‘Nepal, Bangladesh need to improve connectivity for benefit’

The Asian Institute of Diplomacy and International Affairs (AIDIA), a leading foreign policy think-tank of Kathmandu recently, hosted the 3rd Nepal-Bangladesh Business Forum (NBBF), an annual bilateral track 1.5 forum, set up by AIDIA and Government of Bangladesh. NBBF is the only a bilateral forum which happens every year in Nepal. Tara Basyal, Spokesperson of Gorkhapatra Corporation, talked to Sunil K.C., Chief Executive of AIDIA, on various issues ranging from NBBF, Nepal-Bangladesh relations and other major initiatives and contribution of the institution to setting the direction of Nepal’s foreign policy. Excerpts: sunil kc

The third-edition of Nepal-Bangladesh Business Forum held in Kathmandu recently. What issues were dealt in the Forum? Would you share it with our readers?
Nepal-Bangladesh Business Forum (NBBF), the joint initiative AIDIA and Government of Bangladesh, was conceived and hosted its first edition in 2016. Since then, it has become the premier platform of discourse on diverse issues of bilateral relations between Nepal and Bangladesh involving policymakers and government officials, business leaders, media persons, scholars and academics among others. The chief objective of the forum was to promote and strengthen bilateral economic cooperation between Nepal and Bangladesh.
With successful two previous editions of NBBF, we hosted the third edition under the theme of “Navigating the Next Phase of Socio-economic Cooperation”, focusing on major issues like promoting energy cooperation, strengthening media cooperation and expanding multimodal connectivity between the two countries.

You termed NBBF as a major forum to discuss bilateral issues between Nepal and Bangladesh. How do you reflect the impact of previous two editions in the promotion of bilateral relations?
Since the inception of AIDIA, we have been primarily and consistently focusing on the ‘1.5 track dialogue channel’, including for NBBF, meaning ensuring the participation of political leaders, business community, scholars, and media persons among others. And, we have been also sharing the report of the events with relevant institutions of respective government and other concerned organisations. This, in turn, acted as a significant strategy for eliminating barriers and exploring new potentialities between Nepal and Bangladesh.
For instance, the forum has made an important contribution to bringing in a billion dollar investment from Bangladesh to Nepal in hydropower sector and the pledged amount of 2.4 billon dollar of Bangladeshi investment in food and the construction sector. Similarly, business community in the forum was continuously raising issues of double taxation as a barrier for investment and recently the two governments signed the Double Tax Avoidance Agreement (DTAA), this reformed tax arrangements will definitely attract investors and support in the promotion of bilateral trade and commerce. We also encouraged and facilitated the process for Bangladesh to build a Buddhist Monastery in Lumbini, which symbolizes cultural cooperation. Bangladesh will be the first Muslim country to build such Buddhist Monastery in Nepal.

In the third edition of the NBBF, there was a panel discussion on, ‘The Strong Media Cooperation for Enhancing Bilateral Ties’. What is your view regarding the current state of media relations and coverage of mutual bilateral issues in the media of both the countries?
Prominent media practitioners during the forum themselves admitted the fact of very minimal level of media coverage on bilateral issues. Mostly our foreign policy discourse is dominated by our relation with immediate neighbours, and it is obvious in regards to our geographical nearness and volume of economic engagements with India and China. But, we also need to look at other important friendly countries, Bangladesh is one of them. Many potential opportunities with Bangladesh remained unexploited because of the low level of media coverage and public discussion.
The Rastriya Samachar Samiti (RSS) and Bangladesh Sangbad Sangstha (BSS) have, of late, agreed for regular exchanges of news and information to expedite the bilateral relations. I think. similar media partnership should be promoted. Notably, interaction and exchanges of visit of journalists from both sides are essential for in-depth analysis of the opportunities and challenges of our relations.

What will be the major sectors of cooperation and issues that the media of both the countries should focus on?
There are numerous possibilities of cooperation on the areas like trade, energy, connectivity, tourism, and education. Trade between Nepal and Bangladesh has not reached its aptitude. So, to promote trade and tourism, both the countries need to work for enhanced transport connectivity, including road and railways. Likewise, our bilateral agreement allows Nepal to use Chittagong and Mongla ports of Bangladesh. We must explore how these ports can be materialised for Nepal’s third country trade by analysing the economic advantage.
According to a recent report of World Bank, Bangladesh has listed as one of the five fastest growing economies in the world and plans to be a middle income country by 2030. The impressive economic growth made by Bangladesh is being studied around the world. How is once considered as ‘basket case economy’ now taken as the ‘development model’? The thorough study of this success story of Bangladesh can be important lesson to for Nepal as well.
Bangladesh, as a growing economy, needs more energy in order to spur the sustained growth rate and with Nepal’s resources and capacity to produce electricity will benefit both the countries. It is worth to mention here that, Bangladesh had agreed to buy 500 MW power from Nepal, and India also agreed to allow the transmission of the energy of Nepal to Bangladesh via its land. We can look into the Bangladeshi market for our future energy surplus.
It seems that both the countries will graduate from LDC status in 2024, so, exchanging experiences and strategies for smooth transition and tackling possible post-graduation challenges will be crucial. We also need to focus on educational collaboration and people-to-people contact, raise a coordinated voice on climate change related issues, and build strong cooperation in common platforms like BIMSTEC and BBIN.

Would you tell us about the major initiatives taken by AIDIA and its future plan for contributing in setting the direction of Nepal’s bilateral and global affairs?
Besides annual Nepal-Bangladesh Business Forum, we have other major flagship initiatives like Nepal Foreign Policy Conference, Nepal-India Think Tank Summit, Himalayas Forum and AIDIA’s Economic Diplomacy Conference. AIDIA has been also organising a round-table meeting with central Asian and African countries. We have also been working on other new initiatives like Nepal-India Security Dialogue, Nepal - Azerbaijan Forum, Nepal Financial Forum, and Kathmandu to Kolkatta Business Forum (K2K Forum), including training /workshops on foreign policy and international protocol. Moreover, acknowledging the fact of our low level of institutional research work, we are giving research and publication high priority. We have also planned to run the Master’s course in international relations and diplomacy by 2020 in partnership with Mid-Western University (MWU) of Nepal, which is an academic partner of AIDIA. But in 2019, we will be running the short term courses in international relations and diplomacy targeting the younger generation of Nepal.
AIDIA had also envisioned hosting the “Sagarmatha Dialogue” in 2017, under the theme of Geo-economics and geo-politics, and proposed an office at the ministry informally, but it not organised due to various reasons. Now, it is interesting to know that the government has proposed to host the event under same name ‘’Sagarmatha Dialogue.” We are hoping for some kind of collaboration in the dialogue.
AIDIA is also launching a weekly television talk show titled ‘AIDIA Dialogue’ from this May in AP1 Television, which mainly focuses on foreign policy and economic diplomacy of Nepal and global affairs for fulfilling the gap in current television talk shows in Nepal in English. The show intends to cover the incisive analysis on various facets of Nepal’s global affairs involving politicians, bureaucrats, foreign diplomats, international relations scholars, business community, and other prominent figures for issue focused and robust constructive discourse. And we believe ‘AIDIA Dialogue’ will play an important role in right-tracking the discourse and direction of Nepal’s foreign policy.

Finally, how have you evaluated the work of government and private think tank in Nepal?
From AIDIA’s point of view, with the generous support provided by the business community of Nepal, we are doing our level best to help promote the national interest of our country. And, I see many other private think-tank is also doing their best. I think, we all agree that there is huge gap in the expectations and real delivery of government supported think-tank in setting the foreign policy direction.
But one thing I would like to stress is all think-tanks either private or supported by government need to work very closely to form the synergetic effort by contributing with respective strength they possess. This can be the best strategy to cope with limited resources available for adequately running the institution. 

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