March 31, 2023

Dhaka, Bangladesh (AP) — Bangladesh sought Chinese cooperation to repatriate Rohingya refugees to Myanmar during a visit by Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Sunday, who pledged to improve trade ties, invest and support the South Asian nation’s infrastructure develop.

China used its influence in Myanmar to broker a November 2017 agreement to repatriate some 700,000 Rohingya Muslim refugees who fled persecution in Myanmar that August. Despite attempts to repatriate them, the refugees refused, out of fear of danger to Myanmar, exacerbated by last year’s military takeover.

Yi Gang arrived in Dhaka on Saturday night to meet Prime Minister Hasina and Foreign Minister Abdul Momen. Bangladesh’s Deputy Foreign Minister Shahryal Alam said they discussed bilateral and global issues before setting off on Sunday morning.

Bangladesh has close ties with China, which is a major raw material trading partner. But maintaining close ties with Beijing is a challenge for Bangladesh, which also balances diplomatic and trade ties with China’s main rivals, India and the United States.

More than 500 Chinese companies are active in Bangladesh. China is involved in all of the country’s major infrastructure projects, such as seaports, river tunnels and highways, and has helped build its largest bridge over the Padma River for $3.6 billion.

Recently, relations between mainland China and Taiwan have been tense, and Bangladesh has issued a statement reiterating its support for the “one China” policy. China has stepped up its involvement in Bangladesh since Hasina’s government closed its Dhaka representative office at China’s request after the 2008 election victory.

More than 80% of Bangladesh’s garment industry’s foreign exchange earnings come from exports, and its raw materials are heavily dependent on China.

Yi told Hasina during a courtesy call on Sunday that his country sees Bangladesh as a “strategic development partner” and will continue to support it, presidential press secretary Ihsanul Karim said.

Yi Gang also pledged to stand on Bangladesh’s side “on all issues in international forums,” the Bangladesh Associated Press reported.

Alam said Yi agreed to expand trade interests by increasing duty-free access for Bangladeshi products and services to 99 percent of the Chinese market.

“This is good news for Bangladesh as we have a booming economy based on exports,” Alam said. “We already provide duty-free access for 98% of our exports to China. The remaining 2%…have been important and sensitive.​​ Now they are offering another 1% from September 1 Concessions,” he said, adding that the new tax incentives could include apparel, wovens and other products that previously faced some hurdles.

Bangladesh will soon receive a list of duty-free products and services from China, he said.

Alam said Yi explained to Bangladesh’s foreign minister that “some countries have misunderstood and misinterpreted” China. He did not elaborate.

The junior minister said China was committed to continuing efforts to resolve the Rohingya crisis, citing Yi Gang as saying that Myanmar’s internal challenges plagued not only Bangladesh but other countries as well.

“Our foreign minister strongly reiterated the need for China’s cooperation. China has made progress in resolving the Rohingya issue and we need to end this situation,” Alam said.

On Sunday, Bangladesh and China signed or renewed four agreements and memorandums of understanding on disaster management, infrastructure and cultural exchanges.

Analyst Munshi Faiz Ahmed, who served as Bangladesh’s ambassador to Beijing, said Yi’s visit was very important for both countries.

“To resolve the Rohingya crisis, Bangladesh needs China’s support. This visit will help strengthen bilateral ties,” Ahmed told The Associated Press.

“For us, China is very important. We also need to have good relations with India and the US as they are also very important development partners of Bangladesh. There is nothing to fear because of Bangladesh’s close relationship with China,” he said .

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