Indonesian Ambassador to Bangladesh Heru H Subolo has suggested “broader action plans” incorporating the best of two countries’ national capacities to strengthen the genuine partnership between two countries to move forward in a better and comprehensive way.
With stable economic growth and a favourable investment climate in Bangladesh, Ambassador Subolo thinks, the prospects of trade and investment are “open wider”.
As the two countries celebrate the 50 years of their bilateral relations the ambassador said, it provides the opportunity to strengthen the economic partnership, deepen bilateral trade and digital economic environment, invest in energy power generation and distribution and enhance people to people connect to power their prosperous future together.
The Indonesian envoy who has held several leadership positions in his diplomatic career, said Bangladesh is also a potential market for Indonesia's strategic and leading industries.
Cosmos Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the Cosmos Group, hosted the dialogue titled “Bangladesh-Indonesia Relations: Prognosis for the Future” as part of its ongoing Ambassador's Lecture Series.
The opening remarks were delivered by Cosmos Foundation Executive Director Nahar Khan. The session was chaired by Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury, a renowned scholar-diplomat and former Advisor on Foreign Affairs of Bangladesh Caretaker Government.
Professor at Department of International Relations, Dhaka University Dr Lailufar Yasmin, Dhaka Courier Executive Editor Shayan S Khan and Honorary Advisor Emeritus, Cosmos Foundation Ambassador (Retd) Tariq A Karim comprised the panel of discussants. Cosmos Foundation Chairman Enayetullah Khan also spoke.
He said he has long admired Indonesia as a “free and active” foreign policy and its leadership role in the ASEAN as Asia Pacific's largest economy.
Indonesia acts in this region in consonance, with its size and location, but avoiding involvement in big power conflicts or rivalries,” Dr Iftekhar said.
“As we evolve our bilateral relations, we also bear in mind that there is an evolution of another set of relationships in the region, which are security focus, and Indonesia has shown the way how we can steer clear of involvement in those big power disputes and develop our bilateral relations in a way that it benefits our nations and peoples,” he added.
Dr Iftekhar mentioned collaboration across a wide spectrum, such as commerce, politics, defense, and culture.
Sharing his personal observation, Enayetullah Khan said Bangladesh and Indonesia’s ties have been totally underexploited and he hoped that the two countries will definitely look at the opportunities.
“I feel very encouraged that our ties are based on trust which is the fundamental thing in building relations. That trust we have,” he said, adding that there could be more exchange of students and more cooperation in green and digital economies.
Khan laid emphasis on taking advantage of Bangladesh’s geographical location and noted that, “We have overlooked and underestimated our strength and it is time for us to assert and to act.”
Nahar Khan said the two nations which belong to the Indian Ocean Rim Association are becoming important trade partners.
As the largest economy of Southeast Asia and the second largest economy in South Asia respectively, Indonesia and Bangladesh now enjoy natural opportunities to expand their economic engagement with each other, she said.
She said Bangladesh is pursuing the next level of growth through diversification of products in its export basket and Indonesia, as the world's 16th largest economy, should be a natural destination for a large portion of that.
The signing of the Preferential Trade Agreement (PTA), which still remains under negotiation, would be an effective tool for further strengthening the trade and economic relations between the two countries, she said.
Professor Lailufar Yasmin said both Indonesia and Bangladesh pursue a similar foreign policy based on five principles of coexistence.
“We have to remember first and foremost is in the foreign policy principle of both the countries that we live together, we prosper together, we connect together we develop together, and this is based on sort of an idea that was proposed back in the late 1980s after the development of the idea of sustainable development,” she observed.
Stating that scholars have started talking about sustainable co-development, Lailufar said, “My development cannot sustain if my neighbour and a greater region do not develop together. So the fruits of development must be spread among neighbours and beyond the neighbourhood.”
She praised Indonesia’s proactive role in the Rohingya issue from the very beginning. “We know that the Rohingya issue might take a little time to resolve, but we applaud and we encourage Indonesia's continuous proactive role in this issue.”
Stating that Indonesia is a key player in the Indo-Pacific region, the DU Professor said the country plays the role of balancer in this region. “Indonesia plays a neutral role in China and American confrontation, rivalry and cooperation…Bangladesh as a gatekeeper in the Bay of Bengal region also plays such a role in this region.”
Mentioning that there is strong defense cooperation between the two countries, she said it can be transformed into strategic defense cooperation.
She thinks maritime search and rescue is an area where Bangladesh and Indonesia can fruitfully cooperate. “Bangladesh and Indonesia can also work together in maritime data cable security and cyber security areas.”
Shayan Khan said it was surprising that despite having all the ingredients in place for a close bilateral relationship, Bangladesh and Indonesia had not engaged more with each other during the course of the last 50 years.
"Even at its highest point, bilateral trade has remained below $2 billion per year, and it is overwhelmingly in favour of Indonesia, with palm oil exports to Bangladesh dominating the trade figures."
Tariq A Karim said the two countries need to intensify their cooperation with each other and rediscover each other more.
“If we work together, we will develop not only national resilience in each of the countries but we will also develop a regional resilience in facing the pressures that will be coming to us,” he said.
He said non-alignment exists but many people are wary of touching it because it affects the relationship with the larger powers. “Both Indonesia and Bangladesh have together taken an approach of balancing the relations between all these different large powers around us.”
The former diplomat said both Bangladesh and Indonesia happen to be situated right in the centre of this oceanic world. “So, in a sense, we have a strategic value to the rest of the world, far greater than what we imagine ourselves to be. And we can only take advantage of this, if we work closely together.”
In the international context, Indonesia and Bangladesh are fellow members and share many similar interests in the United Nations, Asian-African Conference, Non-Aligned Movement, Organization of Islamic Cooperation, Developing 8 (D-8), Group of 77 (G77), Indian Ocean Rim Initiative (IORA), the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and member of Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) as well.
Ambassador Subolo said people-to-people contact must be strengthened by enhancing more cooperation in education including capacity building sectors, culture, health etc.
To do so, he said, the strengthening Indonesian diaspora in Bangladesh and Bengali diaspora in Indonesia is indeed a mission to do, elevated to a new perspective and modern chapter.
So far, the ambassador said, Bangladesh and Indonesia have continuously collaborated in the defense and military fields in the form of student exchanges in Defense Services Command and Staff College, and National Defense College.
Besides being active in student exchange cooperation, Indonesia and Bangladesh have also carried out activities in the form of visits by military officials, defense as well as cooperation in counter terrorism.
A Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on this field is also underway to complete, he said.
Currently, the envoy said, both countries are working to finalize the PTA to cover more products and for facilitating more trade interactions between two countries.
The completion of PTA will give significant impacts to increase bilateral trade transactions, he said.
Noting that Indonesia-Bangladesh bilateral trade is vast and robust, he said recent efforts to boost cooperation in trades between the two countries show significant progress in various sectors.
The volume of bilateral trade jumped sharply up to 72% from US$1.76 billion in 2020 to US$3.03 billion in 2021.
“It is interesting to learn that our trade is not only focused on traditional commodities but covers broad and strategic products too,” he said.
Along with that Indonesia’s aircraft industry has also liked to participate in strengthening connectivity between regions as well as for military purposes.
In addition, the Bangladesh army in the past has also used products from the Indonesian Defense Industry (PINDAD Ltd).
With a combined Indonesia-Bangladesh market of more than 400 million consumers, there are still ample opportunities in the economic sector to explore and to expand the bilateral trade which currently is exceeding US$3 billion, said the ambassador, adding that investment in the energy sector in Bangladesh is also promising.