Towards a Reset in Bangladesh-UK Relations?

The past years witnessed a flurry of UK delegation to Bangladesh and heralded a new epoch of bilateral partnership. In such context, British Minister for Indo-Pacific Anne-Marie Trevelyan paid a visit to Bangladesh on March 11. The visit foregrounded the issues of Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS) to the spotlight. Against this backdrop, the issue of prioritizing Indo-Pacific Strategy in the bilateral ties of Bangladesh and United Kingdom has been underscored. 

In a press release issued by the British high commission prior to the visit, the high commissioner stated that the visit can be counted as an opportunity to further consolidate links between two countries in the upcoming year, especially in view of the coming election year. The Minister for Indo-Pacific floated a new funding mechanism through the World Food Programme to improve food security of the Rohingya camps — and announced provision of food supply for 449000 people residing in the camps. The visit had widely been framed as a historical conjuncture to solidify strategic engagement.

Bangladesh’s formal ties with Britain can be traced back to Feb. 4, 1972. By granting Bangladesh its recognition, Britain conferred legitimacy to Bangladesh’s war of independence and soon other European countries followed the trail to recognize Bangladesh. The bilateral ties between Bangladesh and the United Kingdom surpassed half a century — which bears testimony to the solid partnership between the two countries.

As global geopolitics verges on the critical junction, and as Bangladesh thrives economically — the United Kingdom needs to reorient its stance towards Bangladesh. A “reset” in bilateral ties needs a broadening and deepening of partnership on a gamut of bilateral issues in the spirit of “Brit-Bangla Bandhan. 

United Kingdom’s Indo-Pacific Tilt and Positioning Bangladesh 

In March 2021, the United Kingdom proclaimed that the country would ’tilt’ towards Indo-Pacific, the rationale of the policy was to cement UK’s robust and integrated presence at the heart of the Indo-Pacific. The effectiveness of the UK’s tilt rests on cooperation with the regional partners. The crux of the tilt is the economic element – that seeks to boost UK’s economic leverage in the Indo-Pacific.  The policy states that defense partnerships will be subordinate to broader economic interests. Bangladesh’s Indo-Pacific outlook hews closely to that of the United Kingdom. Bangladesh also orients its Indo-Pacific outlook on the economic core, while security remains subservient to economic interests.

As UK’s presence in the Indo-Pacific presumes engagement with the regional countries, the UK needs to bet on Bangladesh by boosting economic ties. Bangladesh lies at the heart of Indo-Pacific, adjacent to the Bay of Bengal, which is one of the critical arteries of global trade and commerce. Bangladesh and the United Kingdom can collaborate on a gamut of issues including conflict prevention, safeguarding rules-based international order, and countering climate change and terrorism.

Consolidating Ties in Post-LDC Era

As Bangladesh is poised to graduate from the LDC, cooperation in the realm of investment, ease of doing business, higher education, intellectual property protection, taxation, and pharmaceutical needs to be reassessed. United Kingdom’s Developing Countries Trading Scheme (DCTS) facilitated Bangladesh’s entry into the UK market and maintained robust trade ties between the two countries. In the post-LDC scenario, the United Kingdom needs to ensure a trading agreement to harmonize trade procedures between the two countries by signing new and more favorable trade pacts. Given Bangladesh’s comparative advantage in the global supply chain due to cheap and affordable products, the UK can harness this by maintaining undiminished linkages even in the post-LDC era. 

The bilateral relationship between UK and Bangladesh is rooted in favorable of investment and trade relationship that enables both economies to thrive. Bangladesh had witnessed remarkable infrastructural advancement and mushrooming economic zone and increasing benefits granted to foreign industries point to the conducive business environment in Bangladesh. Given Bangladesh’s market comprising a colossal 160 million people, and due to its relative proximity to both South and South-East Asia, the United Kingdom can tap into Bangladesh’s market through the inflow of investments. This can aid Bangladesh’s development trajectory since the infusion of investment results in a set of macro-economic dividends for the nascent developing country. The historic ties between Bangladesh and UK rest on common values and mutual interests. Through enhancing economic and trade cooperation, the mutual partnership can be further amplified.

Towards Climate Partnership 

Bangladesh is one of the vulnerable countries to climate change and the country requires considerable financial and logistical support to shore up the tolls of climate change. A British-Bangladesh climate change accord might facilitate the climate partnership. Since the United Kingdom is the forerunner and proponent of global climate diplomacy, a formal partnership will facilitate collaboration for climate change mitigation and adaptation between the two countries. The engagement can be promoted through enhancing research, consolidating learning, and capacity building on climate change adaptation. Interaction and engagement between two countries through the collaboration of epistemic communities — will usher in collaboration on state-of-art climate knowledge. 

The private sector’s engagement in the management of renewable energy can facilitate both countries to shore up future headwinds in a world of an energy crunch. The shift to renewable energy has gained ground, and Bangladesh also expressed interest to diversify its energy mix to include non-renewable sources. British private investments in solar and wind energy can herald a new era of energy partnership between the two countries.

Moreover, a “reset” in bilateral relations is necessary, to take account of the global strategic shifts and economic ascent of Bangladesh. Harnessing the fruits of bilateral partnership needs frequent engagement and enhancing the people-to-people ties between two countries. “Brit-Bangla Bondhon” is essentially melding civilization and cultural epiphany. It underscores the recognition of close relationship between two countries. The bilateral ties need to explore the functional issues and through frequent bilateral engagement, a booming bilateral partnership will materialize.

[Photo by Simon Dawson / No 10 Downing Street]

*Nanziba Mahmood is a graduate of International Relations, University of Delaware. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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