The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are geared to helping countries attain the aspirations of economic growth, inclusive development and environmental sustainability. In the particular case of Bangladesh, Maritime Silk Road Initiative (MSRI) and the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB), collectively known as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), has the potential to support country’s ongoing endeavours to meet the SDGs through the triangulation of growth, inclusiveness and environment-friendly socio-economic development. For this to happen, the initiatives envisaged under the BRI in Bangladesh will need to be appropriately strategised, prioritised and implemented.
It is pertinent to recall here that barring Pakistan, Bangladesh is the country in South Asia which has most BRI projects. BRI-related activities got a boost particularly following the visit of China’s President Xi Jinping to Bangladesh in 2016 when deals worth US$ 40.0 billion were signed – US$ 24.45 billion as bilateral assistance for infrastructure projects and US$ 13.6 billion in joint ventures, along with a commitment of an additional US$ 20.0 billion as loan.
Bangladesh is a key component of one of the six major BRI corridors: Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) economic corridor. The car rally from Kolkata to Kunming organised in 2013 demonstrated the potentials of deepening connectivity among the BCIM member countries.
As of now, several projects are being implemented in Bangladesh as part of the BRI, through a number of modalities of Chinese involvement: exclusively China-supported investment projects; joint ventures with government of Bangladesh; participation of Chinese companies in projects built with Bangladesh’s own resources; investment by Chinese companies many of which are state-owned enterprises; investment of Chinese companies in both productive activities, as also in Bangladesh’s financial sector.
Some of the most important completed and ongoing BRI-related infrastructure projects being implemented in Bangladesh are Padma Rail Link (with Exim Bank of China’s loan of US$ 2.6 billion), Payra Power Plant (with US$ 1.5 billion loan), Bangabandhu (Karnaphuli) River Tunnel (with US$ 0.68 billion loan), Grid Network Strengthening and Upgradation (US$ 0.97 billion loan) and National ICT Infrastructure Network Development (with US$ 0.46 billion loan). Chinese companies were involved in the main bridge works as well as river training works in connection with Bangladesh’s longest bridge – the Padma multi-purpose bridge which was implemented with Bangladesh’s own finances. Chinese companies have bought shares in Dhaka Stock Exchange and in the largest mobile financial service (MFS) provider in Bangladesh – bKash. Chinese companies are also major investors in Bangladesh in a wide range of areas and activities and China has been allotted a country-specific dedicated Special Economic Zone (SEZ).
As the objectives of the BRI infrastructure and transport projects indicate, and the involvement of Chinese companies in the various economic activities would show, these together have the potential to play a defining role in establishing the four connectivities that are so crucial to Bangladesh’s future of development – multi-modal and seamless transport connectivity, investment connectivity, trade facilitation, logistics and trade connectivity, and people to people connectivity.
These projects and investments will help create job opportunities, provide essential services, raise productivity, enhance export competitiveness and thereby contribute to Bangladesh’s socio-economic progress and development. Consequently, BRI projects and related activities have the potential to help Bangladesh attain a number of SDGs, particularly zero poverty (Goal 1), zero hunger (Goal 2), creation of decent and productive employment (Goal 8) and reducing inequality (Goal 10), not to speak of SDG 9 (Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure). Indeed, directly and indirectly, the potential benefits of BRI projects will contribute to attaining all the SDGs in Bangladesh. Crucially, the partnership embedded in the BRI aligns very well with the objectives of Goal 17 which is targeted at fostering global partnership in attaining the SDGs. What is also important to keep in mind is that SDGs aspire to ‘Leave No One Behind’, an important element of which is not to leave any region behind. By helping connect lagging and remote areas of Bangladesh with regional and global economic activities, the BRI projects will also contribute to attaining the SDGs in Bangladesh in a more inclusive manner.
It is important to keep in mind that SDGs envisage environmental sustainability as a key and core driver of sustainable development. From this vantage point, issues of climate impact, environmental footprints, sustainable production and eco-friendly infrastructure will demand increasing attention on the part of policymakers from the vantage points of prioritisation, selection, design and implementation of projects and the delivery of the attendant outputs, outcomes and impacts. Bangladesh is keen to ensure that the BRI projects are sensitive to these emerging demands particularly in view of Bangladesh being one of the most climate-vulnerable countries in the world.
The BRI projects are selected and implemented in a way that deliver results which ensure the expected financial and economic returns and enables Bangladesh to ensure sustainable debt-servicing. Of Bangladesh’s total outstanding debt of US$ 50.0 billion (as of June 2021), China’s share is still low, at only about 5.0 percent. Avoiding cost and time over-run in implementation of these projects and ensuring good governance at all stages will thus be of crucial importance in this context.
The BRI represents the most ambitious infrastructure and development project in human history and presents both formidable risks and enormous opportunities as far as economic welfare, social inclusivity and environmental and eco-systems sustainability were concerned.
Taking cognisance and care of the demands of sustainable infrastructure and sustainable development in establishing the transport-investment-trade-people to people connectivities as part of the BRI will thus be crucial for sustainable global development and planetary sustainability. Implementation of BRI projects in Bangladesh will need to be aligned with this aspiration.
In connection with the above, it is encouraging to note from the statement of Chinese President Xi Jinping at the recently held 14th BRICS Summit hosted by China that BRICS members are committed to advancing the cause of sustainable development and an environment-friendly and sustainable Covid recovery. BRI is expected to be an important contributing factor in implementing this vision articulated by President Xi.
It is anticipated that the upcoming 20th National Congress of the CPC, to be held towards the end of 2022, will be a critically important milestone in the history of China where pathways will be discussed for China’s development over the next years will be discussed and a road map chalked out. It is anticipated that the Congress will reiterate China’s commitment to the BRI and its support towards implementation of the high ambitions which President Xi had articulated when he first proposed the BRI in 2013.
Bangladesh, as also other BRI members, will look forward to the CPC Congress with high hopes that China will continue to provide the leadership to realise the objectives of the BRI, through concrete initiatives and financial support towards attaining the aspirations of inclusive development and sustainable planet. Bangladesh and other BRI countries have keen interest to be partners in this journey.
Professor Mustafizur Rahman is Distinguished Fellow, Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD)