Periodic exchange of diplomatic visits and political dialogue at the highest level remains an effective instrument in promoting productive relations between modern states. Recognising this course of action, the King of Bhutan Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck visited Bangladesh in 2011 and 2013. Also, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina visited Bhutan in 2009 and 2017 to strengthen relations.
At the invitation of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Bhutanese Prime Minister Lotay Tshering along with two ministers, senior officials and 26-member business delegation visited Bangladesh from April 12 to 15, 2019. The objective of his visit was to expand existing cooperation with Bangladesh.
The Kingdom of Bhutan is one of the fastest-growing economies in the world with an estimated population of about 823,578 in 2019. Bhutan perceives Bangladesh as an indispensable friend providing duty-free access to 18 products as well as authorisation to use Chittagong and Mongla seaports. India remains Bhutan's leading economic and security partner. However, Bhutan has an ambitious vision to be self-reliant and less dependent on its giant neighbour, India.
Bhutan exports much more to Bangladesh than it imports. Bangladesh is the second largest trading partner of Bhutan and remains a significant importer of mandarin, apple, boulder, pebbles and gravels.
Bangladesh's export to Bhutan mainly consists of readymade garments, melamine products, tableware, pharmaceuticals, toiletries, and cooking oil, etc. The volume of Bangladesh's exports to Bhutan has been meagre. To address the issue, Bangladesh business entity should make efforts to enhance commercial relations with Bhutan with a concrete trading plan.
Both countries are exploring possibilities of expanding trade. Bangladesh-Bhutan two-way trade was worth about US$ 53m in 2018. Economists believe actual trade is insignificant and far below the potential.
Notably, during PM Hasina's first visit to Bhutan on November 07 2009, Bangladesh decided to remove tariffs on Bhutanese products. That helped Bhutan to increase its trade with Bangladesh substantially. During Hasina's 2017 visit, Dhaka and Thimphu signed eight memorandum of understanding (MoUs) on business, connectivity and agriculture.
On April 13, 2019, Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina and her Bhutanese counterpart Lotay Tshering discussed bilateral trade, investment, tourism and transit issues. Both agreed to allow duty and quota-free access of goods to each other's markets. While Bhutan has sought duty and quota-free access of additional 16 goods to Bangladesh market, Bangladesh has sought similar advantage for 10 products.
The two countries also signed five MoU's to increase collaboration further. They include, MoU's on waterways, health, agriculture, tourism sectors and public administration training. But mere approval of MoU's is not enough. Firm commitment, proper execution, and monitoring of the MoUs are important.
Prime Minister Tshering expressed his gratitude to Bangladesh government for supporting Bhutanese students pursuing higher education, particularly in the field of medicine. Notably, Tshering obtained his MBBS degree in 2001 from Mymensingh Medical College, and pursued post-graduate studies in the then IPGMR, now Bangabandhu Sk Mujib Medical University (BSMMU), Dhaka. Currently, about 135 Bhutanese students are studying in different universities in Bangladesh. The Bhutanese PM is particularly keen to appoint medical specialists from Bangladesh.
Prime Minister Tshering spoke at a meeting organised by the Federation of Bangladesh Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FBCCI). In his address, he stressed upon the huge potentials to develop the bilateral trade further. At the close of the event, the two chambers signed a MoU to set up a Joint Business Council to promote trade relations.
Bhutan's goals for sustainable development, optimisation of its "Gross National Happiness" model and its vision to become self-reliant demand prudent economic management, and rapid diversification of economic relations with Bangladesh and other countries. The visit of the Bhutanese PM Tshering is expected to further cement Bangladesh-Bhutan bilateral relations.
Dr Kamal Uddin Ahmed is a former Professor and Chairman, Department of Political
Science, University of Dhaka.
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