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UK-Bangladesh ties: Expectations from newly appointed British high commissioner to Dhaka

UK-Bangladesh ties: Expectations from newly appointed British high commissioner to Dhaka


Newly appointed British high commissioner designate to Bangladesh Sarah Cooke arrived in Dhaka on Sunday. ‘I am delighted and deeply honoured to be returning to Bangladesh as British high commissioner. I am committed to strengthening the long and friendly bilateral relationship and look forward to deepening the extensive cooperation between our two countries,’ said Sarah Cooke who succeeded Robert Chatterton Dickson.

On her appointment as the British high commissioner designate to Bangladesh, Sarah Cooke said that the UK had strong cultural, political and economic ties with Bangladesh and worked closely with the Bangladesh government and its people on many shared interests, including trade, investment, development and security, said a British high commission press release. Sarah Cooke previously served in Bangladesh from 2012-2016, as the country representative for the Department for International Development.

However, 51 years ago, diplomatic relations were established between the UK and Bangladesh on February 4. The UK has played an important role in the history of Bangladesh. 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.

With the establishment of a British High Commission in the capital of independent Bangladesh in 1972, the then Foreign Secretary of the UK Sir Alec Douglas-Home visited Bangladesh. Since then, the UK has been a committed partner in Bangladesh’s research, healthcare, social development, disaster risk reduction, poverty alleviation, education improvement, life expectancy of women and children, and women’s empowerment. All this has helped in the significant progress of Bangladesh in the last 50 years. The UK has helped build the capacity of Bangladesh’s military, police, and government officials.

Late Queen Elizabeth II visited Bangladesh in 1973. During that visit, she traveled by train in Bangladesh to visit an ideal village 35 miles south of Dhaka. Over the past few decades, the Prince of Wales, the Princess Royal, Prime Ministers John Major, Tony Blair, and David Cameron visited Bangladesh to witness an emerging nation. Throughout this period, Bangladesh and the UK have worked together to tackle poverty, floods, and severe cyclones, and this has deepened the relationship between the two countries.

Calling for further strengthening of Bangladesh-UK bilateral relations, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said earlier, “It is time to rebuild Bangladesh-UK bilateral relations. We need to change our traditional approach to partnership.” The Prime Minister made the remarks while addressing a function titled ‘Bangladesh at 50: The Resilient Delta’ on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Bangladesh’s independence at the British Parliament during her UK visits from November 3 to November 9. “Relations between the two countries should be truly strategic and co-operate in the areas of peacekeeping, counter-terrorism, maritime and air security,” she said. The Prime Minister welcomed the UK’s interest in partnerships in education, culture, research, and innovation.

Cooperation under the framework of ‘Indo-Pacific’ strategy

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 UK wants to see its presence in the Indo-Pacific on a larger scale and wants Bangladesh as a partner in the region. The UK has its own Indo-Pacific strategy. The overarching goal of Bangladesh’s recent Indo-Pacific Outlook is to enhance country’s ties with the USA and West, engagement in this region, accelerates economic growth, and addresses common issues shared by the other nations.

For instance, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Bangladesh had announced a fresh Indo-Pacific Outlook to highlight Bangladesh’s geopolitical standpoint on the region as well as its objectives to move forward as a nonalignment foreign policy. In other words, Bangladesh will likely to clarify on its own stance in the Indo-Pacific region through Indo-Pacific Outlook to take the position of regional leader, rather joining any political bloc. 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.

In this way, UK-Bangladesh relations would reach a new level. Bangladesh could gain trust from the British government because UK is an active member of the Indo-Pacific alliance. It aims to strengthening regional economic cooperation, guaranteeing the security of maritime commerce, combating climate change, investment opportunities and introducing new strategic alliances with other countries. Through upholding norms of international order, the freedom of trade and commerce, prosperity and the sovereign equality of all countries, their outlook aims to help advance the goal of an open, free and fair Indo-Pacific region.

In addition, Bangladesh aspires to boost economy through increasing investment and trade; particularly in the areas of public investment and technological networking. 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.  The visit had widely been framed as a historical conjuncture to solidify strategic engagement.

Consolidating Ties in Post-LDC Era

To give the bilateral ties a positive direction and establish a strong rapport with Bangladesh, previous Ambassador accomplished an outstanding job. Bangladesh does, however, also anticipate that the momentum of the Bangladesh-UK relationship would continue thriving further in the days to come. The new British ambassador in Dhaka is expected to comprehend Bangladesh from Her own perspective.

The new envoy has numerous opportunities to improve current bilateral ties. 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.

Bangladesh needs more UK investment

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 170 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.

Non-interference in Bangladesh’s internal affairs

Former British Ambassador Richard Dickson’s Comment on Bangladesh’s Internal Affairs Shocked Countrymen. UK is our development partner. The UK-Bangladesh ties are eternal. Bangladeshi people like UK. The ambassadors of America, Britain, and Canada talk directly about the internal affairs of Bangladesh. The expectations of Bangladeshi people from all our development partners including their representatives in Dhaka not to interfere in our own internal affairs. As they should respect our own values, choices.

Climate cooperation

Bangladesh is one of the most affected countries due to climate change and the UK has always supported the issue of justification for overcoming the damage. 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.

Cooperation in Rohingya crisis solution

Apart from this, London has been supporting Dhaka in various forums including the UN Security Council on the Rohingya issue. It is Britain in Europe which can play a significant role in resolving the ‘Rohingya refugee crisis. As an active member of the European Union and ‘United Nations Security Council’, UK can do some for Rohingya refugees. The massive presence of Rohingyas has caused problems for the local population of Cox’s Bazar. Japan considers the resolution of the Rohingya issue very important for the peace and stability of the South Asian region.

A ‘Free and Free Indo-Pacific’ if implemented will help achieve peace, stability and prosperity in the region. 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 Rohingya crisis is now in its sixth year. Due to the ongoing global crisis, this oppressed population faces an uncertain future.

Therefore, UK as well as the international community should continue to provide necessary assistance to the Rohingya. So far, UK’s actions have been commendable and it is expected that in the future, UK’s active participation will move towards solving the Rohingya problem. If the Rohingya problem persists, UK may assist the Bangladesh government in relocating the Rohingya to Bhasanchar to control the deteriorating conditions in the camps in Cox’s Bazar. With the aim of moving more Rohingya to Bhasanchar, UK and international organizations can play a role in improving the security situation by reducing the pressure on the camps in Cox’s Bazar by building new infrastructure together.

Fostering defence cooperation

UK needs some alternative markets. The UK needs Bangladesh to sell its military gadgets. The recent 2022 Defense dialogue between UK and Bangladesh is just an example to understand this. The defense ties between the Bangladesh-UK are growing.  As a key member of NATO, the UK has experience in building weapons. Bangladesh has the defense capability and the UK is interested in Bangladesh’s Forces Goal 2030. The UK was the latest country to propose defense supplies to Bangladesh in the fourth strategic dialogue between the two countries in London on September 9, 2022.

The 2022 defense dialogue was organized in order to create opportunities for broader discussions on bilateral defense and military issues, including deployments, defense supplies, and procurement. The UK wants ‘a structured discussion’ on defense issues.

Take a comprehensive approach

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. The newly appointed envoy could bring the UK and Bangladesh closer in the sector of security, trade, defense trade.

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.

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