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Future of China and Bangladesh relations is very bright

Interview: Chinese Ambassador Li Jiming

China's ambassador to Bangladesh Li Jiming at Prothom Alo office in Karwan Bazar, Dhaka, on 4 December 2022Prothom Alo

Li Jiming came to Dhaka as China’s ambassador to Bangladesh in the second half of 2019. Completing three years in office, he is now about to return home. He has spent an active three years in Bangladesh, dealing with the Covid situation, trade and investment, and further improving bilateral relations. In an interview with Prothom Alo, he talks about bilateral relations, geopolitics and more.

After serving here for more than three years you are leaving Dhaka. During your assignment here as the Chinese ambassador the whole world was fighting with Covid-19. In the context of that, how do you evaluate your assignment in Bangladesh? 

That is absolutely true that my three-year tenure here was mainly during the pandemic, but that pandemic fighting was actually a good opportunity for us to take our cooperation ahead. China and Bangladesh fought the pandemic with extreme success. There was people-to-people caring for each other. I not only received supplies from the Bangladesh government, but also from many individuals. I experienced very touching stories, very memorable ones. It was a great privilege for me to be part of China-Bangladesh relations. This is probably the most memorable time of my whole professional career.

While we refer to cooperation during the fight against Covid-19, China was forthcoming during the crisis of Bangladesh’s target to vaccinate the people. Can you tell our readers how both the countries tackle the situation with their joint effort during the pandemic?

We stood side by side during the whole period of time and it was actually Bangladesh that offered a helping hand to us first. And then China also helped Bangladesh in its capacity. I should mention that when Bangladesh faced a crisis of vaccines, I tried very hard to offer Chinese vaccines to the Bangladesh government, but you could not accept at that time unless the vaccines got approval of WHO (World Health Organisation) or five of the advanced western economies’ FDA. At that time all the vaccines were very new. The Chinese vaccine Sinopharm or Sinovac hadn’t got the approval at the time. Bangladesh needed vaccines and China had the capacity to provide the vaccines, but we had to wait for that approval. With joint effort from both sides, Bangladesh finally issued the grant for emergency use prior to WHO while the latter said it would be issuing its approval soon. In this regard, the Bangladesh government was quite determined and very responsible. I really appreciate that.

Immediately after we got this approval from the Bangladeshi government, we delivered China-made vaccines in time in a large quantity. We donated a large number of vaccines in a very quick way. Then the Chinese vaccine producers started the negotiations with Bangladeshi authorities on commercial purchase and co-production. So the total number of Chinese vaccines administered in this country exceeded 175 million. That is more than the vaccines from all the other countries combined. Except for vaccines, we also sent medical personnel and provided PPEs and other supplies to Bangladesh for the joint fight against the pandemic.

Then there is a crucial matter that has never been mentioned. With the help of concessional loan provided by the Chinese government, we supported the Info-Sarker Phase-3 Project, a project focusing on development of national ICT infra-network for Bangladesh government. With the infrastructure of connectivity, of network service, optical cable connecting to the upazila level from Dhaka, the government keeps functioning even during the lock-downs at the peak of pandemic. That played a significant role as well.

Trade deficits are not always a bad thing for Bangladesh. If you look into these figures, you will see that at least one third of trade deficit with China is for buying raw materials which is important for your export and trade surplus from other markets

China is developing a special economic zone in Chittagong, what sectors do China see as an opportunity for further enhancing economic ties between the two countries?

Different from the existing ones in the area, the Chinese Economic Zone is not an export processing zone, but an industrial economic zone. RMG industry will not be a priority there, maybe some, but not a major part of it. What will be located in that zone then? They are talking about the green energy sectors, solar batteries, solar panels, e-vehicles, ICT manufacturing and such. China is quite good at these, so the possibilities are high.

So you are focusing more on green and clean energy, ICT and future technology for the areas of cooperation.

Yes. We think that we should aim at higher end industries, not only RMG. In RMG we already have plenty of space in other export oriented zones, but in this one we should have higher end technology.

China is the largest trading partner of Bangladesh and has already provided 98 per cent zero-tariff treatment for Bangladeshi products exporting to China. However, the trade gap is widening. Does Beijing have any plan for a balance of trade which is now heavily tilted towards China?

Trade deficits are not always a bad thing for Bangladesh. If you look into these figures, you will see that at least one third of trade deficit with China is for buying raw materials which is important for your export and trade surplus from other markets. Another one third is the machinery which is connected to RMG as well. And also one third is those infrastructure facilities, like bridge and railway related equipment. All of those trade or commodities are in the benefit of this country. So never consider that a bad thing, or that we should buy less. That is not always right.

We are talking about high end industry or high end manufacturing in Chittagong, the China Economic Industrial Zone. With that being realised, there will be much more products that can be more competitive into the Chinese market. We open our doors to the Bangladesh industries.

Besides, in China we hold the China International Import Expo (CIIE) every year. It is the world’s first import themed national-level expo. We also have the China-South Asia Expo. These are perfect platforms for Bangladesh’s exporters to showcase their brands and products to the Chinese consumers. If they make full use of such opportunities, the “Made in Bangladesh” will be more famous to the Chinese market.

Since the signing of MoU on the Belt and Road Initiative, Beijing has engaged with Bangladesh in various significant projects including that of the Padma Bridge Railway project. Can you shed some light on the latest status of two countries under the BRI?

Bangladesh is the first country in South Asia to jump on board the BRI. China-Bangladesh cooperation under the BRI is so fruitful, which benefits the people of both countries. We will witness some deeper cooperation under this framework.

But there are some issues that we should also tackle. First, BRI is often narrowly interpreted and understood. BRI is not only for connectivity infrastructure hardware, but also for policy coordination, trade facilitation, financial cooperation, and people-to-people exchange. There are at least five aspects. So when we talk about BRI, we shall never concentrate on connectivity only. That would be a mistake.

Second, we are talking about higher quality BRI cooperation. After the 20th national congress of the CPC, the Communist Party of China announced that from now on we are going to undertake a new journey toward Chinese modernisation. Within this overall perspective, high quality BRI cooperation is a necessary. This means greener and cleaner projects focusing on higher end development. In future cooperation with Bangladesh, we can expect more than what we have already witnessed. Higher quality, broader concepts will be included.

During the milestone visit of President Xi Jinping to Bangladesh in 2016, China agreed to provide support in 22 projects and give more than $20 billion. After six years the implementation of the agreed projects is very slow and the disbursement rate is also not significant. What is your take on that?

The MOU that was signed is not a commitment of government concessional loans, but a list of projects to be considered for promotion by both sides, not only China. If you look at the text of the MOU, then you will see that it is to show both sides that this is the priority of our cooperation and some of them will be using the Chinese concessional loans and some of those will be supported in some other ways. And for some of those projects, the Bangladesh government needs to take the initiative. Up till today, to my knowledge, at least one third of these 27 projects have been completed or under construction. For the other two thirds, a half is under proactive assessment, another half is on pause since the Bangladeshi government has not launched the projects or decided to halt.

For example, the state-owned jute factories. Even though China has approved to give concessional loans, the Bangladesh government said no. This is not going to be included, since the Bangladeshi side changed mind. We have to find some other ways to do it. There are a number of such cases and we said we can replace them. We have a mechanism to communicate and update. So it is not true that nothing significant has happened as the media sometimes depict it.

In the last two years we noticed high level regular communications between Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and President Xi Jinping. How do you see these frequent exchanges between the top leaders?

The political trust between the two countries is on a high level and very satisfactory. Last  year and the year before there were exchanges of many letters, phone calls and video messages on those highlighted occasions of both sides. It is the key to guarantee our bilateral cooperation and to guide the two countries to go together in a more concerted way.

During your tenure, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi and defence minister Wei Fenghe visited Bangladesh. Apart from the bilateral relations, both the senior Chinese leaders touched upon the issues of geo-politics. What is your expectation from Bangladesh in the wake of growing geo-political rivalry surrounding the Indo-Pacific region?

Clearly China does not like any clique idea that aims at creating more uncertainties and instabilities in the Asia-Pacific region. Neither does Bangladesh. We believe in the wisdom of the leadership of Bangladesh because we know that Friendship to All and Malice towards None is always at the core of Bangladesh’s diplomatic policy.

The Cold War has been ended for decades, but the mentality of the Cold War is still there. Look at Europe, what the expansion of NATO, a product of the Cold War mentality, has resulted in? If that kind of mentality is expanded to this region, what can we expect?

For the last few years China mediates between Bangladesh and Myanmar to initiate Rohingya repatriation. Even a date was fixed for the commencement of repatriation. Also, last year’s military coup in Myanmar created further uncertainty about the hope of Rohingya repatriation. From your perspective, in which direction is the crisis headed?

This is something I have put much energy into, but unfortunately hasn’t got much output yet. Let’s see what are the possibilities ahead.

Possibility number one, people are talking about integration now. Turkey has integrated some refugees. They have their policy. But is this an alternative for Bangladesh? I doubt it.

Possibility number two, people are seeking more pressure on Myanmar from the international community. I fully understand this motivation, but, unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to work well. Be it the case brought to the International Court of Justice or other initiatives, they are not paying off. Why? Because the current regime in Myanmar has been in power for over four decades, and they have always been under international pressure, but they survived. They have many other issues to care about. The marginal effect of international pressure on Myanmar is diminishing.

Now we come to the third and last possibility, repatriation through bilateral dialogue. Between Bangladesh and Myanmar, you have the mechanism called JWG (joint working group) that has had at least five sessions. It is widely considered to be successful. Though the immediate repatriation faces some difficulty due to the current situation in Myanmar, things are still progressing in a spiral way. Probably we should be more patient and wait for the conditions to become more conducive. Otherwise if we push the first batch of repatriated people to Myanmar, but something bad happens to them, it will put the following batches into doom. We can’t take the risk.

What is your expectation on people-to-people exchanges between China and Bangladesh?

We are witnessing growing people-to-people exchange over the past decade, and there are more to expect. As of now, as many as six Chinese universities offer Bengali language course. And there are more than 15,000 Bangladeshi students studying in China. Beyond the scholarship provided by central government of China, many other scholarships are also given at the provincial and university levels. In Bangladesh, we hope to see China study centres being set up. There needs to be more think tanks and scholars who are authoritative in China studies. The local media needs some original thinking of your own. I believe that the future is very bright between our two countries and two peoples.

Thank you.

Thank you.