The younger generation of both countries is keen to forge stronger ties between these two Muslim-majority countries in the region, writes Mehjabin Bhanu for South Asia Monitor
Despite being South Asian countries, sharing the same religion, culture and history, relations between Pakistan and Bangladesh aren’t warm. There are two main reasons: the hurt of the 1971 liberation war is still quite raw and, more important, Pakistan has not officially apologized for the war crimes.
But a bit of water has since gone down the Buriganga and Indus rivers. There are now new realities that call for both sides to appreciate and mutually empathize with the evolving dynamics. Bangladesh and Pakistan need to resolve their problems and move forward. Policymakers from both sides need to be sensitive to each other’s expectations.
Indeed, for the sake of prosperity and security of both, relations between Bangladesh and Pakistan must be improved.
It is evident that for the last two years, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan and his government have been trying to strengthen relations with Bangladesh. Given that both countries share the same political history and similar cultural and social norms and that both will gain economically through improved trade and investment, it is vital that relations between them are cemented as soon as possible.
The younger generation of both countries is keen to forge stronger ties between these two Muslim-majority countries in the region.
There is a huge potential for bilateral economic and trade cooperation. Among other things, the trade imbalance between the two countries must be addressed. According to the State Bank of Pakistan, Pakistan's exports to Bangladesh in 2019 stood at $736 million while Bangladeshi exports to Pakistan were only $44 million.
Despite some challenges, the good news is that bilateral trade is growing, albeit gradually. According to media reports and official statements, Pakistan’s trade with Bangladesh witnessed an increase of 46.65 percent in the first six months of 2021-22 as compared to the corresponding period last year. The overall exports to Bangladesh from Pakistan were recorded at $399.408 million during July-December against exports of $274.246 million during the same period last year, showing a growth of 45.63 percent.
Meanwhile, on a year-on-year basis, during December 2021, exports to Bangladesh from Pakistan increased 52.01 percent, from $54.433 million to $82.746 million. Similarly, on a month-on-month basis, imports rose by 14.38 percent during December 2021 in comparison with exports of $72.339 million in November 2021. It is true that Bangladesh and Pakistan can benefit from growing trade ties. Pakistan and Bangladesh should ink a Free Trade Agreement to boost up the trade volume.
In today's globalized world, every country is leaving, to the extent possible, politics behind and focusing on closer economic and trade ties for mutual benefit. There are also moves to establish compatible economic zones and alliances.
However, given the history and horrific memories of war, forging closer ties between Bangladesh and Pakistan is anything but easy. Bilateral relations have been mostly sour or bumpy at best. The warmth nosedived in 2016 when Bangladesh executed several leaders of the Jamaat-e-Islam for their role in the 1971 war crimes. Pakistan, where Jamaat Islam Party has a strong following, condemned the executions and dubbed them politically motivated. Bangladesh saw this as Pakistan’s “interference” in its internal matters of Bangladesh. Relations between the two countries deteriorated and diplomats were expelled from both sides.
Thankfully, since Imran Khan became the Prime Minister of Pakistan in 2018, things have started to improve significantly. His phone call to Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in December 2020 is proof that Pakistan is ready for a change. Imran Khan invited Sheikh Hasina to visit Islamabad.
August 2021 witnessed “Mango Diplomacy” as the Bangladesh Prime Minister sent Bangladesh’s famed delicious mangoes to Imran Khan. After this, the Pakistani envoy met the Prime Minister in Dhaka in October.
Realpolitik also implies that Pakistan must never interfere in Bangladesh’s internal affairs nor question its close ties with India, a country that actively helped Dhaka in its liberation. Pakistan must respect and appreciate these realities and work its way through various issues pragmatically and maturely.
Stronger economic ties can not only benefit both countries but also lead to better empathy and bondage between the peoples. They can also create immense geopolitical benefits. So, Pakistan and Bangladesh must take steps to reduce tensions and take steps to promote their mutual wellbeing. The two countries have taken some steps to develop closer diplomatic, economic, and cultural relations.
Pakistan should have a lasting dialogue with Bangladesh on how to move the bilateral relations in a positive direction.
Bangladesh and Pakistan together make up five percent of the world’s population. The people-to-people contacts, religious tourism and scholarship exchanges can be the potential sectors to explore. Reconnecting ports (air/sea) between the two states is very necessary. Bangladesh should explore the usage of Pakistan’s seaports (Karachi, Gwadar, Keti Bandar and Qassim). At the same time, Pakistan can take advantage of Bangladesh’s emerging and buoyant consumer market and, through Bangladeshi port facilities, access the markets of Nepal, Bhutan and Southeast Asia.
(The author is a researcher-writer and teacher in Rajshahi, Bangladesh. Views are personal. She can be contacted at email@example.com)