Deepen ties with seaside nations to reap benefits of Bay of Bengal: experts

As the world economy shifts towards the Bay of Bengal, Bangladesh should play a role in deepening ties among seaside countries to harness the potential of marine resources instead of coming across confrontations that destabilise the region, foreign relations experts said today.

Experts say the Covid-19 pandemic has proved again that all countries are dependent on each other–in production and supply chain – something that requires higher level of collaboration.

The observations came at a webinar titled “Increasing political, ecological, economic and regional importance of the Bay of Bengal for Bangladesh in the post-Covid-19 world” organised by the Bay of Bengal Institute Project of Independent University of Bangladesh (IUB), International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) and Bangladesh Institute of Maritime Research and Development (BIMRAD).

It is one of a four-part webinar series on the Bay of Bengal. The Daily Star is a media partner.

Addressing as chief guest, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s International Affairs Adviser Dr Gowher Rizvi said the Bay of Bengal has extraordinary opportunities but there is a serious shortage of research on how the country or the region can benefit from it.

According to information available, half of the world’s container traffic passes through this region. And this region’s ports handle about thirty percent of the world trade. The traffic at sea has increased by 470% since 1970 and is likely to triple in the next 20 years. It is rich in both mineral and marine resources.

Gowher Rizvi said harnessing marine resources, its preservation and tackling threats require multi-disciplinary research.

“Sadly, there is a huge gap between policymakers and policy analysts. We don’t speak and thus remain in two different worlds. This culture needs a change for a greater cause,” he said.

In his keynote, Foreign Secretary Masud Bin Momen said the rise of China and India to the status of major powers has completely recalibrated the importance of the Indo-Pacific to the world.

Apart from regional initiatives including SAARC, BIMSTEC and BBIN, there are two overlapping strategic processes across the cone of the Bay of Bengal – namely, the US-led Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS) and China-led Belt-and-Road Initiative (BRI), he said.

“At the end of 2020, what we see now is the re-emergence of a civilizational competition for dominance across all avenues of knowledge, technology, trade, finance, economy, and security – which might directly impact the Bay of Bengal,” said Masud Bin Momen.

Japanese Ambassador to Bangladesh, Ito Naoki, said both nations share the idea of “free and open Indo-Pacific” which is the key concept that serves everybody’s interest in the region in the post-pandemic era.

“…we can promote three pillars for the development, prosperity and peace in Bay of Bengal, which is an indispensable part of Indo-Pacific,” he said.

Referring to the Rohingya crisis, Ito Naoki said “Japan will continue to support Bangladesh in its efforts…to create an enabling environment for [Rohingya] repatriation.”

Prof Mustafizur Rahman, distinguished fellow at the Centre for Policy Dialogue, said countries are becoming more protectionist in the post-Covid-19 world and as Bangladesh moves towards Middle-income country status, there will be more challenges in borrowing and market access.

Thus, the country needs to go for bilateral trade agreements that will need stronger negotiation and diplomatic skills.

Prof Imtiaz A Hussain, Dean (Acting) at the School of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences, IUB, said Bangladesh is at the crossroads from low-wage to hi-tech economy and its global importance is much higher now.

A Matin Chowdhury, chairman of IUB Board of Trustee, said despite many challenges, the country is handling the pandemic quite well, and cooperation from private sector and policy analysts will surely make things better.

He said IUB has partnered with ICCCAD and BIMRAD to bolster research activities on the Bay of Bengal, which will result in better understanding of the sea.

BIMSTEC Secretary General M Shahidul Islam, BIMRAD Chairman Admiral (Retd) Nizamuddin Ahmed, IUB Vice-Chancellor (acting) Prof Milan Pagon also spoke at the webinar moderated by ambassador (Retd) Tariq A Karim, senior fellow at the Bay of Bengal Institute Project, IUB.