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ZAFAR SOBHAN
DATELINE DHAKA

Zafar Sobhan is editor of the Dhaka Tribune, a daily newspaper.

The Chinese are coming to Bangla

Chinese entrepreneurs are pouring into Bangladesh with a view to set up factories for garments, footwear, etc.

f they can do it in the length and breadth of Africa, there is no reason they can't do it in Bangladesh. Closer to home, the Chinese have done wonders for infrastructure development in neighbouring Burma, and they are the obvious choice for an infrastructure development partnership for us.

Will the assistance come with strings attached? I can hardly imagine that it would be otherwise: that's the way of the world. No one does anything for nothing, out of the kindness of their heart. From oil wells to power plants to coal mines to roads and railways, everyone is in it for the profits that are there to be made, and we should neither expect nor demand anything else.

The one single thing constraining Bangladesh's growth the most is lack of infrastructure development. I have great faith in the enterprise and ingenuity of the Bangladeshi people, and there is no doubt in my mind that if we simply gave them the tools they need to advance that they could take care of the rest themselves.

This means education, but there are limits to education, and we see it in the lack of opportunity for the newly-minted university graduates who can't find jobs. Education alone won't do the trick unless we have an environment that is conducive for creating job opportunities and that nurtures dynamism and creativity.

There are many ways to do this, and we need to deregulate further, work hard to eliminate the corruption of the licensing regimen, cut down on cronyism, and create a climate that is better for doing business.

But the sine qua non of all these measures is better infrastructure. Without it, nothing else we do will matter much, and if we had better infrastructure, then we could accomplish many of our other goals.

But how to build it — there's the rub. We have neither the capacity nor the finances for such an ambitious project. Enter the Chinese. No one develops infrastructure better than them. If they are interested in partnering with us to build a deep-sea port, roads, tunnels, and an industrial park, as has been reported, this is great news.

One way or another, Bangladesh is going to be a big part of Bangladesh's future. It is already Bangladesh's biggest trading partner, and our exports to China are growing steadily, half a billion dollars this year, an increase of a whopping two-thirds from last year.

More crucially, with China graduating out of garments and leather to higher end manufacturing, Bangladesh is poised to inherit a significant chunk of this business. Already Chinese entrepreneurs are pouring into Bangladesh with a view to set up factories for garments, footwear, and other such products.

Even more promisingly (as the export figures show), China is emerging as a market for our low-end manufacturing products since it is no longer economical for China to makes clothes and shoes for its own billion-plus population, and these items need to come from somewhere.

The bottom line is that leveraging our proximity to China and the opportunities our economic growth offers to them could be a game-changer for Bangladesh. It need not mean that we should aim to play China off against India or the US, we should simply look at things in terms of our own national interest and act accordingly.

Partnering with China on infrastructure projects need not be mutually exclusive to partnering with anyone else, and the Chinese have already indicated their willingness to work with anyone else who is interested. There is no need and no gain for us to try and play geo-politics, sometimes the best approach is to simply lay your cards on the table and deal fairly and openly with all comers.

Imagine a Bangladesh with sufficient power and clean water for all. Imagine wide, safe roads. Imagine a high-speed rail network connecting all four corners of the country and with no point more than a couple of hours from Dhaka.

Imagine a Bangladesh with the population evenly spread out, so that one could live in Sylhet but work in Dhaka, with offices and universities and factories distributed through Teknaf to Tetulia. Imagine a Bangladesh with only 5 million people living in Dhaka because the entire country has been effectively decentralised.

All this would be possible with better infrastructure. None of this is rocket science, it is all very doable with a little help from our friends. And where the benefits would be so great, we should welcome with open arms anyone who can help us achieve this vision.

 
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