Foreign policy of Bangladesh towards South Asia: Bhutan, Nepal and Sri Lanka on conversation

By and large, every nation formulates foreign policy to ensure that its needs are represented in the global community.

The fundamental Foreign Policies of Bangladesh originate from Article no. 25 of the Constitution of Bangladesh.

The foreign policy of Bangladesh comprises of personal circumstance techniques picked by the constitution of the nation to defend its national advantages and to accomplish objectives inside its worldwide relations milieu.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs details and executes the strategies as indicated by the direction from the important segment of the constitution of Bangladesh.

“Friendship to all, malice to none” what Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman articulated in the 1972 constitution is very much relevant still now and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is maintaining diplomatic relations with the world following the same one.  

A scope of points of view is applied to offer profundity to the investigation and to limit predisposition however much as could reasonably be expected.

These points of view consider what is occurring inside and outside the locale for the most part; just as what’s going on inside Bangladesh.

Nepal’s relationship with Bangladesh is unique. It is noticeable that since the very beginning of the establishment of diplomatic relations, Bangladesh-Nepal relations were characterized by ties at the people’s level.

An investigation of Bangladeshi international strategy shows that the local viewpoint requires more prominent accentuation than it has been given until now.

Therefore, the territorial perspective goes before the residential in consequent parts managing Bangladesh’s most basic relationship. In this article, the current state of Bangladesh’s foreign relations with Bhutan, Nepal and Sri Lanka has conversed.

The Kingdom of Bhutan was the first country to recognize Bangladesh’s independence. Relations are strong and long-standing.

In recent years, the two countries have committed to a strategic development partnership, encompassing hydropower, free trade and transport. They are common members of SAARC and BIMSTEC.

Bangladesh and Bhutan are on the same indulgence leveraging one’s opportunities and elaborating methods for handling the available competitive advantages.

These are primarily factor advantages, among which raw material sources and production potential consequently come forward as interchangeable priorities for both countries with a transition economy.

Bhutan and Bangladesh, as small states, negotiate a complex dance of international moves hinging on friendship and national interests.

The two countries do not directly share a border, since a 30 km-wide strip of Indian territory separates them. One might even say, figuratively, that Bhutan’s access to the Indian Ocean is through an Indian ocean of influences.

In 2008, Bhutan has continued to craft a suitable foreign policy for itself, which includes a focus on building relations with small neighbors/states.

In 2017, the Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina unveiled a foundation stone plaque for the construction of chancery in Thimphu.

Bangladesh in different levels of negotiations with Bhutan offers to export more products such as ready-made garments, ceramics, pharmaceuticals, jute and allied products, leather goods, toiletries and agricultural produce.

Bhutan agreed to facilitate entry for these products to further promote trade and investments between the two countries.

Given China’s expansion in the energy in Bangladesh, it is possible that India would lean toward Bhutan to have a job in tending to Bangladesh’s energy shortage.

The signing of an MoU on the use of Inland Waterways for the Transportation of Bilateral Trade and Transit Cargoes between Bhutan and Bangladesh will pave the way for opening up the concept of connectivity with Chittagong and Mongla ports.

Proposed Trilateral MoU between Bangladesh, Bhutan and India for cooperation in the field of Hydroelectric Power on the principles of the agreed regional framework would influence the collective efforts of Bangladesh in resolving power deficit.

Cooperation in tourism to maximize its potential by the way of encouraging exchange of visits of representatives of the tourism industry will certainly yield win-win exertions.

Cooperation in many areas including ICT, connectivity, health, agriculture, education, culture, water resources, hydro-power project, and trade and commerce has been well talked from both ends to take forward.    

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.

Bhutan and Bangladesh went into a Trade Agreement in 1980 under which Bangladesh conceded obligation free access to 18 items from Bhutan.

Not only does the growth of riverine trade avenues lead to advantages such as decreasing costs and reductions in time, but it also signals increasing sub-regional cooperation of the kind envisaged in the BBIN Initiative.

For example, a Motor Vehicle Agreement (BBIN-MVA) was signed in Thimphu in 2015 to facilitate the on-going South Asian Sub-Regional Economic Cooperation (SASEC) effort by the governments to integrate and connect the region.

Human resource development is another facet that shapes the two countries’ bilateral partnership and the level of impact it has on the socio-economic development of the country cannot be understated.

Bangladesh has presented itself as one of the favorite destinations for higher studies for Bhutanese students, especially for those pursuing courses in health and medical sciences.

Today around 133 students are studying in various universities across the country. Bangladesh assists Bhutan in several ways, and a particularly important area of cooperation has been in the field of medical education.

Not only does Bhutan annually receive scholarships from Bangladesh, but Bhutan’s current Prime Minister, Dr Lotay Tsherin is himself a doctor who trained in Bangladesh.

Following its democratic transition. People-to-people contacts have also strengthened between the two countries, with the number of visitors in different capacities to both the destinations surging by the year.

Regionally, Bangladesh engages and cooperates through a plethora of forums and mechanisms – such as BIMSTEC, Colombo Plan, SAARC and UNESCAP – where significant progress has been achieved and several initiatives and projects in key areas of cooperation are in the pipeline.

Bangladesh-Nepalese bilateral relations, featuring equal and sincere treatment, mutual support and friendship for generations, can be an example for relations between two countries.

Neighbors by geography, the foundations of the two countries’ age-old friendship have been laid down by the visionary leaders of the two countries on the common aspirations for peace, mutual respect, collective prosperity and deeper integration.

The two countries have walked a similar path of socio-economic progress and are on track towards LDC graduation within the next decade.

As much as the two countries take pride in their collective history of partnership and headway advanced in multi-faceted fronts, the strong political leadership they inherit and the complementarities, opportunities and untapped potential the two countries offer to make the future equally appealing and their bilateral ties all the more promising.

Given China’s expansion in the energy in Bangladesh, it is possible that India would lean toward Bhutan to have a job in tending to Bangladesh’s energy shortage.

If balanced against ecological concerns and on well-negotiated terms, the development of Bhutan’s hydropower sector and its export of energy beyond India directly to Bangladesh is certainly in Bhutan’s interests.

Both Bangladesh and India (as well as Nepal) would prefer to have Bhutan on board with the BBIN, and the change to the SDF levy is expected to address Bhutan’s concerns about its overburdened ecology in the face of unrestricted tourism and heavy vehicular traffic.

Nonetheless, both Bhutan’s relative closeness to India (rather than China, because of the situation in Tibet) and Bangladesh’s relative closeness to India (because of its history with Pakistan), are mitigated by these small states’ caution vis-à-vis India’s suffocating embrace and their ability to leverage the economic lure of China.

The result is a diplomatic merry-go-round where Bhutan and Bangladesh, as small states, negotiate a complex dance of international moves hinging on friendship and national interests.

Bhutan’s goals for sustainable development, optimization 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.

Nepal is separated from Bangladesh by only 22 kilometers of Indian Territory between them. The interactions between the people of Bangladesh and Nepal go back to thousands of years.

Bangladesh-Nepalese bilateral relations, featuring equal and sincere treatment, mutual support and friendship for generations, can be an example for relations between two countries.

Nepal’s relationship with Bangladesh is unique. It is noticeable that since the very beginning of the establishment of diplomatic relations, Bangladesh-Nepal relations were characterized by ties at the people’s level.

The relations have improved and the major stake in the relationship lies in strengthening the border areas and in improving people-to-people contact and furthering economic relations and trade.

For example, India and Bangladesh have opened immigration offices on their respective sides of the Fulbari-Banglabandha border point enabling Nepal and Bangladesh to expedite their trade exchange.

The setting up of the offices has enabled passenger movement through the route–so far being used only for cargo movement.

Since the establishment of diplomatic ties, the bilateral relations between Nepal and Bangladesh are characterized by cordiality, goodwill, mutual understanding and shared values and aspirations of the people.

Nepal and Bangladesh share similar views on various issues of common interests and work closely in various regional and international forums, including the UN, NAM, SAARC and BIMSTEC.

Economic and commercial relations between Nepal and Bangladesh have been growing steadily over the years. However, the volume of bilateral trade has not seen much improvement despite tremendous potentials for expanding and diversifying trade between the two countries.

The prevailing relations between two neighboring countries are also guided by the SAARC mandate and diplomatic affiliation with the regional force, India.

Significant challenges enumerated from the discussion are as: India has agreed to allow Nepal to trade with Bangladesh through its territory, but bureaucratic hurdles and lack of infrastructure have not allowed the arrangement to work.

Perhaps the India-Bangladesh memorandum of January 2010 indicates New Delhi’s commitment to forcing compliance by its bureaucracy, and kick-start a process on infrastructure building. Bangladesh and Nepal have very good bilateral trade relations.

Nepal imports around 90% of goods to meet local demands. The market is dominated by India but Bangladesh has a big opportunity to grab market share.

Consumer goods, plastic products, batteries, construction materials, furniture, electronic goods including refrigerators, television and home appliance, motorcycle, melamine products, and footwear are being exported here.

Nepal and Bangladesh have to keep friendly relations with India due to our similar cultural-religious traditions and geographical attachment.

Even though the economic logic in strengthening trade and transit relations between Nepal and Bangladesh is clear enough, little has happened so far other than policy concessions that seem out of touch with the ground reality.

Nepal is separated from Bangladesh by only 22 kilometers of Indian Territory between them. The interactions between the people of Bangladesh and Nepal go back to thousands of years.

Discussion and concurrence of both countries in principle for use of Mongla port in Bangladesh for transporting goods to and from Nepal at a concession rate would help promote tourism, travel agents and tour operators of both countries would jointly coordinate necessary steps.  

The positive attitude of both countries to give the final shape to a deal on operational modalities for goods-carrying vehicles in order to ease transit facility to Chittagong and Mongla port remains to assent sign in strengthening trade relations.

Both countries have proposed a bus service between Dhaka and Kathmandu to facilitate trade, tourism and contacts among people.

The official and institutional ties are endless and grow as time passes. The economic diplomacy of Bangladesh should go beyond political relations and help pave a way for globalization.

Nepal and Bangladesh have to keep friendly relations with India due to similar cultural-religious traditions and geographical attachment.

Being a sandwiched and landlocked country, Nepal´s bilateral trade agreements with India and China are of paramount importance.

Nepal should always be aware of its geographic reality, national interest, socio-cultural settings and economic dimension.

Regional cooperation is of growing importance in economic diplomacy. Opening of borders and markets become easier within a regional framework.

Nepal and Bangladesh now need to work to bring India fully on board in helping to develop new trade and transit routes.

In this, sector-specific trade policies are a necessary component if Nepal is to truly pursue export competitiveness. Today Bangladesh has emerged as a regional hub for RMG pharmaceutical, ceramic tiles, chinaware, cement and light engineering products.

Regardless of significant improvements in physical infrastructure connectivity, Sri Lanka has made only limited headway in strengthening its trade and investment links with Bangladesh over the years.

The Nepalese business community should not miss out on excellent investment opportunities there, which could multiply benefits.

Nepal and Bangladesh have to keep friendly relations with India due to our similar cultural-religious traditions and geographical attachment.

People to people contact gained momentum between the two countries are to be consolidated in the coming years ahead.

The decision-makers must be pro-active rather than reactive in their action. Despite having otherwise promising potential to grow, Bangladesh continues to lag behind its competitors for missing out on the opportunities and because of indecision of the policy-makers.

The private sector should have a lead role in economic activities. Economic diplomacy is best carried out through a public-private partnership forum.

The diplomatic ties between Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have grown from strength to strength over a while through impressive cooperation on political, economic, cultural, educational and defense grounds.

Successive Governments in both countries have leveraged their persistent efforts for enhancing this relationship. What we observe, over the decades, both neighboring South Asian nations have undergone remarkable foreign policy changes and have immense scope to deepen this multifaceted close friendship to flourish.

The two South Asian nations have been historically in friendship since before the subcontinent’s colonization by the British. Indeed, Sri Lanka has had fruitful relations with Bangladesh since its creation in 1971.  

The economic, political and cultural partnerships between Sri Lanka and Bangladesh have strengthened their traditionally friendly relations to make them significant players in the South Asia region.

Regular high-level visits in both directions serve to cement and expand bilateral relations that are mutually beneficial in all spheres.

The two South Asian nations are also signatories to regional trade agreements namely the South Asian Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA) giving Bangladesh and Sri Lanka preferential market access to over 1.6 billion people.

Building on the great traditional friendship the two nations can work closely through the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) to unleash closer cooperation.

As an island economy, Sri Lanka’s regional connectivity has been mainly through its main seaport in Colombo, for south Asian countries.

Bangladesh and Sri Lanka should take the lead in reinvigorating intra-region trade, even though the two countries compete for trade with the outside world in categories such as garments. People-to-people contact is also another factor that contributes to a positive relationship.

Regardless of significant improvements in physical infrastructure connectivity, Sri Lanka has made only limited headway in strengthening its trade and investment links with Bangladesh over the years.

The ports of Chittagong in Bangladesh and the ports of Colombo and Hambantota in Sri Lanka are located nearly 1515 nautical miles from each other.

Robust connectivity and linkages between these ports would facilitate shipping, tourism and investments between the two countries. Education and sports are other areas of collaboration between the two nations.

Over the last forty-seven years, the economic, political and cultural partnership between Sri Lanka and Bangladesh has grown beyond the scope of their traditionally friendly relations to become significant players in the South Asian region.

Although trade between the two countries has grown in terms of numbers, this does not indicate that smaller South Asian countries are now prepared to engage in more trade and investment among themselves irrespective of regional politics.

Identifying the threats arising out of terrorism, violent extremism and radicalization on any religious or societal pretext, both countries are vowed to work together towards convening a broad-based dialogue on tolerance, inclusion and pluralism in 2018. 

Bangladesh and Sri Lanka are a clear example of South-South cooperation which is essential for the developing world.

This is a blessing in disguise for developing countries who should give preference to trade and cooperation among themselves instead of looking to the traditionally rich countries for conventional OECD assistance.

South-South cooperation has become essential for Bangladesh to take a more prominent role in achieving the SDG targets by 2030, creating areas of cooperation with South Asian countries and implementing good initiatives from one country to another.

Cooperation in coastal shipping; agriculture; education; investment; information and communication technology; and cooperation between the two central banks have gained momentum.

With the rise of Asia, Bangladesh should take the excellent bilateral relations with Bhutan, Nepal and Sri Lanka to a whole new level by being a model to be emulated by other South Asian countries for enhanced economic growth leading to economic development in the region.

Bangladesh and Sri Lanka should take the lead in reinvigorating intra-region trade, even though the two countries compete for trade with the outside world in categories such as garments. People-to-people contact is also another factor that contributes to a positive relationship.

Bringing up their commitment to multilateralism, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and Sri Lanka have acknowledged increased interaction and cooperation on contemporary multilateral issues like climate change, disaster management, migration, health, peacekeeping, etc. at the UN and other regional and international platforms.

They further agreed to share respective knowledge, ideas, innovation to effectively realize Agenda 2030 in the name of sustainable development goals (SDGs).

We earnestly believe, Bangladesh will keep the momentum forward to “consolidate the already excellent” relations for the benefit of their people based on a broad framework collaboration among countries of the South in political, economic, social, cultural, environmental and technical domains.

With the rise of Asia, Bangladesh should take the excellent bilateral relations with Bhutan, Nepal and Sri Lanka to a whole new level by being a model to be emulated by other South Asian countries for enhanced economic growth leading to economic development in the region.

Moreover, for making BIMSTEC effective in a true sense, the proposal of the Prime Minister of Bangladesh Sheikh Hasina for restructuring the existing areas of cooperation under three main priority clusters namely ‘sustainable development, ‘security and stability’ and ‘people to people contact’ is the demand of time.

(Dr. Mohammad Tarikul Islam is an Associate Professor of Government and Politics at Jahangirnagar University. He has been a Visiting Scholar at the University of Oxford, the University of Cambridge and SOAS (University of London). Email: [email protected])



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