Dhaka needs to balance strategic relations with Beijing and Delhi, assess projects under BRI to avoid debt trap and make decisions on the basis on ground reality
Bangladesh needs to balance relations between China and India to harvest benefits from the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) since the two giants are the big factors for Bangladesh in this region.
On the one hand, Bangladesh needs India's friendship and, on the other, China's money for economic and geopolitical advancement, said economists, experts and politicians.
They said India and China do have confrontation but, at the same time, they have cooperation between them – they know they need each other. Bangladesh has to be very transparent to both the giants so that none can misunderstand, they cautioned.
Speaking at an international conference on BRI at a city hotel yesterday, they said of the two power houses in this region, India is Bangladesh's neighbour while it is largely depended on Chinese funding for investment in projects to become a middle-income country.
They said Bangladesh should deal with the issue carefully to keep both the giants in its favour. In doing so, they suggested Bangladesh should consider the BRI from global, regional and national perspectives.
An initiative of China, the BRI is aimed at building connectivity and economic cooperation across six main economic corridors in Asia, Europe and Africa. As of July this year, 136 countries and 30 international organisations had signed 194 cooperation documents with China to build an overland "Belt" and a "Road" connecting seas. India has not joint the initiative.
"The BRI is a strategic competition about dominance issues of China and that is Indian concern," said former ambassador Tariq A Karim.
"It is particularly important that Chinese and Indian think tanks come together to assess the Indian concerns which have so far kept them out of the BRI process," said noted economist Rehman Sobhan.
Distinguished Fellow of the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) Dr Debapriya Bhattacharya said Bangladesh's benefits from the BRI largely depends on how Dhaka manages relationships with India and China.
Another CPD Distinguished Fellow Mustafizur Rahman said Bangladesh must take necessary initiatives to realise its geo-spatial since the country is located in a sub-region that includes two powerhouses – India and China.
"We need to remember that India is our neighbour and there is a historical relationship with the country. On the other hand, China is a big factor," explains Professor Lailufur Yasmin, who teaches international relations at Dhaka University.
Former ambassador to China Munshi Faiz Ahmad said, "If India does not participate in this initiative, it will create many hindrances. But if they agree to participate, it will be good for them as well as the entire South Asia."
"We need to assess whether India can ignore Bangladesh which has a 165-million-people market," he pointed out.
Editor and Publisher of The Daily Star Mahfuz Anam said Bangladesh needs Indian friendship and China's money but the Rohingya issue became a reality as both India and China are pursuing their own interests.
Deputy Director of the Institute of Bangladesh Studies in Yunnan Academy of Social Science Professor Guo Suiyan believes Bangladesh is now playing a much more important role in China's strategic plans. "Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit to Bangladesh and signing of many deals with Dhaka is the example of it."
The international conference on "Belt and Road Initiative: Positioning Bangladesh within Comparative Perspective" was organised by the CPD and participated by experts, academics, business leaders, civil society activists and political leaders.
CPD's Board of Trustee member Syed Manzur Elahi suggested that government policymakers should discuss business interests with stakeholders while being part of any initiatives like the BRI.
"The BRI is an opportunity for us, but in reality most economies associated with the BRI are competitive. It has to be 'BRI plus Europe', because, at the end of the day, we need to export our products to developed countries," he said.
Md Shahidul Haque, senior secretary of the foreign affairs ministry, said, "We are not going to confine ourselves within the BRI. We should be party to all initiatives as long as it serves our national interest."
In her keynote presentation, Executive Director of CPD Dr Fahmida Khatun outlined the whole perspectives of the BRI, its challenges and opportunities, and what it means to Bangladesh. "There are mixed reactions over the BRI because some countries have joined while some are still observing it," she said.
She said Bangladesh is connected with the BRI through the BCIM economic corridor that covers 1.65 million sq-kilometres and includes about 440 million people. "The effectiveness of the BCIM is crucial to making the BRI successful."
Referring to different studies, Dr Fahmida said improved infrastructure connectivity and increased international trade would mutually benefit all countries in the region.
Industries Minister Nurul Majid Mahmud Humayun, who spoke as chief guest in the opening session of the conference, said the BRI has a huge significance for Bangladesh. "The initiative will further enhance bilateral relations with China. We want a win-win benefit from the BRI."