Highlighting the huge perception change from the Australian side, he said persistent efforts of the Bangladesh mission over the last three-four years to create a new narrative of Bangladesh in Australia have started paying dividends.
Signing of a Trade and Investment Framework Arrangement (TIFA), repeated telephone calls from Australian foreign minister to Bangladesh foreign minister AK Abdul Momen and request from Australian prime minister for meeting Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina during COP26 in Glasgow indicate a significant change in the approach from the Australian side that has all these years seen Bangladesh as a vulnerable country and a recipient of her development assistance, said the diplomat whose career spans over three decades.
Founded on bipartisan support, the leadership of Australia quickly recognised Bangladesh on 31 January 1972, the first among the developed nations that influenced recognition from other countries.
The then Australian prime minister Gough Whitlam visited Dhaka in January 1975 and met Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman giving Bangladesh-Australia relations a strong beginning.
“But when we lost our Father of the Nation, I think Bangladesh also lost its path. The momentum in bilateral relations that was created during the visit of prime minister Gough Whitlam in 1975, the only Australian prime minister who visited Bangladesh in the last five decades, couldn’t be sustained,” said the Bangladesh envoy, recalling the role of these two giant political personalities.
In the subsequent period, high commissioner Sufiur said, they saw Australian support coming in the reconstruction of Bangladesh and in the field of socio-economic development, which he thinks was far below the potential.
The envoy who is also Bangladesh high commissioner to New Zealand and Fiji said things started changing slightly when Australia decided to extend duty free quota free market access to Bangladesh, two decades back as an LDC.
And in the last 10 years or so, he said, Australia's interest in Bangladesh increased because of Bangladesh's capacity to export in a significant quantum to the Australian market and to absorb Australian exports apart from Bangladesh diaspora’s important role in Australian nation building efforts.
Geopolitics and post-Covid era
The high commissioner said the post-Covid era is going to be an “uncertain time” for everybody in the regional context and also in the global context with the emergence of intense strategic competition.
“And that will also have an impact on how we produce, how we consume and how we trade. These all are going to happen at the same time. So, we would expect to see greater focus on sustainable consumption,” he said, adding that the production processes will change, sourcing from various countries will also change.
And at the same time, the climate change related global consensus, which will also have an impact on how the countries produce, people consume and trade, said the envoy.
Apart from all these factors, the High Commissioner said, there are newer tensions in the Indo Pacific and between some countries in the region.
“So, this geopolitical tension is also going to have an impact on how Bangladesh and Australia will try to adjust engagement with each other,” he said, noting that Bangladesh is focused on the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean and would like to see peace and stability in this region to keep Bangladesh’s development journey uninterrupted.
And it is in that context, he said, that when they engage with Australia now and more in the post-Covid era, they will try to make Bangladesh more economically important to Australia, a major player in the Indian Ocean region. “Now we’re the 29th trade partner of Australia and from there we'd like to be in the first 20 in the next decade.”
The two-way trade that the two countries are having now is in the domain of $2 billion and Bangladesh expects that to go to $5-10 billion with the inclusion of newer items and bigger items in the export and import baskets, said the Bangladesh envoy.
And similarly for imperatives in the strategic and geopolitical domain, he said, the greater understanding between Bangladesh and Australia will lead to more movement of students, skilled manpower, knowledge transfer, he said sharing his assessment.
In the post-Covid era and in the next decade, when the geopolitical tensions will create a new kind of compulsion for countries to look for newer partners, Bangladesh should be able to get into new diversified areas of export and import, Sufiur Rahman said.
Intense cooperation through TIFA
The high commissioner said Bangladesh and Australia are having good growth in terms of trade but depending only on the duty- quota-free treatment of Australia, Bangladesh may not be able to reach where it intends to.
“That's why we felt we should create a legal framework. That was the initial thought but in the process of discussion, it was clear that neither the Bangladesh nor Australian side were ready for an elaborate FTA like legally-binding arrangement,” he said.
The envoy said the two countries created a framework and it is not an FTA but it has got important elements built into it.
Most importantly, he said, TIFA has created a very positive optics in Australia and also in Bangladesh that the two countries are considering each other as “important, reliable, trustworthy” trade and economic partners.
“So, that’s a huge positive development. If you do not create a positive perception and optics, it does not move that easily. We’ve been able to create a positive optics through this instrument and look forward to the Joint Working Group mechanism under it,” he added.
As far as its operationalization is concerned, he said, they would like to see that Bangladesh has value as a production hub for Australian import and a destination of Australian export
Australia has more than $1.3 trillion worth of investment abroad and if Bangladesh can secure even a tiny percentage of it, it will be a huge investment for Bangladesh, said the High Commissioner.
With all this, he said, they thought of creating this framework and hoped that this positive image and also the discussion between the two parties - both at the government and the private sector levels- will create the path for “much intense” trade and investment cooperation between the two countries.
Recent DFAT report and Bangladesh
The high commissioner said Bangladesh, in the past, was seen in a slightly negative way though there is no tension between Australia and Bangladesh.
He said they have been pushing quite aggressively in recent years as Australia is yet to fully recognise the value that Bangladesh has created thus far.
The annual report of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) that actually summarises Australian focus on a particular country, Bangladesh was not mentioned on its own value in 2017-18 and 2018-19.
He said they continued their efforts to change the perception of the Australians on Bangladesh from a disaster-prone, aid-dependent country to a self-assured and quietly emerging economic power in the Indian Ocean region.
“But after these three to four years of hard work, now Australia has evaluated Bangladesh slightly differently. I can say that Australia recognised Bangladesh’s continued economic progress and good potential for economic relations to grow in its recent DFAT report,” he said.
Quoting the DFAT report 2020-2021, the High Commissioner said, “In addition to our close cooperation with India, we continued to strengthen our relationships with key partner countries in the North East Indian Ocean region.”
In addition to India, Australia needs Bangladesh for peace, stability and security of the regions and it is a very high appreciation on part of Australia on Bangladesh's emergence and future value, he said.
Responding to a question on a recent policy paper by National Security College (NSC) on Bangladesh, the envoy said it was mentioned that Australia needs to broaden its engagement in South Asia to complement her current focus on India, meaning beyond the QUAD into this whole game.
Secondly, Bangladesh is a huge, growing and thriving economy and the potential of Bangladesh in becoming the next Asian tiger has been appreciated in this, he added.
It has also said that because of this value, Australia appears keen to develop a defence and security relationship with Bangladesh as part of broader political and economic engagement.
In this overall game, when they talk about peace and stability in the Indian Ocean region, one thing Bangladesh can immediately gain is Australian support in combating the problems that Bangladesh faces in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea-human trafficking, drug trafficking, even gunrunning.
Responding to a question, the high commissioner said Bangladesh, at present, would like to see defence collaboration remain in the domain of “non-procurement and non-interoperability”, meaning Bangladesh is not going to have military kind of exercise and certainly non-deployment of forces.
“So, that’s not a part of our agenda now, but our agenda is to have greater appreciation of each other's capacity, then better networking among defence related operators and training,” he said.
The High Commissioner said when two countries discuss greater trust and security understanding, at some point of time; defence collaboration will come as an important element of it.
Defence collaboration, however, is a “slow-moving” commodity in comparison to trade and investment.
Explaining further, the High Commissioner said, “If you’ve a greater understanding of the vessels operating in your maritime zone, you understand whether you are secure or not secure.”
So, he added, if that awareness of the maritime domain could be created with the help of Australia, Bangladesh will be able to know whether a particular vessel is engaged in illegal activities, whether a fishing vessel has come with hazardous waste and is trying to dump that in the Bay of Bengal or it has all kinds of negative intentions.
“So, for this kind of collaboration, we can have immediate linkages with Australia that are in our interest. The other thing that is in our interest in the collaboration during natural calamities and disasters, Australia is an important player in this and we can benefit from it in the future.”