In Asia, four countries matter most to Bangladesh: China, Japan, South Korea and India.
China has a permanent seat at the Security Council. Japan, however, does not project its power commensurate with its economic might. South Korea is an economic dynamo. The United States provides a security umbrella to both Japan and South Korea. Koreans hold grudges against Japan since World War II, which cause friction in their relationships from time to time. Lastly, India is our neighbour and China's adversary. She considers herself a regional power.
In addition, the activities of the United States – foreign policy and military posturing – provide an essential backdrop to a better understanding of events relating to the four countries mentioned.
Bangladesh can only take full advantage of its cordial relationships with all the four nations when we have a full understanding and appreciation of the currents and cross-currents affecting this rectangle.
The Chinese, heirs to an ancient and un-interrupted civilization, are justly proud of their rich heritage. China is bestowed with a huge population, a continental sized landmass and a matching economic output. It was subjugated by the West and partly conquered by the Japanese about a century ago. As if to announce its coming of age and giving notice that it is not to be bullied anymore, China does not shy away from projecting hard and soft power worldwide.
China also makes great strides in engineering and technology; notable among these are the wireless communications and rail transports. The formation of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), and more recently, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) are formidable political achievements.
However, Australia is bearing the brunt of an uglier side of the Chinese relating to the former's exports of lobsters, coal and wine. Pundits say China took affront when Australia supported an international call to investigate how the coronavirus originated and spread from China. Hopefully, China will be more cooperative now that the RCEP agreement has been signed.
The United States considers China a great rival. Why the US feels aggrieved have been well documented. The relationship took a turn for the worse under President Trump and might not improve noticeably under the Biden administration. China's neighbours – especially Indonesia, Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam – have good reasons to feel uneasy about China's territorial ambitions.
However, Bangladesh has a blossoming relationship with China, including trade and purchases of defence equipment. Naturally, India watches this development closely and wants Bangladesh in its sphere of influence. It has offered Bangladesh generous trade credit, but at the same time, it has made Bangladeshi exports more difficult with non-tariff measures. Moreover, it has not brought much influence to bear on Myanmar to solve the Rohingya issue. The same blame can be lain on the door of the Chinese.
China sits on a mountain of intellectual capital. Bangladesh should study the patents registered there. A more ambitious and long-term project would be to establish an institution entirely devoted to the study of China, and encourage the exchange of scientists, journalists, authors, scholars, engineers, bureaucrats and tech entrepreneurs.
Subject to acceptability to Chinese exporters, Bangladeshi banks should consider opening renminbi-denominated accounts to avoid foreign exchange losses. This makes sense given our huge imports.
China and Japan have just resumed dialogue at the foreign ministry level, a welcome step given their tense relationship. But things could come to a boil over competing claims on four un-inhabited islands in the Pacific.
Again, Japan-Bangladesh bonds are strong. Japan has provided generous financial help. It also helps us through its membership in various multilateral organisations. But unfortunately, Bangladesh has received negligible foreign direct investment (FDI) from Japan—some $3 billion since independence. The Japanese are fastidious, and one way to counter this is to improve our "ease of doing business" ranking. Government of Bangladesh should also maintain close liaison with the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) for collecting trade intelligence.
While many Bangladeshis have settled in Japan, some have opened up businesses. Bangladeshi businesses should liaise with this group for collecting insights into Japanese norms, values and traditions. Conferencing technology can be used to advantage this goal. As Japan is gradually easing restrictions on accepting foreign workers, the Government should make all-out efforts to get a slice of this nascent market.
Our relationship with South Korea is on an even keel having different avenues of cooperation. However, two-way trade is minuscule. South Korea being highly industrialized explains why our imports are much higher than exports. The policy-makers should set up a Korean language institute intended for imparting free instruction to Bangladeshi workers making their way there.
The author is a retired bank officer.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.