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Going back to the outset, Major General (retd) ANM Muniruzzaman, president of BIPSS, said that the BRI concept was first floated by the Chinese president Xi Jinping in 2013 while visiting Kazakhstan. President Xi Jinping elaborated this further the next year in Jakarta. Now 142 countries, including Bangladesh, have signed on to BRI till date.

“The BRI is estimated to cost up to 4 trillion dollars,” Maj Gen (retd) Muniruzzaman pointed out, terming it as “a mega project, a grand strategy that will have deep geostrategic and geoeconomic consequences.” Explaining the magnitude of the initiative, he said, “BRI is structured on six economic corridors, two being corridors with maritime reach. Bangladesh is on one of the maritime corridors, the BCIM EC (Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar Economic Corridor).”

He said that BRI aims to fill the huge infrastructure gap in countries of Asia, including Bangladesh, as infrastructure is fundamental to the region’s development goals.

Listing the concerns raised about BRI, the BIPSS president said these included possible debt traps, environmental sustainability of the BRI projects, corruption linked to the projects in several countries, strategic concerns and so on.

Editor of Dhaka Tribune Zafar Sobhan expressed his view that as Bangladesh had established its place in the world, BRI had brought both challenges and opportunities to the fore. He said that this initiative would assist in shaping the geopolitics of the region in particular, and the world as a whole. Bangladesh, like each signatory of BRI, would have to take up the initiative to suit its own interests and requirements. He pointed out the need to discern the pros and cons of BRI and take decisions accordingly.

Speaking as a panelist at the event, executive director of the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD), Fahmida Khatun said that as an emerging economy and a member of BRI, it was important to see why this initiative is important to Bangladesh.

As Bangladesh had transformed from a least development country to a developing one, she pointed out, the country was investing hugely in infrastructure and required resources. “At present there is a huge gap between what we need and what we get,” she said, “So we need a flow of investment. In Bangladesh the largest BRI projects were in the energy and transport sectors and so BRI was meeting the gap.”

Fahmida Khatun also raised several concerns about BRI, including environmental issues and the use of coal in energy projects, coal being considered the dirtiest energy. Another concern was the eviction of people from their homesteads to make way for roads and railways. Even with compensation, people were reluctant to shift from their ancestral lands. Transparency in the procurement process of many projects was also a matter of concern.

The Chinese way of business was different from the Western way of business. It had become the financier of last resorts and spends 85 billion US dollars annually in this regard
Parvez Karim Abbasi, assistant professor of economics at East West University

Assistant professor of economics at East West University and a panelist at the event, Parvez Karim Abbasi, highlighted the issues lesser discussed about BRI.

Why did BRI come about, he posed the question, explaining that it was about giving the people an idea of a better tomorrow. Chinese president Xi Jinping had become a most influential leader and the BRI vision enhanced his image. The confrontation with the West served to raise his popularity further among his people.

Addressing the concern on debt dynamics, he said that the Chinese way of business was different from the Western way of business. It had become the financier of last resorts and spends 85 billion US dollars annually in this regard. There was a huge demand for infrastructure and loans often became onerous. Chinese used a debt-driven model which much of the loans being provided by its state-owned banks.

BRI had just emerged from infancy and was in its adolescence, so as to say, Parvez Karim Abbasi observed.

The discussion was followed by questions, answers and comments by the audience comprising foreign diplomats, present and former civil servants, retired military officers, academics, members of the civil society, journalists and others.

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