Bangladesh-Australia Ministerial Dialogue: Towards a New Future

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After a gap of 26 years, an Australian Foreign Minister made a historic visit to Bangladesh in May 2024. Australia’s foreign minister Penny Wong expressed her country’s desire to strengthen ties and find practical solutions to common challenges for shared prosperity. This visit is also remarkable for witnessing the first-ever ministerial dialogue between the two countries. The visit and the dialogue, both suggest a renewed interest in strengthening the Bangladesh-Australia relations.

Bangladesh-Australia shares a decades-old history starting from Bangladesh’s inception. Australia was among the first developed nations to recognize Bangladesh on 31 January 1972. This early recognition played a crucial role in garnering international acknowledgment for the newly independent state. Bangladesh’s exports to Australia are predominantly in the textile sector, including readymade garments. Conversely, Bangladesh imports a variety of agricultural products, minerals, and industrial raw materials from Australia. Australia is one of the most popular destinations for Bangladeshi students seeking higher studies abroad. Therefore, people-to-people connections between Bangladesh and Australia are significant, with over 40,000 people of Bangladeshi origin residing in Australia, according to the 2016 census.

The Australian foreign minister’s visit comes at a time when Bangladesh is standing at the crossroads of its development journey. It is also a time when the world is facing significant challenges. The joint statement issued after the Ministerial Dialogue reflected both of those realities and highlighted the shared perspectives of Bangladesh and Australia on various critical issues ranging from politics to climate change and development. In the realm of political issues, both countries emphasised on strengthening strategic ties and commitment towards working collaboratively in multilateral forums such as the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA). It is also evident that the Indo-Pacific will continue to be an important area, as the statement highlighted the synergies among Bangladesh’s Indo-Pacific Outlook, the IORA’s Indo-Pacific Outlook, and the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific. The countries also shared concerns over the Rohingya crisis, the deteriorating situation in Myanmar and the Ukraine situation. Notably, both countries expressed their support for the two-state solution to the Palestinian crisis.

Regarding common traditional and non-traditional security challenges, the statement also highlighted the importance of working together. The countries vowed to work together to enhance regional maritime security, noting its importance in exploring maritime resources and ensuring the rule of law. Additionally, both countries shed light on making more efforts to prevent human trafficking. On climate change, Australia suggested agricultural research and enhanced cooperation with other countries. Specifically, suggestions were made to share Bangladesh’s locally-led adaptation experiences with Pacific Island states through trilateral agreements.

Coming to the development arena, ministers noted Australia’s support for Bangladesh’s development and economic growth effort and its technical support towards South Asia Regional Infrastructure Connectivity. The Ministerial Dialogue also underscored potential future areas of development cooperation such as inclusive social security system, gender equality and women’s empowerment. Australia announced of AUD 3 million in support for technical and vocational training for Bangladeshi youth. Additionally, the critical role of the Australia Awards scholarship program in building capacity in Bangladesh was highlighted. These educational initiatives are pivotal in strengthening the human capital of Bangladesh and fostering long-term development.

In terms of trade and investment, the countries stated that they wish to deepen their trade and economic ties. Australia also committed to maintaining tariff-free, quota-free access to its market to support Bangladesh’s smooth graduation from the UN LDC status. Here it should be mentioned that the two countries signed the Trade and Investment Framework Arrangement (TIFA) in 2021. This framework has opened new avenues for boosting bilateral trade and investment. However, trade and investment between the two countries have yet to reach optimal levels. According to data from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Australia, Australia has exported 2418.3 million AUD to Bangladesh and Bangladesh exported 16575.8 million AUD to Australia. Australia is not in the top 10 countries of Bangladesh’s import or export. On the other hand, the investment of Australia to Bangladesh was only 120 Million AUD in 2022.

This situation can change with the active initiatives of both parties. For example, a substantial opportunity for further collaboration lies in the energy sector, particularly in liquefied natural gas (LNG). Bangladesh has been importing LNG imports to meet its energy needs. Australia, one of the world’s largest LNG exporters, is well-positioned to be a competitive supplier to Bangladesh. Such an initiative will enable Bangladesh to diversify its energy sources more effectively. Additionally, Australia is also taking strong steps towards energy transition and has significant experience in renewable energy. Bangladesh can gain from the Australian experience, and both countries can work to strengthen their clean energy supply chains. Again, Bangladesh has been proactively trying to attract investment to diversify its economy and modernize its infrastructure. Australian investors, particularly those experienced in Asian infrastructure projects, have a significant opportunity to contribute to and benefit from this growth.  Particularly, Bangladesh has committed to providing all necessary support for Australian investors looking to work in Agro-processing, ICT and logistics.

The relationship between Bangladesh and Australia is dynamic and multifaceted, encompassing robust economic ties, significant development cooperation, educational linkages, and strategic partnerships. The first-ever Ministerial Dialogue between two nations is a significant milestone that marks a new chapter in this evolving relationship, highlighting the potential for enhanced cooperation in various domains. Both nations benefit from continued collaboration, leveraging their strengths to address common challenges and capitalize on emerging opportunities.

– Lam-ya Mostaque is a Research Fellow at the Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies (BIISS).

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