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This October marks the 30th anniversary of the establishment of China-Bangladesh diplomatic relations. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao is to pay a visit to Bangladesh early next month. Ahead of this visit, Bangladeshi Ambassador to China, ASHFAQUR RAHMAN, sat down with BEIJING REVIEW reporter ZAN JIFANG to share his views on bilateral ties, economic cooperation and other issues of common interest. Excerpts of their talks follow.
BEIJING REVIEW: How would you evaluate the current bilateral relations? In your view, how should the two countries strengthen their economic ties?
Ambassador Rahman: The bilateral relations between China and Bangladesh are excellent. The year 2005 is very important for Bangladesh-China relations. We are celebrating the 30th anniversary of establishment of diplomatic relations between our two countries. In these 30 years, our relations have widened and deepened. We have had many very high-level state visits between China and Bangladesh. Our Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia was in Shanghai last May to attend the Global Conference on Scaling Up Poverty Reduction and, on the sidelines of the meeting, met with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. This year, Premier Wen is going to visit Bangladesh and we welcome him. Apart from these high-level visits, we have had high-level political exchanges. The Communist Party of China has sent delegations to Bangladesh, and our political parties’ leaders have come here. There have also been mutual visits by our military leaders and professionals. So our exchanges and visits have been at various levels and have increased in frequency.
On the economic cooperation front, our trade is growing fast. Our imports from and exports to China are increasing. But there is a trade gap. We import a lot more from China, but we do not sell as much. So, the gap needs to be overcome. It is very important.
China also participates in building our country’s physical infrastructure through viable projects. In Bangladesh, China is involved in building roads, bridges and our Conference Center (called Bangladesh-China Friendship Center). Also they are involved in mining, telecommunication, manufacturing projects and fertilizer factories. More projects are in the anvil.
We have signed cultural agreements with China through which your country offers scholarships to Bangladeshi students. The two countries also exchange scholars from time to time.
But we have some suggestions on how we can further strengthen our economic ties. We must look forward to a much closer economic relationship, since our political relations are excellent. I think Bangladesh and China should overcome the trade gap, and there are many ways of doing it. If China invests in Bangladesh’s factories and buys back products from those factories, China and Bangladesh will have a win-win situation. Some of the sectors that Chinese entrepreneurs can enter are textiles, foodstuff, processing, IT and pharmaceuticals.
Moreover, we hope China will continue to support us in our infrastructure projects by giving us concessional loans. Then we can have deeper cooperation in the infrastructure field, like building roads and bridges in a very cost-effective way.
In the cultural field, I think China may offer more scholarships. In China many of the universities are doing well and more scholarships should be given to study in top Chinese universities. Students from Bangladesh would also like to come to Chinese universities under “self-financing” scheme. More information on what universities in China offer should be made available. The Chinese Embassy and Chinese universities could organize education fairs in Bangladesh.
We hope after the important visit of Premier Wen, our bilateral cooperation will further deepen and widen.
What do you think will be the focus of the talks between the leaders of our two countries during Premier Wen’s impending visit to your country?
I have mentioned that we are very happy that Mr. Wen Jiabao is to visit Bangladesh. He is a very welcome guest and so is the high-level Chinese delegation that is accompanying him. At the prime ministerial level, they usually share perceptions on issues or matters when they meet. So, I think, in this visit, our two prime ministers will share views on international and also regional matters.
Bangladesh has one of the largest UN peacekeeping force in the world. Over 7,000 troops of the country are now deployed in 11 UN peacekeeping missions around the world. So there are many issues that Bangladesh and China can talk about on peace and development.
Bangladesh, like China, is a developing country and both believe in multilateralism. So there are a lot of areas that the two prime ministers may exchange their perceptions. We have common concerns on issues relating to the UN, as well as its organs, programs and development.
Bangladesh, in addition to its membership to the UN, is also a member of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, the Commonwealth and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. So, we can share with China different perceptions on regional issues and cooperation. I can also say that the two prime ministers are likely to discuss bilateral economic issues, especially how we can boost our bilateral trade and increase China’s investment in Bangladesh. Bangladesh is keen to invite China to invest more given the excellent investment environment and incentives. This would be in line with China’s present policy of “going global.”
Bangladesh is also keen to attract Chinese tourists. We hope to get the approved tourist destination status during Premier Wen’s visit. The distance between Kunming in China’s Yunnan Province to Dhaka (capital of Bangladesh) as the crow files is only one hour and 15 minutes. So in this short air time tourists from southwest and west China can see the longest and one of the most beautiful sea beaches in the world in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh. Similarly, Bangladeshis can also in one hour and 15 minutes arrive in the land of “eternal spring” and also see mountain and glaciers and ancient forests in Yunnan and Sichuan provinces of China. Buddhists of both countries would also like to go to visit each other’s historical relics and sites. Tourism between the two countries may be discussed during Premier Wen’s visit.
What’s your comment on China’s policy toward the Taiwan issue?
Bangladesh believes in “one-China” and Taiwan is a province of China. We look forward to the early and peaceful reunification of Taiwan with the mainland. I think China’s policy on Taiwan that it is an inseparable part of China, and it is only natural that the compatriots in Taiwan should rejoin their cousins in the mainland is our policy too. Bangladesh is one of the countries that have always supported China on this issue.
We are very encouraged by the direct charter flights across the Taiwan Strait during your Lunar New Year festival. We hope events are going to move forward and peaceful reunification of China will come soon.
How do you understand China’s foreign policy? What’s your comment on the perceived “China threat?”
China has a large number of neighbors with different histories, cultures and background. Your foreign policy has been to have good relations with them. This is pursued very vigorously and robustly. This will make all China’s neighbors prosperous and make you prosperous too.
The peaceful development of China is not a threat but an opportunity for both China and other countries. China has a 1.3 billion population and is a huge market for its neighbors. China’s neighbors also offer themselves as a large market for Chinese products. By benefiting from each other’s economic strengths, the development of China does not pose as an obstacle. China has in last 25 years through “reform and opening up” brought 400 million people out of poverty. This is very good. China’s foreign policy of reaching out to developing countries in the world is reassuring. It gives an added dimension to maintaining international peace and security.
Beginning from the first day of this year, the global textile export quota was lifted and the international textile trade liberalized. How has the change affected the garment industry of Bangladesh, as it is the pillar of exports from your country? How will Bangladesh deal with the competition from cheaper textile products, such as those from China and India?
We think globalization is a positive development for developing countries like Bangladesh. But globalization is not free lunch. There is a heavy price to pay sometimes for countries like Bangladesh. At present Bangladesh is a major global producer and seller of ready-made garments (RMG) to the United States and the European Union countries.
So long, we enjoyed quota-free access of our RMG products to large European and U.S. markets. Other producers had quotas. However, with textile integration from January 2005, we are in open competition with textile and RMG giants like India and China. It is good, but we do not have capacity to develop our textile industry so quickly, because we buy the fabrics from other countries like South Korea and India, and we make garments in Bangladesh. So, we must produce our own fabrics and develop our port and transport infrastructure to have short ‘lead time’ to export our RMG. But it needs time to develop all this.
We have restructured our RMG sector to some extent, but in the long run we will face increasing competition. This may lead to unemployment. We have 2 million RMG workers, of which 98 percent are women. Almost 15 million people are dependent on RMG industry and 75 percent of our exports are dependent on this. We cannot lose out on such an important sector.
However, if China cooperates and invests heavily in this sector in Bangladesh, we can jointly produce and sell in the international market. And it will be a win-win situation for both of us.
In your opinion, what role should China play in pushing forward regional economic cooperation?
China is a very important power in the world and in the Asia-Pacific region now. It has become increasingly important because it is an economic powerhouse with greater possibilities in the future. In the past 25 years of reform and opening up, China has become an economy with one of the largest GDP (measured at purchasing power parity) in the world. You are like an economic giant that is awakening.
There is a saying in Bangladesh: If there is high tide in the sea, then not one ship rises with the tide in the harbor but all the ships rise. So, with China’s development, all the countries in the region will together benefit. It is very important that all the countries in the region come forward and cooperate with China. Your country has a certain role to play in the region. China should associate itself with regional economic groups as much as possible, like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, the Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand Economic Cooperation and others.
China must also try to develop road and rail links with all the countries in the region. You must also have better telecommunication with the region. China should consider lowering tariff and non-tariff barriers, so that the regional countries can benefit from each other’s markets. Free trade agreements could then follow, provided there is a level economic playing field for all the countries in the region.
There must be large-scale business-tourist flow, so that our business people can learn from each other’s business practices, opportunities and business pitfalls. These will move forward China’s role in regional economic cooperation.
How has last year’s tsunami impacted the economy of South Asia? Was Bangladesh affected by it?
It is unfortunate that three South Asian countries were directly struck by the tsunami. These are India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives.
Bangladesh has not been directly hit, as the impact of the tsunami has been in the east-west direction in the Indian Ocean, and not south-north. Also we have a long submerged continental shelf, which the tsunami struck and then dissipated.
However, wherever else the tsunami struck in these countries it brought destruction along the coastlines that are in proximity to the under-sea earthquake in Banda Aceh in Indonesia. This has affected industries, infrastructure and service industries. Now rapid reconstruction is underway in those places and in those affected countries.
In Bangladesh, the impact of the tsunami has been minimal. We have, in fact, sent relief materials to some of our affected neighbors in South Asia.