Chinese President Xi Jingping's 22-hour visit, spanning over a couple of days, to Bangladesh is not just of high economic and political significance. The visit is a historic one and it has set in motion a new era in bilateral relations between the two countries.
It would not be proper to evaluate the impact of Mr. Xi's visit in terms of how many deals and memorandums of understanding (MoUs) on investment and trade have been signed. Those might be considered a proof of Chinese interest in the economic development of a near-neighbour trying desperately to get rid of poverty and want. But the real intent of the two countries to take the relations to a new height was very much visible throughout the Chinese President's brief yet very important visit.
Bangladesh's economic performance has been impressive for quite many years. But it has to grow at a faster pace to compensate for the low and lopsided growth of the past years and help eliminate poverty within the shortest possible time by creating enough employment opportunities. It, however, does need resources to achieve most of its developmental goals.
Under the prevailing circumstances, no country other than China is comfortably placed to make available a substantial part of the most-sought-after resources. And China has been aggressively making available such resources and investments in various parts of the world, including South Asia.
During Mr. Xi's visit, the two countries signed as many as 27 agreements and memorandums of understanding (MoUs). Details of the deals and the amounts of assistance and investments were not revealed. The sum involved is thought to be over $24 billion. But MoUs represent just expression of interest in any issue and there is no certainty about reaching final deals. All depends on negotiations between providers of funds and recipients of the same at later stages.
The visit of the Chinese President does carry special significance in terms of building infrastructures in which Bangladesh is very much deficient. The deals and MoUs signed during the visit included a few infrastructure projects. There were also a number of trade and investment deals signed between Bangladesh private sector entrepreneurs and private and state-owned firms from China during the visit. If Bangladesh can handle the newfound opportunities efficiently, the prospect of substantial inflow of Chinese investments and development assistance in future years remains very bright.
The issue of bilateral trade did not figure much during the talks; for Bangladesh, despite having a huge trade imbalance with China, does not have much to complain about. China has granted duty-free facility to a large number of products from Bangladesh. The problem lies with the latter as it does not have enough products to export. The export from Bangladesh to China has been rising steadily. But the former is not producing most goods that the latter imports in large quantities. This particular weakness on the part of Bangladesh does also figure prominently when it comes to the issue of reducing the trade gap between other major trade partners. At all levels, due emphasis is given on export product diversion. But the situation on the ground has not changed much.
Both Bangladesh and China had their own agendas that they pushed forward during Mr. Xi's visit. Obviously, prior to the much-hyped visit, both sides had reached an agreement on issues that both were pursuing.
Obviously politics has played its part during Mr. Xi's visit. China, now the world's second economic superpower, is a dominant player in regional politics. It has been trying consistently to increase its political as well as economic influence over Southeast and South Asia. That is why it has been spearheading its agenda called 'strategic partnership' for cooperation. The 'One Belt, One Road Project', an ambitious project masterminded by President Xi, is a part of that initiative. And to woo the regional countries, China has inked bilateral deals worth billions of dollar with them with a view to promoting trade and investment.
Bangladesh has decided not to deprive itself of the Chinese investment bonanza. During Mr. Xi's visit to some South Asian countries in 2014-15, China signed deals worth $46 billion with Pakistan, $20 billion with India and $1.4 billion with Sri Lanka. Why should then Bangladesh be left out?
More importantly, Bangladesh has accomplished a balancing act well as far as its relations with two regional super powers---China and India--- are concerned. A section of people tend to believe that the country in recent years has tilted towards its next-door neighbour India more than what is necessary. There is also no dearth of people having the opposite view. However, the fact remains that the strategic partnership for cooperation with China, hopefully, in addition to paying due dividends, would give rise to a new equation in Bangladesh's relations with both China and India and substantiate its avowed policy of 'friendship to all and malice to none'.