Put national interest above everything
Bangladesh should give utmost priority to national interest so that the projects backed by China’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative are implemented transparently and the country doesn’t fall into any debt trap.
“The BRI is happening and we are a member of the BRI. It is a complex world. We need to take note of everything that happens in the complexities of international politics of strategy for the best interest of Bangladesh,” said ANM Muniruzzaman, president of the Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies (BIPSS).
“The overriding factor of all of our understanding and decisions must be national interest.”
Shahedul Anam Khan, associate editor of The Daily Star, said the BRI has come to stay. It has generated optimism as well as fear sometimes stemming from a lack of information.
The benefits of the BRI have been overstated sometimes and the negative aspects have been overstated as well, he said.
“It is a commercial project. And there is no free lunch. There must be some return for investment. Any investment that is done has some other ancillary impacts or influences.”
Khan said, “Return is sought on any investment. How it is returned and realised is a matter for all of us to see.”
They spoke at a roundtable on “Belt and Road Initiative (BRI): Perspective from Bangladesh” at The Daily Star Centre in Dhaka. The Daily Star and the BIPSS organised the event. All countries in South Asia except India are signatories to the BRI.
Muniruzzaman said two separate memoranda of understanding were signed between Bangladesh and China during Xi Jinping’s visit to Bangladesh in 2016.
One of the MoUs promised $26 billion for Bangladesh in terms of the BRI infrastructure and connectivity projects. Another $14 billion was promised in joint investment.
Md Touhid Hossain, a former foreign secretary, said the BRI ostensibly aims at increasing connectivity so that trade and investment flourishes and communication between people and business people increases and there is ease of business. It also has important geopolitical context, he said.
He said Bangladesh is somewhat at the receiving end of the BRI. “I feel that nothing substantive is going to change for Bangladesh. I don’t think with China’s current relationship with Myanmar, this initiative is going to be much of a big difference for us connectivity-wise.”
This initiative has, somewhat diminished Bangladesh’s relative importance with other countries in the region. “Because Myanmar has become a very vital state for China in its pursuance of the BRI,” said Hossain.
Prof Sk Tawfique M Haque, chairman of the political science and sociology department at North South University, said the relationship between China and Bangladesh was deepening.
There is a change in Bangladesh’s position and policy on the dependence on China, especially in the economic sector because the country needs money for infrastructure development, trade and business. Chinese investment is also coming heavily, he said.
Parvez K Abbasi, assistant professor of the economics department of East West University, said as Bangladesh gets more globalised and integrated, the country’s exposure to global volatility will continue to increase. “So, there is a great need for insight on our projects.”
“We need infrastructure and we need the money at competitive rates. We have to ensure our economy is in sound health.”
Abbasi said the Chinese have invested massively across the region and the country plans to invest $40 billion in Bangladesh but the disbursement rate has been quite slow.
In Bangladesh, there is a large amount of investment not only from China, but also from the US, Japan and India, he said.
Abbasi said Bangladesh needs investment in infrastructure. And China usually charges very steep interest rates for commercial loans and the non-concessional loan part is very low.
“Do we have the capacity to take on so much debt-financed projects?
ASMA Awal, a former ambassador and former assistant chief of the Naval Staff, said the debt to GDP ratio is satisfactory at the moment. But risks might arise when $24 billion is added to the debt.
“Projects have to be chosen correctly and it has to be in our interest so that we don’t fall into a debt trap. Otherwise, there will be problems.”
Awal said Bangladesh should support the China-backed BRI and US-backed Indo-Pacific Strategy provided that the country does not become a victim like the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka.
“If we can maintain that and get the benefit from all the participants and become a hub, then it will be the best thing that can happen for Bangladesh.”
Abul Hasan Chowdhury, former state minister for foreign affairs, said the BRI has arrived and the discussion should be on how it can be taken forward. “The baby is born. What we are going to do with it is completely a different story.”
He said there would be cooperation on certain aspects and divergence on certain aspects. “The success lies in how we manage that and succeed in moving ahead to bring a holistic approach.”
He said Bangladesh is not a small country and it has immense potential. “We are going forward. If you [other countries] come and invest here, you actually invest in yourself.”
Shahed Akhtar, a former ambassador and secretary, said the BRI itself is well thought out and Bangladesh has a number plans and programmes to benefit from it.
Nadia Binte Amin, president of the Women Entrepreneurs Network for Development Association, said countries join various forums and platforms to retain and enhance their self-interest.
“We should look into how far we are trying to retain and enhance our self-interest when it comes to the BRI.”