Dr David Brewster, a senior research fellow at the National Security College in Australia, has depicted Bangladesh’s economic growth and described how the country is becoming an increasingly influential regional state.
He mentioned that Dhaka is increasingly confident in an emerging role and the rest of the world would benefit from paying close attention.
In his recent article titled “A rising Bangladesh starts to exert its regional power” Brewster said the recent announcement that Bangladesh would provide US$200 million in aid to Sri Lanka is an important turning point as that country moves from being an impoverished supplicant towards an increasingly influential regional state.
He thinks it is an outcome of years of high economic growth and points to Dhaka’s potential to become an important Indo-Pacific middle player.
When it gained independence from Pakistan in 1971, Brewster said, Bangladesh was one of the poorest countries in the world with few apparent prospects – former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger apocryphally called it a “basket case”.
Today, he said, it is a confident country of 160 million people with a booming, export-oriented economy, which has grown at an annual average of about 6% for two decades.
The economic growth slowed to 5.2% in 2020 due to Covid, and is forecast by the ADB to bounce back to 6.8% in 2021 and 7.2% in 2022. GDP per capita now stands at $2,227, higher than India’s ($1,947) and much higher than its former masters, Pakistan ($1,543).
Dhaka’s recent aid to neighbouring Sri Lanka was a first in Bangladesh extending financial assistance to any other country.
“Just as importantly, Bangladesh scores well against India and other South Asian countries in many social indicators, including health, life expectancy, birth rates and employment of women,” Brewster wrote in his article that appeared on The Interpreter that features daily commentary and analysis on international issues.
He said the sustainability of Bangladesh’s growth story is not without its sceptics who question official growth figures or point to its heavy reliance on garment exports, which could make it financially vulnerable.
Since 2008, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has presided over a relatively stable civilian administration, Brewster wrote, mentioning that she is publicly popular.
He said Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne is now known to be keen on building ties, and there are signs that the two sides want to move the relationship beyond aid.
An agreement to facilitate trade and investment has been finalised and is close to signing, which could help open opportunities for Australian agriculture, resource and energy exports to a booming Bangladesh, the article reads.
“Australia could do well in moving beyond traditional regional partners. Greater focus needs to be given to building ties with emerging middle powers such as Bangladesh to complement relationships with the big powers,” Brewster wrote.
The article is part of a two-year project being undertaken by the ANU National Security College on the Indian Ocean, with the support of the Australian Department of Defence.