Bangladesh delays entry into China’s ocean forum

Bangladesh has decided to abstain from joining the China-sponsored Indian Ocean Regional Forum, citing “geopolitical issues” that need to be examined further, according to foreign ministry officials.

On 20 July 2023, the foreign ministry communicated its stance to the Economic Relations Division (ERD) via a formal letter. This response came after the ERD sought the ministry’s opinion following China’s request for Bangladesh to become a member of the forum.

“The China-Indian Ocean Regional Forum of Development Cooperation Network is part of China’s Global Development Initiatives and has connections to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. However, given its geopolitical and geostrategic implications, the matter warrants further consideration,” said the foreign ministry in its correspondence with the ERD.

The ministry believes it is crucial to thoroughly scrutinise all relevant aspects and advantages and disadvantages before deciding to join the forum.

On 21 November last year, the China International Development Cooperation Agency (Cidca), convened the first “China-Indian Ocean Region Forum” in the southwestern Chinese city of Kunming.

The Cidca had said in a statement that the forum was the first high-level official development cooperation forum jointly held by China and countries in the Indian Ocean Region.

Over 100 participants, including senior officials from 19 countries bordering the Indian Ocean, attended. Later, Australia and the Maldives said they did not send any official representative to this meeting. India was not invited to this meeting.

Bangladesh is a member and the current chair of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (Iora), which is an intergovernmental organization that aims to promote regional cooperation and sustainable development among countries bordering the Indian Ocean.

The organisation was established in 1997, and its members consist of 23 states, including Australia and India, of the Indian Ocean region. Also, China is an observer of the Iora, which is headquartered in Mauritius.

“It is China’s counter initiative to the Iora as it wants to strengthen its position in the Indian Ocean region, which is very important considering the seaborne trade,” said a foreign ministry official

According to the Iora, with over 80% of the world’s seaborne trade in oil, and around 100,000 commercial vessels traversing the Indian Ocean per year, it is evident that these sea lanes are amongst the most vital in the world.

Prof Mustafizur Rahman, a distinguished fellow of the Centre for Policy Dialogue, highlighted China’s geostrategic interest in various initiatives such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), maritime endeavours, and the Silk Route.

“Bangladesh could consider engaging with multiple forums with an open mind, as long as there are no conflicting interests,” he told The Business Standard replying to a query on whether Bangladesh should join a China-sponsored forum despite being a member of the Iora.

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