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Australian envoy sees potentials for future bilateral cooperation “golden”

Wants to boost trade, investment ties with Bangladesh through TIFA

Australian envoy sees potentials for future bilateral cooperation “golden”

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Australian High Commissioner to Bangladesh Jeremy Bruer has said his country "wants to work energetically" to enhance trade and investment with Bangladesh, noting that the future is “golden” for the two countries to collaborate in broader areas and take the ties to new heights.

“If you ask me for my prognosis for the future of Bangladesh-Australia relations - I say again, the future is golden,” he said, highlighting the opportunities that the recently signed Trade and Investment Framework Arrangement (TIFA) offer.

The High Commissioner, however, said he does not deny that there are significant challenges globally that they need to be met, taking advantage of that golden future and working together in a way that helps meet those challenges “constructively” and supports welfare of the countries.

The Australian envoy made the remarks while delivering his keynote speech at a virtual dialogue titled “Bangladesh-Australia Relations: Prognosis for the Future”.

Cosmos Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the Cosmos Group, hosted the dialogue as part of its ongoing Ambassador’s Lecture Series.

The opening remarks were delivered by Cosmos Foundation Chairman Enayetullah Khan. The session was chaired by Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury, a renowned scholar-diplomat and former Advisor on Foreign Affairs of Bangladesh Caretaker Government.

Former Foreign Secretary Shamsher Mobin Chowdhury, Distinguished Fellow at Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) Dr Debapriya Bhattacharya, Professor at International Relations Department of Dhaka University Imtiaz Ahmed, Brig Gen (retd) Shahedul Anam Khan and Honorary Advisor Emeritus, Cosmos Foundation Ambassador (retd) Tariq A Karim comprised the panel of discussants. 

Enayetullah Khan said the conclusion of the Australia-Bangladesh TIFA on September 15 was timely and could provide the necessary boost towards a more significant economic relationship.

While TIFAs are seen as mostly symbolic, Khan said, they do signal an injection of commitment and ambition, which is what the next phase of the relationship between Bangladesh and Australia actually needs. “So, we’re on the right track.”

He said it is true that India would be Australia’s principal partner in this region but Australia does not look at South Asia only through an Indian lens. “The ever-burgeoning Bangladesh-Australia cooperation, I hope, can become a testimony to that.”

Highlighting Australia’s tremendous moral and material support towards Bangladesh, Dr Iftekhar Chowdhury shared how the focus of aid at that time shifted to trade and commerce which seem to have grown “exponentially” leading to the signing of TIFA.

“We’re also looking for expanded collaboration in the whole range of activities -- e-commerce, infrastructure, power and energy, water, sanitation, hygiene; and tapping potential in the blue economy – our maritime resources,” he said, noting that the two countries will be celebrating 50 years of diplomatic relations next year.

The foreign affairs expert said market access is important as Bangladesh is set to graduate from LDC to a developing country.

Dr Iftekhar said Bangladesh-Australia partnership on a global level is also reflected in many common positions as the two countries adopt in multilateral fora such as the United Nations (UN) and the World Trade Organization (WTO).

“As I’m positive, Australia also understands our need for a sharp development orientation and foreign policy; and our preference for conflict avoidance,” he said.

High Commissioner Bruer said with the right conditions, Australian investors will be keen to explore opportunities in Bangladesh.

“I’m keen to increase investment in both directions. I see that as being important to the development of a more complete, comprehensive commercial relationship and hope we’ll be able to use the TIFA as a platform to see what we can to boost two-way investment,” he said.

The Australian envoy said there is a shared interest in deepening and widening trade and investment opportunities and he thinks the prospects of doing so are bright.

Trade in goods and services has grown at an “impressive and sustained rate” over the last 10 years and in 2019-20 two-way trade was worth $2.6 billion.

With balanced imports and exports, the garment sector, agriculture, food and beverage and education services are key drivers of the growth in bilateral trade.

“We see further opportunities to enhance trade and investment through bilateral cooperation in energy and minerals, including renewable energy; skills development; and information and communication technology services,” said the Australian envoy.

Under the TIFA, he said, they look forward to exploring how governments can work together to boost the recovery of the private sector and lead growth in the wake of the global COVID-19 pandemic.

The High Commissioner said in infrastructure, technology-driven solutions in fields such as road and rail management and logistics Australia can support Bangladesh’s ambitious infrastructure development plans.

The envoy said Australia has the potential to be a major supplier of LNG and other energy resources, including renewable energy to fuel Bangladesh’s growth.

Shamsher Mobin said Bangladesh-Australia relationship has been built on a very stable and sound basis and it is time to see how the two countries can look forward to a greater role for Bangladesh in the Asian region where it can protect its own national interests and preserve them.

At the same time, he said, Bangladesh needs to keep its strategic relationship with other players of the region in a very stable position, kind of finding the right balance.

Mobin thinks Australia can be a partner in helping move this strategic relationship beyond the bilateral framework.

Putting emphasis on working together, he said some recent developments that they have seen within the greater Asian region have geostrategic importance for all the countries in the “Indo Pacific Theatre”. “We’ve proven ourselves to be a very responsible neighbour and a regional player.”

Dr Debapriya said Bangladesh-Australia relationship is a classic case of "suboptimal utilization" and it remains “very underutilized, underappreciated, understated and less understood” relationship in the current context.

He said they need more data, more research and need to work out a pathway how the relationship will prosper in line with Bangladesh’s development ambitions and in line with all the commitments.

The economist said Bangladesh’s development ambitions in the coming days are getting out of the LDC group and it would like to retain some of the privileges for smooth and sustainable development in the post LDC phase.

He said Australia-Bangladesh last September signed TIFA which is a great progress. “But as you know TIFA by itself does not ensure that flows will happen. It is a platform to discuss problems at certain points. The modern approach to all the states is the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA).”

The economist said the Indo-Pacific stability and sustainability approach of Australia would fit in very well in terms of investing in Bangladesh. “Our development ambitions are very much aligned with the political strategic approach which Australia was to perform and this is global which will fit into the global strategy.

One of the weakest points of Austral-Bangladesh relations is the lack of partnership with the non-government organizations, he said, adding, “I insist that in the future, the relationship among non-state actors has to be strengthened to bring in more knowledge and analyses and transparency.”

Prof Imtiaz said Australia needs to show more of its ‘Asianness’ and not the ‘Westernization’ that they get to see when they look at the Triad (AUKUS).

The expert said he does not see a future of QUAD so much but flagged that AUSUK singled out the Asian powers out. “Japan is not there. India is not there. So, Australia ends up literally not being an Asian country once again. That’s the problem.”

He said it could be a problem in the future for Australia itself, given the kind of diaspora it is having or will have in the future. “I could see that it’ll be an issue in the future.”

Prof Imtiaz thinks it is important to see Australia in the context of an Asian country. “Then we’re more comfortable with that. The moment Australia makes a relationship particularly with the United States, which could not be the reliable friend that I’ve to say; they’ve abandoned a lot of friends - old friends.”

He mentioned that the last one they had abandoned was the Kabul regime and the way they did this was quite pathetic. “I’ve been speaking here as an IR person…because you talked about the “golden future”.

Shahedul Anam shed light on “AUKUS”, a historic security pact in the Asia-Pacific by the UK, US and Australia in what's seen as an effort to counter China.

He said people were surprised at the new treaty signed by the three big powers. “But I was not because I saw it coming.”

Unless the QUAD (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) among the United States, India, Japan and Australia is transformed into an exclusively military or defence-oriented pact, Anam said, he believes “AUKUS” was the only alternative.

AUKUS will let Australia build nuclear-powered submarines for the first time, using technology provided by the US.

Anam said still the Western powers dominate the Indo-Pacific and he believes that the Chinese threat at this point of time has been overly exaggerated. “Of course, Australia has its own compulsions. It was under tremendous diplomatic pressure.”

Tariq Karim said Bangladesh and Australia can work together and closely within the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) and highlighted what sort of governance framework they adopt and what are the rules. 

He mentioned that Bangladesh is the vice chair of IORA and will be taking chairmanship by the end of the year.

The former diplomat said IORA, an inter-governmental organisation aimed at strengthening regional cooperation and sustainable development within the Indian Ocean region through its 23 Member States and nine Dialogue Partners, is a vast universe by itself.

Within IORA, he said, he would focus on the Indian Ocean definitely and they need to have governance structure not only for the Indian Ocean but he would like to start with getting such governance structure for the Bay of Bengal first. 

On climate change, Tariq said, Bangladesh and Australia are in the same boat in facing the global challenge and it is almost like a universal challenge.

He said the environmental change and degradation in combination will very likely lead to human conflicts, may be internal at first but they will never remain internalized.

Climate change is likely to increase the likelihood of nontraditional security threats happening everywhere that includes the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal, said the formal diplomat.

“The more climate degradation we will see the more risk of non-traditional security threats will emerge, and it’ll continue to occur in the next 10 years and 20 years unless we start addressing it now,” Ambassador Tariq said.

High Commissioner Bruer said they find that the Indo-Pacific is at the heart of both global opportunity and strategic competition.

He said Australia has a commitment to a region defined by openness, a place where the freedom of navigation in accordance with international law is a given and where there is a thriving marketplace for the free flow of goods, of people and ideas.

The envoy said Australia has a commitment to an Indo–Pacific that is inclusive, a region in which many voices, perspectives and players are respected.

He said they want to work with countries which have similar aspirations like them -- secure and prosperous regions.

“Australia is very conscious about its Asian location. We’re very constructive contributors and have very strong relationships with Asian countries in our region,” said the High Commissioner.

Wrapping up the discussion, Dr Iftekhar said there are huge potentials to expand the collaboration, not just bilaterally, but also across the multilateral spectrum. “This is the challenge we would wish our leadership to focus on.”