Australian FM In Bangladesh: How Will It Impact Dhaka-Canberra Relations? – OpEd


Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong is set to embark on a two-day visit to Dhaka. The visit holds the potential to bolster bilateral ties between the two nations, with discussions expected to cover a wide array of issues, including trade and investments, sustainable and renewable energy production, the Rohingya crisis, maritime security, technology transfer, and a free and open Indo-Pacific region. The outcome of these talks could pave the way for enhanced cooperation, contributing to regional peace, prosperity, and security. 

On January 31, 1972, Australia opened its mission and established diplomatic relations with the Bangladesh government. Australia was the first Western country to recognize Bangladesh as an independent nation. The then Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam assisted diplomatically in Bangladesh’s inclusion into the United Nations in 1974 and visited Dhaka in January 1975, establishing the strong foundations of today’s Bangladesh-Australia relations. In the 50-plus years since the establishment of diplomatic ties, the relationship between Australia and Bangladesh has flourished based on mutual respect, people-to-people links, and shared democratic values. Congratulating Sheikh Hasina on her reelection as the prime minister of Bangladesh, The Australian Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese wrote, “We look forward to continuing to work with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to further strengthen the relationship between Australia and Bangladesh in the coming years.” This statement demonstrates Australia’s strong desire for political engagement with Bangladesh. 

Trade and economy

Bangladesh is South Asia’s largest economy after India, thanks to impressive growth in recent decades and resilience to economic shock. As a result, Bangladesh attracts a lot of attention from countries around the world. Recently, Australia joined the list of interested countries.

Despite being a relatively new trade partner, Australia is Bangladesh’s 10th export market. Bangladesh exports about $1.5 billion annually to Australia in ready-made garment products, which is about 93 percent of Bangladesh’s exports to the country. In this particular sector, Bangladesh has captured approximately 12 percent of the Australian market. Two-way trade between Australia and Bangladesh has grown substantially over the last decade, reaching AUD4 billion in 2022–23, with balanced imports and exports. 

In recent years, Australia’s interest in investing in Bangladesh has grown. The Trade and Investment Framework Arrangement (TIFA) signed with Bangladesh on September 15, 2021, was a significant achievement that recognised the strength and depth of the economic relationship. Under the TIFA, both countries are working together to grow and diversify trade and investment opportunities. It is also encouraging to see that Australia has promised to provide duty-free and quota-free facilities to Bangladesh in the future, despite the changing circumstances of the post-LDC era. Even though bilateral economic ties have increased significantly in recent years, both countries have yet to fully utilise their potential. The Australian foreign minister’s visit to Bangladesh will be an opportunity for both countries to take the trade relationship to a new height by strengthening partnerships and expanding trade and investment in potential areas.

Geo-strategic cooperation

The Bay of Bengal, with its important shipping routes, is a key transit route between the Indian and the Pacific Oceans and is, thus, critical for Australia’s trade and connectivity. So, naturally, Australia has important interests at play in Bangladesh. The 2023 Defence Strategic Review identified the northeastern Indian Ocean as being within Australia’s primary area of military interest, along with the Pacific and maritime Southeast Asia. To anchor its presence in this part of the Indo-Pacific, the Australian government is now stepping up its political, security, and economic engagement with Bangladesh.

Australia established a defence office in Bangladesh with a resident defence adviser to strengthen relationships between the defence forces. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has stressed working towards a peaceful and prosperous Indian Ocean Region. Bangladesh is committed to fostering and maintaining peace and stability in the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean region, aiming to maintain its ongoing development path. In this context, Bangladesh’s close engagement with Australia, one of the major players in the Indian Ocean region, will impact regional peace, stability, and security, as well as the development of economic relations between the two countries. By keeping geopolitical imperatives in mind, the two countries should address common challenges in the Indian Ocean. Both countries should strengthen their diplomatic and strategic relationship to promote their shared security interests—fighting transnational crime and terrorism, as well as developing maritime and environmental security.

Rohingya Crisis

Bangladesh is currently carrying an extraordinary burden by housing the world’s largest refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar. Australia’s government has recognised this and has committed $153 million from 2023 to 2025 to meet the needs of the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh as well as to provide humanitarian support to Myanmar. Bangladesh needs Australian support to keep the Rohingya issue alive globally, with a view to the ultimate repatriation of the forcibly displaced Myanmar nationals sheltered in Bangladesh. Building a fruitful and productive relationship with Dhaka, Canberra should work to find a durable solution and pursue accountability and justice for the Rohingya as a result of the abuses they have suffered. Undoubtedly, by doing so, Australia will earn a lot of goodwill, which will undoubtedly pay dividends in future decades. 

Future prospect

Australia and Bangladesh enjoy close people-to-people links, nurtured over many years of migration and through sport and education. Australian universities enrolled around 11,000 Bangladeshi students in 2023. Currently, about 100,000 members of the Bangladeshi diaspora live in Australia and contribute to Australian nation-building efforts. Both countries should now work in the fields of education, visa facilitation, skilled labour migration, and Sydney-Dhaka air connections.

Australia and Bangladesh are both active members of multilateral institutions such as the UN, WTO, the Commonwealth and the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA). Through these global and regional forums, Dhaka and Canberra should collaborate on regional and global concerns to create an environment of mutual trust and cooperation.

Bangladesh is currently Australia’s 27th largest trade partner. Dhaka is eager to be among the top 20 in the next decade by leveraging the TIFA, which would boost trade volume to $5 billion.Although Australia invests more than $1.3 trillion abroad, its investment in Bangladesh has been poor. Australia could take steps to identify investment opportunities in Bangladesh, specifically in infrastructure, IT, and other prospective sectors. Bangladesh’s 100 Special Economic Zones can be an attractive destination for Australian investors, too. Both countries need enhanced cooperation in the domains of climate change, public health, and sustainable development.

Bangladesh can feature strongly in the Australian strategy as an entry point to South Asian markets. Comprehensive engagement with Bangladesh, with its thriving economy, large market, and international outlook, could be a prudent move to broaden Canberra’s political and economic engagements. On the other hand, a robust partnership with established regional powers like Australia could therefore fuel Bangladesh’s economic growth in the post-LDC period.

Finally, Bangladesh expects Ms. Wong’s visit to fortify the already robust foundations of the bilateral political, economic, and strategic relationship between both nations. Dhaka also hopes that the Australian foreign minister’s visit to Dhaka will give new thrust to the warm, multifaceted, and mutually beneficial relationship that exists between the two countries.

Kamal Uddin Mazumder

Kamal Uddin Mazumder is a Security and Strategic Affairs Analyst.

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