Dr Mohammad Tarikul Islam is an emerging political scientist in South Asia. He is an Associate Professor of Government and Politics at the Jahangirnagar University in Bangladesh.
Prior to joining the University in 2014, Dr Islam worked with the United Nations Development Programme for a period of seven years in various capacities. He is the author of ‘Local Government in Bangladesh: Contemporary Issues and Challenges’ from Routledge.
Professor Islam is currently co-editing a book “COVID-19 in South Asia: Its Impact on Society, Economics and Politics” with two young scholars from the University of Oxford and the University of Leeds, to be published by the Routledge.
Professor Islam is perhaps the rare academic with a PhD from Bangladesh who has been affiliated with the University of Oxford, the University of Cambridge and School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), the University of London in different prestigious capacities (Visiting Scholar and Visiting Research Fellow). Khabarhub talked to Dr Tarik about the different aspects of bilateral relations between Bangladesh and the United Kingdom. Excerpts:
Is the bilateral relationship between Bangladesh and the UK based on mutual trust, respect, and interests?
The United Kingdom was the first European nation to recognize Bangladesh as a sovereign nation. The United Kingdom’s recognition of Bangladesh on February 4, 1972, influenced other Commonwealth and Western nations to recognize Bangladesh.
Bangladesh subsequently joined the Commonwealth on April 18, 1972. This historic event simultaneously inspired Commonwealth nations to recognize Bangladesh.
During Bangladesh’s war of independence, the United Kingdom provided diplomats and those fleeing the conflict with the best possible shelter.
Apparently, bilateral relations between Bangladesh and the United Kingdom have intensified in numerous areas since 1972, including trade, investment, security, education, people-to-people contacts, and cooperation in numerous international forums.
Evidently, the United Kingdom has the second-largest population of Bangladeshi expatriates in the Western hemisphere.
Five decades later, it is estimated that approximately 600,000 people of Bangladeshi descent live in the United Kingdom; consequently, the relationship between the British and Bangladeshi people is stronger than ever.
Since 1972, the United Kingdom has been a committed partner in research, healthcare, community development, climate change adaptation, disaster risk reduction, poverty alleviation, education improvement, women and children’s life expectancy, and women’s empowerment.
All of these factors have contributed to the country’s progress over the past fifty years.
Bangladesh has advanced as a model for positive transformation as a vibrant and independent nation by addressing the challenges of politics and governance.
Bangladesh’s transformation from “one of the poorest countries in the world” to “one of the fastest-growing economies” is a remarkable development, and the United Kingdom is undeniably a part of this story.
Is the bilateral relationship between Bangladesh and the United Kingdom being strengthened through new cooperation in various areas?
Of course. For instance, the United Kingdom is the second-largest foreign investor in Bangladesh and a dependable economic growth partner for Bangladesh.
As of March 2020, British companies have invested over $2.2.45 billion in Bangladesh, and more than 200 British enterprises operate there.
In addition, the United Kingdom is Bangladesh’s third-largest export market, following the United States and Germany. In 2021, Bangladesh exported goods worth 2,4 billion pounds and purchased goods worth 585 million pounds.
The United Kingdom is Bangladesh’s third-largest export market, and traditionally, Bangladesh has maintained a positive trade balance with the United Kingdom.
In 2017-2018, items worth a total of $9,398,912,012 were sent to the United Kingdom, representing 9.74 percent of total exports.
Major export items include ready-made clothing, frozen foods, information technology engineering, leather and jute products, bicycles, etc. Eighty percent are knitted and woven clothing.
Bangladesh has confidently launched on broadening its export basket with high-value and high-value-added products and has made tremendous progress in exporting pharmaceutical products, computer services, shipbuilding, and electrical and electronic products around the world.
How do mutual interests leverage defense cooperation between the two countries?
Bangladesh and the United Kingdom convened their first Defense Dialogue in Dhaka in March 2022 in an effort to elevate bilateral relations to a strategic level.
Bangladesh and the United Kingdom concluded a two-day defense conversation in March 2022 at the Armed Forces Division in Dhaka Cantonment.
It was the first defense dialogue between the two countries, and it will enhance bilateral defense and military cooperation in global and regional security issues, increase capabilities in terms of technology, the development of defense equipment and disaster response, and peacekeeping activities, among others. It strengthens defense cooperation in the areas of training, inspections, joint exercises, installations, and workshops.
Bangladesh has chosen to acquire five ships from the United Kingdom to secure its expansive Bay of Bengal maritime border.
The decision reflects the nation’s strategic goal to diversify its defense procurement from Asian to Western nations.
During the Third Bangladesh-UK Strategic Dialogue in 2019, the United Kingdom declared its “readiness” to assist the Bangladesh Air Force in acquiring high-powered multi-role fighter jets from Europe and bolstering aviation security, especially at Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport. “Best practices sharing, training, and capacity building.”
Additionally, the United Kingdom annually teaches a substantial number of Bangladeshi Armed Forces personnel at Sandhurst Royal Military Academy, the Royal College of Defence Studies, and the Joint Defence Command Staff Course. Bangladesh’s famed Defence Services Command and Staff College and National Defence College (NDC) were established with significant military and advisory help from the United Kingdom.
The British Military Assistance Team has been instrumental in Bangladesh for many years, helping to improve the Bangladesh Navy (BN) and The Royal Navy.
We believe that Bangladesh and the United Kingdom must strengthen their strategic engagement in training and cooperation in the sharing of experiences, provision of technical and logistical support, and identification of the root causes of terrorism. Certainly, UK-Bangladesh defense cooperation will aid in the attainment of Forces Goal 2030.
How is the expatriate Bangladeshi community contributing to the overall development of the UK?
The United Kingdom has the biggest concentration of Bangladeshis in the western hemisphere. The approximately 0.6 million-strong diaspora remains a vital link in the expanding political, economic, and cultural ties.
There are currently approximately 100 British-Bangladeshi Councilors and 4 Members of Parliament in the United Kingdom.
The Bangladeshi community operates approximately 10,000 eateries with an annual turnover of £4.5 billion. The United Kingdom has been one of the leading suppliers of remittances to Bangladesh. In the previous fiscal year 2020–21, the United Kingdom was the fourth highest provider of remittances at $2023.62 million US.
Talk about the UK’s humanitarian assistance for Rohingya refugees
As the political situation in Myanmar worsens, the likelihood of a safe and dignified return diminishes. Recalling the August 2017 atrocities done by the Myanmar army in Rakhine State against the Rohingya people, the United Kingdom praised Bangladesh for continuing to give shelter to more than one million Rohingya.
As soon as the situation permits, the United Kingdom has reaffirmed its commitment to a safe, voluntary, dignified, and informed return to Myanmar.
The British government has been engaged in bringing up and coordinating matters with the United Nations Security Council and applying pressure to Myanmar. To end the protracted dispute, both nations must collaborate with the international community, especially ASEAN and the United Nations.
How does the UK help Bangladesh adapt to climate change?
Bangladesh, as one of the most climate-vulnerable nations, is a global pioneer in climate adaptation and resilience, and the United Kingdom has actively supported this effort.
Between 2008 and 2020, the United Kingdom assisted in the installation of 249 solar irrigation pumps for 6,062 farmers and protected 40,000 hectares of arable land from flooding.
With UK financing, about 27 million people in Bangladesh have access to early warning systems for floods and cyclones.
In addition, the United Kingdom is a crucial partner in accomplishing the SDG goals and the delta plan-2100. Both nations reaffirmed their commitment to climate action during the 4th Strategic Dialogue.
How do the two countries work side by side to address global and regional issues?
The United Kingdom has detailed its long-term commitment to combat conflict, terrorism, and climate change in the Indo-Pacific area, as a result of its comprehensive review of security, defense, development, and foreign policy.
The United Kingdom and Bangladesh have committed to collaborating on this worldwide issue. The United Kingdom and Bangladesh reaffirmed the urgent need for all nations to adopt aggressive measures to combat climate change.
The United Kingdom, as the President-Elect of COP26, and Bangladesh, as the Chair of the Climate Vulnerable Forum, have reaffirmed their commitment to utilizing their respective leadership positions to increase global ambition for climate action.
The United Kingdom applauded Bangladesh’s efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions and strongly encouraged additional leadership in the coming years on the path to low carbon development.
The United Kingdom reaffirms its objective of supporting all countries to achieve zero emissions by 2050. Bangladesh applauded the United Kingdom’s efforts to secure international climate money from all sources since it is essential for climate-vulnerable nations such as Bangladesh.
As a scholar on Bangladesh’s foreign relations with South Asia and the UK, what is your recommendation to take the momentum forward for consolidating the bilateral relations?
To me, economic diplomacy is one of the most important means by which governments comprehend their national interests.
After India, Bangladesh is the second-largest recipient of British development assistance. Since independence, the total UK aid to Bangladesh has exceeded £3 billion.
As a Least Developed Country (LDC) designated by the United Nations, the United Kingdom has provided duty-free exports to the country.
However, Bangladesh’s departure from the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) by 2026 poses a variety of obstacles to the economy’s continued expansion.
For instance, rich nations such as Bangladesh and the United Kingdom are ineligible for Government Development Assistance (ODA). It is therefore time to re-evaluate their future economic collaboration.
To avoid the “middle-income trap” and achieve a successful LDC graduation by 2026, the United Kingdom must be a significant partner in Bangladesh.
The United Kingdom’s lowering of financing for Rohingya refugees calls into doubt its commitment to the most persecuted people in the world.
After the United Kingdom acknowledged Bangladesh as an “essential stabilizer” in the Indo-Pacific region, Bangladesh must firmly help the United Kingdom in this capacity. Therefore, both nations must be sincere in resolving the issues of their bilateral relations.
We are confident that in the next 50 years and beyond, our strong people-to-people connections and familial links will continue to be dynamic.
Bangladesh places a high value on its ties with the United Kingdom. The Bangladesh High Commission should collaborate closely with the United Kingdom Government to realize the shared vision and priorities established by the two leaders in advancing bilateral cooperation on trade and investment, climate change, defense and security, and expatriate participation over the next decade.