Bangladesh as a Gateway Between ASEAN and SAARC
Bangladesh’s 271km border with Myanmar can play a strategic role as a potential trade corridor between the two countries. However, at present, the area is militarized due to ongoing internal conflicts in Myanmar. Were this to be resolved, Bangladesh could develop routes via Myanmar to access China to the east, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries to the south, and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) to the west.
Cambodia is also close to Myanmar, with Thailand a neighboring state of both countries. Were the Rohingya conflict to be resolved, Myanmar and other ASEAN countries could access South Asia through Bangladesh. If the Bangladesh-Myanmar-Thailand-India trilateral highway project and the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) corridor were integrated, ASEAN members could access the markets of Bangladesh, northern India, and the Himalayan countries of Bhutan, and Nepal. Achieving improved ties between Bangladesh and Myanmar is therefore very important to develop strategic trade and investment.
Myanmar can also use Bangladesh as a transportation route to reach markets such as Nepal, Bhutan, and India. Both Bangladesh and Myanmar are members of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), an organization consisting of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Thailand that seeks to foster regional and economic cooperation. Other ASEAN nations, such as Cambodia should join BIMSTEC to utilize the benefits.
With better access to the SAARC free-trade bloc through Bangladesh, Myanmar and other ASEAN nations would benefit in boosting their own regional trade ties with India, Nepal, Bhutan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, and Central Asia.
There are signs that Myanmar and Bangladesh, with assistance and mediation, can resolve their disputes. Their maritime borders have recently been defined through the International Court of Justice. As a result, the rights of Bangladesh maritime assets have been established in an area of 111,000 square kilometers. Myanmar’s waters have also been properly identified. Therefore, Bangladesh, Myanmar, and ASEAN have the potential to develop joint maritime projects in the Bay of Bengal.
There is additional potential for trade through the proposed construction of the Asian Highway, funded by the Asian Development Bank. This can increase land connectivity increase trade in products such as agriculture, aquaculture, fertilizers, plastics, pharmaceuticals, and light manufacturing.
Bangladesh’s ongoing cooperation with ASEAN members
Bangladesh already has bilateral cooperation with ASEAN members such as Cambodia. In 2010, the two countries agreed to set up a joint commission for bilateral cooperation. Ten agreements signed in 2017 are expected to enhance bilateral ties and strengthen economic cooperation between the two.
Bangladesh has proposed a long-term land cultivation agreement for farms and the country is also keen to sign a long-term agreement to import rice from Cambodia. Both countries regularly conduct agricultural joint research.
Bangladesh has also provided assistance to Myanmar in the form of counter-terrorism training as well as COVID-19 vaccine distribution. The Rohingya refugee problem has, however, continues to create tension between the two countries, and finding the solution can serve the longer-term interests of Bangladesh and Myanmar. Cambodia can assist in this regard through its good relations with Myanmar.
Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Cambodia can also increase joint investments in the agriculture sector, particularly for products such as rice and spices. products including pulses, spices, fish, and rice. This, in turn, can enhance trilateral relations and encourage trade and investments between ASEAN and BIMSTEC countries.
Pathik Hasan is Dhaka based researcher and freelance columnist on current international issues.