‘OBOR can ensure economic growth in South Asia’

M Humayun Kabir is a seasoned diplomat with vast experience in international relations. He has served as the Ambassador for Bangladesh to Nepal, Australia and the US. He is the Vice-president of Bangladesh Enterprise Institute, a think tank based in Dhaka. The institute has been working to influence policy and preparing youths to combat radicalisation. Recently, ex-envoy Kabir was in Kathmandu to attend a discussion programme on OBOR. Lokaantar’s DhrubaHari Adhikary, Bimal Gautam and Bindesh Dahal caught up with Mr. Kabir Saturday morning to talk about OBOR, South Asia, Nepal-Bangladesh relationship and Nepal’s political situation among others. Here are the excerpts:   

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What brings you to Nepal this time?

Yesterday (28 April), there was a daylong seminar on China’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) hosted by China Study Centre and Nepal Institute for Strategic Studies. They invited me to share Bangladeshi perspective on this big and bold initiative by China. We had several sessions and I had the opportunity to share my observations on political aspects of OBOR. During the seminar different aspects of OBOR like economy and security were discussed and there was great amount of enthusiasm regarding this initiative. All the people present there were curious to know about OBOR and how can Nepal and South Asia benefit from the initiative. We had discussions on how can Indian concerns regarding OBOR be addressed and how can differences be reconciled. Overall, we all had a learning experience.

You said that OBOR is a bold initiative. How would you describe it as bold?

Not only bold but big as well. This is big in the sense that it covers almost 65 countries, spanning three continents. It covers the whole Euro-Asian landmass and Africa and is a transcontinental initiative. In terms of the goal or the span or the scope, this is a big and bold initiative in many decades. Another thing that we should understand is that international order in the present age has all been set up by the western world. Norms, organisations, expected behaviours—everything was set up by the western countries. This is the first time such a major initiative came out of a developing country. China says that it is still a developing country and in terms of per capita income it really is a developing country. Yes, China is the second largest economy of the world but it has still to go a long way. From that perspective, this initiative coming from China or a developing country deserves some attention. Importantly, China is in our neighbourhood.  This is coming from an Asian country which is soon becoming number one economy in the world and we all can benefit from that. So, we have to explore how positively we can integrate into that initiative.

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What are the areas in which Nepal, Bangladesh and the whole South Asia can benefit from OBOR?

International relations are conducted on the basis of self or national interest. China is promoting its idea, keeping it national interest in perspective. Why should Nepal or Bangladesh join the initiative? We should make an assessment of our national interest. One of the priorities of the whole South Asia and the developing countries is to reduce poverty and giving decent living conditions for the people. You need economic growth to ensure that. One of the drivers of economic growths is infrastructure. China has a specialised expertise on infrastructure development. So, our needs and Chinese priorities can align with each other. This is the first thing. The second thing is that we can provide good economic conditions to our people by augmenting trade. Trade means more employment and more opportunity. We can do more trade when we are connected. Every country is trying to trade, internally or within the region and outside the region. Remember, China is number one market. If this OBOR is implemented, it will create a network of markets, connect all the markets and creates new opportunities. Our potential for either export or import will increase. It can create more employment and more economic opportunities for people.

How do we do that? How can we make financial arrangements? Here also China has created financial means for countries that will become the part of OBOR. If you want to do business and connect to the outside world, you need to understand what other people think and behave and what their expectations are. That creates sustainable relationship and it is ensured by people-to-people relationship. So, OBOR means potentially more communication, more connectivity, more tourism and more people-to-people relationship. So, our priorities can align well with the Chinese priority. China’s national interest and other countries’ national interest can align and it could become what we call in international relations a ‘win-win’ situation.

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But there are reports that India, the biggest country in the region, is not happy with the OBOR? How hopeful you are that it will be translated into reality in the region?

Yes, I understand India has some concerns regarding the OBOR. It is not only a diplomatic and economic initiative. It will also create a strategic environment in the region because China will make a big connectivity with many countries and an aspirant country like India will have obvious concerns. For our South Asian side, we also need to request China to talk to India more so that they address the concerns. I know India and China walk together wherever they find it convenient. Look at Myanmar. It would be good for them and us as well if they address their mutual concerns. Other South Asian countries can engage with both of them.  We can help them understand each other better and we can also share our aspirations with them. We need to make them understand that it is not only them who live in the neighbourhood, it is also us. The competition will not go away because some tensions will remain but even then they can move ahead together.

Chinese trade in the region is the highest with India at more than 70 billion dollars. This is estimated to go beyond 300 billion dollars within the next decade. If India gets connected to the OBOR, it stands to be the prime beneficiary of that process. India and China may have competition at one level but they have benefits at other level. Smaller countries like us in South Asia always prefer to have good relation with both the giants because Indo-Chinese tensions will adversely affect us. Let them iron out differences and let us build our economies together. Let us all enjoy a win-win situation together.

India is the second largest shareholder at the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) after China. AIIB is funding the OBOR initiative. In a way, India is already in there. Do you agree with that assessment?

I do. India is walking with China at several levels. BRICS is there. India and China share a complex kind of relationship. Bilaterally, we hear a lot of tensions between India and China but look at economy. Both the countries will benefit from tourist flow into each other country. These are countries where people have disposable incomes. They will visit each other and spur future economic growth together. We should focus more on positives rather than negatives. Indian and Chinese leadership know this and hopefully they will walk together. This will be beneficial for the region.

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What is your take on SAARC? There are concerns that it has not been performing at a satisfactory level.

Bangladesh initiated SAARC in 1985. It has a value. Yes, it has not produced anything substantive over the last 30 years but the fact that it is there bears much importance. It is a convening forum for people of eight countries and they at least formally or informally share their aspirations, satisfactions and frustrations. In diplomacy, we always highlight the importance of dialogues. I agree with you that SAARC has been unable to perform to our satisfaction. We don’t have a single project together to show to the world. But I should point out that SAARC is what its members make out to be. Their action determines whether SAARC works out or not. It is perhaps high time that we take a fresh look at how to make SAARC really functional and give it a push because it is the time to think about South Asia in the face of OBOR. SAARC could be used to promote our own South Asian ideas and then we can synchronise with OBOR. SAARC has already many observers including China and we need to energise something we already have.

Is it held hostage to Indo-Pak rivalry?

Partially, yes. They are the largest countries. But we are also there. We may be small but in a multilateral organisation, every country has to be treated with equal dignity.

But even sub-regional agreements have not been working well. Bhutan pulled out BBIN agreement. Where does the problem lie in integration among the countries?

Look, when you work with a number of countries you have to deal with a multiple set of aspirations. Bringing together those multiple sets could be a challenge. But we should not lose hope. We should try to address the aspirations of each country and be open to them.  Every regional organisation should be voluntary and every country should feel that it is in their interest. No country should be pushed around.

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How do you assess Nepal-Bangladesh relationship?

It’s good. People-to-people contact is growing and so is the trade between two countries. I was pleased to know that Nepal’s GDP is growing at 6.9 percent. For last two years Nepal was struggling due to the earthquake and the informal blockade. In the wake of that, if Nepal grows at a healthy pace it is good news not only for Nepalis but for the region as well. Every other country in the region is growing at a healthy rate and Nepal is in the line with that growth pattern of South Asia. It means more economic opportunity. Nepal will now become economically solvent and we can have more economic interactions. Bangladesh is an attractive destination for Nepali medical students and we want more Nepalis coming to our country for further studies. I see Nepal-Bangladesh relationship on a steady course.

You served as the Ambassador of Bangladesh to Nepal during the period when Nepal was going through political transformation. What is your assessment about Nepal’s current situation?

Nepal is going through nation building process. This is a continuous process. Building a modern nation is not easy. You have to mature as a nation undergoing a complex process. There are some points to take into consideration. Primarily, inter-organ balance is a must. You have to create equilibrium of all three organs of the state for a democracy to function. Democracy is also ensuring the rights of the individual, what we call human rights. Ensuring everyone’s participation and creating opportunity for all is the broad definition of democracy and for that, balance among institutions is extremely important. In Nepali context, this is still a struggle. The second thing is the challenges in making people feel that they are the part of the democratic process. For that, inclusiveness has to be ensured. This is another set of challenge that Nepal seems to be struggling with. You have more than hundred ethnicities and each of them has to be taken aboard and it is a big challenge. You have to respect diversity in order to make democracy functional.

You’ve been to the United States as the ambassador and the US has changed politically or otherwise from the time that you were there. Seeing it from South Asia, how is the new administration looking at the region? Some see the US using South Asia to encircle China.

Good question. Trump administration’s foreign policy is still developing. I will not be able to give a complete response to you because the Americans themselves do not know what will happen. If we look at it from diplomatic point of view, I would see it at two levels. First, what is the US’s view on Asia? During Obama, there was the pivot to Asia. But Donald Trump has not yet articulated his policy towards Asia. However, there are some initial indications. Recently the top officials of the administration visited the northeast Asian countries. But still there is no contour of relationship with Asia. Unless we have Asia perspective of US in place, it would be difficult to assess anything. Second, what is US policy on South Asia? I can say from the Bangladeshi perspective that relationship is going on a routine trajectory. We have an interest in restoring GSP facilities in the US market.


What is the US and western perspective on rising extremism in Bangladesh?

Yes, they have raised concerns but they also appreciate that Bangladesh has taken a decisive step towards combating extremism. At the operational level, Bangladesh has taken initiative in nabbing extremists. But most importantly they are happy that we have been dealing with this issue not only at the policy level but we have been integrating the society as a whole to fight that challenge. Our own Bangladesh Enterprise Institute has been working with young people throughout colleges, schools and madrassas, both boys and girls, and trying to enlighten them about existing positive values and conflict resolution skills. These initiatives are producing good results.

Published on: 2 May 2017