As an effective regional governance structure, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) gives a forum for Southeast Asian members to share ideas and reach provisional agreements. Bangladesh presently stands firmly at ASEAN’s west door, drawing even closer to China’s strategical periphery, thanks to the expansion of ASEAN to a ten-member grouping. The deepening of ASEAN-Bangladesh ties appears to be a logical progression. Both are part of global economies becoming increasingly intertwined due to more open trade regimes in globalization. Economic motivations are frequently the driving force behind regionalization. As a result of its rapid expansion, ASEAN has sought external contact with a wide range of industrialized and emerging nations. Bangladesh became the 26th member of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in July 2006. If Bangladesh wants to strengthen the cooperative relationship with ASEAN countries, Bangladesh and ASEAN will have to build good relationships and trade with every country member of ASEAN, including Myanmar.
ASEAN and South Asian nations like Bangladesh have to expand and deepen their economic cooperation based on mutual benefit, which might lead to a more significant part of global commerce. Furthermore, Bangladesh and ASEAN nations have economic and security interests in trade and investments, connectivity, agriculture, tourism, communications, and technology transfer.
Rodrigo Duterte, the 16th president of the Philippines, said, “Bangladesh, having transitioned to one of the most successful economies in the world, will play a greater role in the South Asian region and beyond”.
Moreover, Bangladesh cannot stay immune to globalization’s corrosive effects. Sustainable growth is perhaps the most crucial aim in an age of economic struggle and cooperative security. These considerations suggest that both Bangladesh and ASEAN have the geoeconomics capacity to benefit from more significant trade and collaboration in the era of globalization, which includes the ASEAN nations’ economic powerhouses.
Steps to Strengthen Bangladesh-ASEAN Cooperative Relations
Firstly, Bangladesh is not a member of ASEAN and has never acceded to any ASEAN agreements, except for the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC), which is insufficient to request “partnership,” let alone membership. The Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC) was signed in 1976, and it embodies universal principles of peaceful coexistence and friendly cooperation among Southeast Asian states. It is a legally binding code for regional and global inter-state relations. Bangladesh signed the treaty in 2007. The 12th ARF meeting in Vietnam in 2005 agreed to Bangladesh’s admission as the 26th member, and Bangladesh joined ARF, aiming to use meaningful involvement to transform Asia’s great variety into a beautiful mosaic of opportunity and harmony. The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) is also welcoming to Bangladesh, and the RCEP members are also members of ASEAN. By joining RCEP and other ASEAN structures, Bangladesh can also apply for membership in ASEAN in the future.
Secondly, by using the geographical significance of Bangladesh, it can also strengthen relations with ASEAN. Geographically, Bangladesh is the bridge between South and Southeastern countries. It has managed its good connection with its two neighbors: India and Myanmar. The seven sisters,’ i.e. the Indian states of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura, and Meghalaya, can only be reached from ‘mainland’ India via the ‘chicken neck,’ i.e. the tiny corridor north of Bangladesh, which requires a thousand-kilometer detour. Bangladesh and India have jointly established bus and train services for traveling. In 2020, Bangladesh revealed her interest in joining the India-Myanmar-Thailand (IMT) trilateral highway to develop a strong connectivity in the ASEAN region. India is also planning to extend the IMT Highway with Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. The connectivity will enhance regional opportunities.
The Asian Highway (AH) was created by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UN-ESCAP) in 1959 to promote regional cooperation. It is an initiative that brings Asian countries together to create a link to Europe. Benapole-Jessore-Kanchpur-Dhaka-Sylhet-Tamabil is the route of the AH1. Bangabandhu-Hatikamrul-Dhaka-Kanchpur-Sylhet-Tamabil is served by AH2, while the international seaports of Chittagong and Mongla are connected to AH1 and AH2 by AH41, allowing them to serve regional demands if necessary. The long-awaited Asian highway project will greatly relieve enormous pressure on Chittagong Port and benefit businesspeople. The Asian highway might eventually lead to a land connection with China’s Kunming province. The Bangladesh government’s decision to link Bangladesh to 27 nations via the projected Asian Highway network is a positive omen to be capable of joining ASEAN.
Thirdly, Bangladesh’s economic stability and growth can attract ASEAN members to accept Bangladesh as ASEAN dialogue partner and eventually a member. As Bangladesh prepares to upgrade itself from LDC to a developing country by 2026, Bangladesh focuses on bilateral preferential trade agreements (PTAs) and free trade agreements (FTAs) to boost export income and get better market access in the next three to six years. The Bangladeshi government is also looking into the potential of PTAs with forty-four nations. Dhaka has sought eleven nations to negotiate free trade agreements. Bangladesh has maintained strong trade connections with ASEAN countries for many years. The effect of Bangladesh on Southeast Asia may also be seen in their natural occupation as traders, particularly in port cities like Singapore and Bangkok.
Bangladesh’s ambition to engage with East Asian and ASEAN nations originates from a clear awareness of the region’s economic and security importance to Bangladesh’s interests. While being committed to the South Asian regional body SAARC and maintaining strong relations with India, Bangladesh should look outside the organization for regional and international alliances and engagement with ASEAN members. The economic growth of Bangladesh despite the Covid-19 pandemic shows Bangladesh’s success in the era of regionalization. ASEAN’s strategy to strengthen ties with both Japan and China to revitalize their economic systems suits Bangladesh. ASEAN’s original intent is to prevent any significant power from dominating Southeast Asia. Furthermore, ASEAN countries’ positive attitudes toward stronger ties with India and Bangladesh for their geo-strategic location. The positive indicates that the ASEAN members are seeking connectivity with Northeast Asia and South Asia, allowing additional South Asian countries, such as Bangladesh, to engage in the East Asian geographic process as future partners.
Fourthly, ASEAN cooperative policy and leadership is another possible way to strengthen the strong relationship between Bangladesh and ASEAN. Cambodia has been the current Chair of ASEAN since October 28, 2021. Cambodia shares good relations with Bangladesh. In 2014, the two countries agreed to form a joint commission to explore new areas of collaboration and reinforce existing ones in a variety of fields. The countries also signed ten deals in 2017 to enhance bilateral ties and strengthen economic cooperation benefits. As Chair of ASEAN, Cambodia has shown its top concern on the Rohingya crisis. Bangladesh Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen stated on January 18, 2022, that Cambodia’s ASEAN Chairmanship gives an excellent chance to promote the safe and dignified repatriation of the Rohingyas to Myanmar, who are now living in Bangladesh. Prime Minister Hun Sen stated during a joint news conference held following his bilateral meeting with his Bangladeshi counterpart Sheikh Hasina in 2017 that Cambodia had hoped that Bangladesh and Myanmar would find a solution allowing the Rohingya to return home.
The ASEAN-Bangladesh strong connection should be viewed as an essential tool for maintaining the strength of market-driven economic growth, avoiding selective regionalism, and encouraging a well-integrated global economy. Due to the influx of Rohingyas and increased maritime boundary problems preventing Bangladesh and Myanmar from accessing marine resources in the Bay of Bengal. It is crucial to open the road for the two countries to work together to address difficulties through regional organizations. As ideas and interests converge, ASEAN-Bangladesh ties will be able to flourish fast in the future. ASEAN’s relationship with Bangladesh is crucial in resolving new challenges such as the interconnection of socioeconomic (i.e. democratization, protection of the environment, protecting human rights, or labor standards) and trade concerns presented by Developed Countries.