"We, as a first tract developing country, need to have strategic autonomy so that we have economic freedom to cooperate with everybody," Muniruzzaman said.
He said Bangladesh is a signatory of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and at the same time Bangladesh believes in the principles of Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS).
"We want to remain an active part of the BRI and at the same time, we want to cooperate with the IPS," Muniruzzaman said emphasising on taking maximum advantage of both the initiatives for national interest.
He said Bangladesh has to be extremely cautious in navigating the new complex world avoiding taking any side.
In November 2017, US President Donald Trump outlined a vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific in which all countries prosper alongside as sovereign, independent states.
This vision, the US said, is based on values that have underpinned peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific for generations, according to the US government.
It said free, fair, and reciprocal trade, open investment environments, good governance, and freedom of the seas are goals shared by all who wish to prosper in a free and open future.
Muniruzzaman said Bangladesh is a key maritime nation and provides a critical maritime space making it attractive to China and other countries.
Terming China Bangladesh's strategic and largest trading partner, the expert suggested Bangladesh to explore opportunities beyond traditional cooperation.
He laid emphasis on cooperation in the areas of green economic development, smart agriculture, smart city development, water and river basin management, regional and sub-regional cooperation and opportunities in the post COVID-19 era.
Muniruzzaman said Bangladesh and China have multiple channels of cooperation. "We have excellent people to people relationship. China is our biggest military hardware provider too," he said.
This year marks the 45th anniversary of Bangladesh-China diplomatic ties. During the past decades, development cooperation between Bangladesh and China has increased significantly, the speakers said.
On COVID-19 vaccine, Muniruzzaman said Bangladesh needs to keep all doors open to get access to affordable vaccines quickly.
He said Bangladesh needs to have the capacity to negotiate a good and affordable price of the vaccine which comes out first in the market.
Bangladesh is now in touch with India, China and Oxford vaccine.
Muniruzzaman laid emphasis on exploring external funding for the vaccine to make it available for all in Bangladesh.
Tensions with China
The Indo-China and US-China tensions can have a "deep negative shadow" on cooperation within the region, including Bangladesh's economic cooperation with China, two foreign relations analysts who participated in the dialogue said.
They mentioned the Indo-China standoff in Ladakh after the killing of 20 Indian soldiers in June, trade war and the tensions in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and South China Sea.
Bangladesh Enterprise Institute President M Humayun Kabir said he can see interference by third countries over bilateral cooperation, something that was not observed before.
"For example, we have recently seen India and China's competition at the Dhaka Stock Exchange," he said.
Kabir also said geopolitics is getting mixed up in projects like Sylhet's airport expansion and Teesta basin management.
He sees more difficulty ahead as Bangladesh goes to develop more connectivity and blue economy projects.
Muniruzzaman also echoed Kabir and said the standoff between China and India at Ladakh has a negative shadow in South Asia, particularly because India is Bangladesh's very large neighbour and has deep connections to Bangladesh both in economic and political spheres.
"I see there is a chance of a new cold war," he said, adding that if that comes about then all countries, including the countries like Bangladesh, may have to re-navigate pathways again, as "we reshape our bilateral and multilateral relationship with countries, including our relationship with US and China".
The situation may force Bangladesh to choose a side, the analyst said, suggesting that Bangladesh should avoid taking any side at all cost.
Enhanced Ties with China
Bangladesh has laid emphasis on enhanced trade and investment cooperation with China amid an increased interest among Chinese investors to invest in Bangladesh.
"We are working very closely with the Chinese authorities to know the needs of the Chinese importers," said State Minister for Foreign Affairs M Shahriar Alam.
Shahriar said there is an increasing interest in investment in Bangladesh and investment will continue to grow in the exclusive economic zone in Anwara upazila of Chattogram on 800 acres of land.
He reiterated Bangladesh's commitment on having closer economic cooperation with China for mutual benefit.
Referring to high-level visits between the two countries, Shahriar said there will be more such visits once the COVID-19 situation improves.
On infrastructure issues, the State Minister said the infrastructure gap will not be widening rather it will be narrowing down amid huge works in place.
Vaccine diplomacy, Rohingya crisis, global initiatives like Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS) were also discussed.
Mahbub Uz Zaman, Bangladesh Ambassador to China, Li Jiming, Chinese Ambassador to Bangladesh attended the programme, organised by Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) as guests of honour.
Ambassador M Humayun Kabir, President, Bangladesh Enterprise Institute (BEI), Cheng Min, Professor, Institute for Bangladesh Studies, Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences, Kunming, China; and Dr Wang Shida, Deputy Director, China Academy of Contemporary International Relations, Institute of South Asian Studies, Beijing, China, made comments as panelists.
Professor Rehman Sobhan, Chairman, CPD chaired the dialogue. Dr Fahmida Khatun, Executive Director, CPD delivered the welcome remarks.