Neutral alliances of smaller countries are again becoming important in the tug of war between the major superpowers in the region
March 4, 2021 marked 50 years of Bangladesh-Sri Lanka bilateral ties. On March 4, 1972, Sri Lanka officially recognized Bangladesh. Since then, the two countries have enjoyed cordial bonds.
Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa came to Dhaka on the golden jubilee of Bangladesh's independence and the centenary of its founder, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, in March last year. Sri Lanka and Bangladesh are important members of SAARC, BIMSTEC and the Commonwealth. Now is the time to strengthen bilateral relations amid the new geopolitical realities of South Asia.
The priority sectors for cooperation are agriculture, tourism, trade, investment, banking, IT and education. Bangladesh is currently negotiating a Preferential Trade Agreement (PTA) with Sri Lanka.
A FTA with Sri Lanka will boost trade relations. About 25,000 Sri Lankans are working in Bangladesh. Most are in the readymade garments sector. The two countries can work together to create mid-level skilled officers in the sector. Sri Lanka’s Textile and Apparel Institute has an agreement with Bangladesh’s BGME Fashion Institute in Chittagong.
Sri Lanka has achieved world-class technological advancement in the banking and stock market. Bangladesh has a trade deficit with Sri Lanka. Bangladesh seeks medicines, paper and cement from Sri Lanka. Forty-five Sri Lankan companies have invested in the garment sector in Bangladesh. Bangladeshis have invested a miniscule amount in Sri Lanka’s pharmaceutical sector.
The higher education sector can be one of the most important areas of cooperation. Sri Lanka's higher education is world-class. They have increased the reliance on technology in education. They are successful in establishing vocational colleges. Sri Lanka is also very successful in job-based technology education. A joint study on Indian Ocean security strategy could be conducted between the Bandaranaike Center for International Studies and the Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies.
In addition, the two countries will benefit from a consensus on climate change as well as joint research in the production of agricultural seeds suitable for the changing climate. The two countries can work together to meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) targets by 2030. Bangladesh is going to be a full member of the Colombo Security Conclave. Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and other regional countries can work closely to ensure maritime cooperation.
Recently, the President of the Maldives said that Bangladesh and his country can work together to establish a peaceful and trade-friendly Indian Ocean region. Sri Lanka could also be an important partner in this regard. Bangladesh will need the experience, support and consensus of countries like Sri Lanka to remain steadfast in its independent foreign policy. Sri Lanka can support Bangladesh in every international form to pressurize Myanmar to take back the Rohingya refugees.
Sri Lanka was one of the initiators of the non-aligned movement. Neutral alliances of smaller countries are once again becoming important in the tug of war between the major superpowers in the region. World politics is gradually shifting to the Asia-Pacific region.
Therefore, there is no alternative to building a sustainable bilateral relationship between Bangladesh and Sri Lanka to meet the challenges of changing global politics. Such a relationship could lead to future alliance neutrality in the region.
(The writer is a Dhaka, Bangladesh-based NGO activist and researcher-writer on international relations. Views are personal. He can be contacted at email@example.com)