The future of Bangkok-Dhaka ties
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The future of Bangkok-Dhaka ties

With Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina having arrived in Bangkok to attend the eightieth session of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and Pacific (Escap) from April 24-29, the stage is set for Bangladesh and Thailand to embark on a journey of enhanced cooperation.

This cooperation is not only a testament to Bangladesh's commitment to regional cooperation but also a significant step towards mutual benefit for both nations. With a delegation comprising esteemed ministers and officials, this visit at the invitation of her Thai counterpart, Srettha Thavisin, signifies the growing importance of fostering stronger ties between the two nations.

Since assuming office in 2009, the present government in Bangladesh has made significant strides in deepening and strengthening relations with neighbouring countries. Thailand, in particular, has been a key focus of Bangladesh's foreign policy.

Thailand has been one of Bangladesh's oldest allies in East Asia, with a bilateral relationship that has spanned 52 years. From trade and tourism cooperation to the construction of Bangladesh's first metro rail system, the partnership between the two countries has seen remarkable progress over the past five decades.

Bangladesh sees Thailand as a reliable partner, and Thailand's growth along global economic lines has been nothing but impressive. Over the last four decades, Thailand has made remarkable progress in social and economic development, moving from a low-income country to an upper-middle-income one in less than a generation.

As both countries explore new avenues for cooperation and seek to leverage their cultural affinities and economic complementarities, it is high time for Bangladesh to boost relations with Thailand and involve itself with Asean, East Asia, China, and Japan in a broader "Asian home" to nurture the economic diplomacy adopted in recent times.

During Ms Hasina's visit, Bangladesh and Thailand may sign at least six MoUs on trade, investment, and cooperation in energy and tourism. During the Thai Permanent Secretary for Foreign Affairs' visit to Bangladesh, these issues were discussed to brainstorm cooperation.

Both countries have previously set a goal of increasing bilateral trade to US$2 billion (about 74 billion baht). Bangladesh has faced a historical trade imbalance on this side. Bilateral trade is over $1.5 billion, but Bangladesh's exports to Thailand are only about $80 million. MOUs on trade and investment will foster ways for greater trade cooperation.

There is a huge opportunity to export readymade garments, leather goods, and fish from Bangladesh. Thailand has even shown interest in promoting demand for Bangladeshi products in Thailand. The country has also previously stated that Bangladesh's economy would be more resilient provided it diversifies its sources of income rather than relying heavily on the readymade garment industry.

Only increasing exports from Bang- ladesh won't be optimal. Thai investment is needed to reduce trade inequality. To this end, Dhaka is considering allocating land to establish a special economic zone for Thailand. Bangladesh should try to attract Thai investors for the agro-processing industry, hi-tech manufacturing, electric vehicles (EV), and the tourism sector.

Discussing a free trade agreement between the two countries may also be a top priority. The slow progress of a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between Thailand and Bangladesh could be given a boost during the visit, considering that an FTA will be essential for Bangladesh's economic development following its expected graduation out of the group of least developed countries in 2026, as the country will lose some market advantage in the world economy.

Exploring cost-effective sea transport routes between the Andaman coast of Thailand and the Bay of Bengal presents another opportunity to enhance smoother trade flows. Through this, Bangladesh will have an alternative route to export its products to countries in the Pacific Ocean that is cost-effective in addition to the Malacca Strait.

Chattogram Port had previously signed an MoU with Ranong Port in Thailand to establish a direct coastal shipping service to reduce shipment times. The decision to implement it is still to be made. Ms Hasina's visit could spur this to happen.

The mutually beneficial potential of easing visa regulations between Thailand and Bangladesh also deserves attention. Bangladeshis contribute significantly to Thailand's economy through medical tourism, business, and leisure travel, generating billions in revenue. The current visa process is cumbersome for Bangladeshis.

By facilitating easier access, Thailand could potentially double its Bangladeshi visitors, fostering stronger economic and cultural ties. Also, Thai investment in Bangladesh remains limited. The tourism MOU can be beneficial to the promotion of Buddhist historical sites in Bangladesh as part of the Buddhist circuit that is connected with India, Nepal, Bhutan and Sri Lanka to attract more pilgrims and travellers.

Moreover, amidst pressing global challenges such as climate change, Bangladesh and Thailand share a common imperative to pursue sustainable development pathways. Thailand's adoption of the Bio-Circular-Green (BCG) economy model aligns with Bangladesh's efforts to mitigate the adverse effects of climate change through initiatives like the Mujib Climate Prosperity Plan. By forging a "green partnership", both nations can exchange best practices, collaborate on renewable energy projects, and advocate for environmentally sustainable policies.

Amidst the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century, Bangladesh and Thailand stand at a crossroads of history. As they navigate the complexities of a rapidly changing world, they must draw strength from their shared values and aspirations. By fostering dialogue, cooperation, and mutual understanding, they can build a future of peace, prosperity, and sustainable development for their peoples and the wider region. As the bonds between Bangladesh and Thailand continue to strengthen, let us look forward to a future marked by cooperation, friendship, and shared success.

S A Korobi is a student of Peace and Conflict Studies (MSS) at Dhaka University.

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