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Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Preventing an Afghan meltdown

Syed Mansur Hashim

THAT the United States (US) has put limitations on what actions the allied forces will perform in Afghanistan under the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) leaves much to be desired, at least as long as the new Afghan government is concerned. 12,500 troops on the ground from January 1, 2015 with nearly 10,000 coming from the US alone, are supposed to hold in check the Taleban and its allies. However, given the guidelines of the BSA, this force will help transfer the bulk of the fighting to the estimated 350,000 Afghan National Forces (ANF). 
Voices are deeply divided as to precisely how effective this new policy will be. The plan as it stands envisages the ANF to head national security by 2017. The political climate is altogether not too glum. The third democratically elected government is in power. The billions of dollars invested in the country over the more than one decade of western engagement in the country has helped improve Afghanistan's “capacity for self-governance, improved national health care, expanded schooling opportunities for Afghan youth, especially girls, and a better connected Afghanistan to the outside world than ever before. Afghanistan also began 2015 with a 350,000-member security force consisting of an army, a limited air force, national police and border and customs forces.”(Source: Foreign Policy Research Institute)
The flipside to this rosy picture is that a large percentage of the Afghan populace still suffers from extreme poverty. Being a landlocked country does not help the country in terms of trade and the overt dependence on foreign aid remains the Achilles heel. There is also a massive shortage of housing for nearly half the population. There is simply no denying the fact that many of the “gains” Afghanistan has achieved since 2002 were funded by multilateral agencies and these include both the building of infrastructure and institutions. Salaries of both the bureaucracy and the military are dependent on foreign aid. What is sad to see is that despite sitting on some of significant deposits of precious minerals like copper, lithium, uranium, iron ore, cobalt, natural gas and oil, foreign investment has not been forthcoming primarily due to the fluid political situation on the ground. 
It is not without reason that the Taleban refuse to go away. There is no doubt that the Taleban's principal supporters in the Pakistan military and intelligence community continue to patronise the group in an effort to influence the political discourse in Afghanistan. The increased intelligence sharing between India and Afghanistan and the growing cosy relationship between these two countries on military matters make the Taleban dilemma a festering wound in Afghan politics. With India now giving more direct military aid to ANF in terms of training and equipping, the stage is set for the Taleban to remain very much present in Afghanistan. Precisely how the US hopes to counter the growing fear that Afghanistan will become the country of choice for militant organisations where they train and use it as a base to counter Western interests in the region remain to be seen; especially with a much reduced force of less than 10,000 personnel on the ground.
Despite the impressive numbers, the Afghan army has been less than effective in countering the Taleban in the south, the east and in the capital city itself. This is so because the US-led allied forces are no longer there. Indeed the Afghan forces have actually ceded ground to the Taleban in areas in the south and east…gains that had come after much fighting between the US-led allies and the Taleban in years gone by. Going by numbers, ANF has sustained 4,600 deaths in October, 2014 alone. It has serious deficiencies in intelligence support, in medical evacuation and / or supporting fire in terms of artillery and air bombardment. The bottom line is that 2014 has not been a good year to boost foreign investment confidence in the country. Without foreign investment to replace donor-handouts, there is serious doubt Afghanistan will be able to hold its own in the mid to long term. The drastic pullout from Afghanistan without putting into place the challenges of logistics, an intelligence backbone, without training and equipping air support and counter-insurgency forces will all collude to a dramatic turn of events in Afghanistan in the coming year, one that will hardly help in making “the world a safer place from terrorism.”
So what can be done? It is imperative that the US commit itself to build up a workable intelligence gathering and sharing framework in Afghanistan and beyond. The ANF is still in its infancy when it comes to combating militant outfits and requires direct military support in its operations. There is also the need to comprehend that there is no alternative to training and maintaining an “operational military presence in Afghanistan.” These key elements need to be worked into a revised BSA. The alternative is to let things lie as they are and watch as Afghanistan descends into another Iraq-type situation. The only problem with that is that the problems associated with militancy will spiral beyond the borders of Afghanistan onto neighbouring countries and beyond.

The writer is Assistant Editor, The Daily Star. 

The Daily Star, 10 March 2015

US commander proposes slower Afghan withdrawal

Afp, WashingtonThe US commander in Afghanistan told lawmakers Thursday he had proposed "options" to the White House that would slow the pace of a planned withdrawal of American troops from the country.General John Campbell, who oversees 13,000 US and allied troops, said he had taken into account a request from Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to revise President Barack Obama's plan to pull out all US combat troops by the end of 2016."He (Ghani) has asked for NATO and the United States to provide some flexibility in our planning to account for the fact that his government remains in transition," Campbell told the Senate Armed Services Committee."I have provided options on adjusting our force posture through my chain of command," Campbell said.The US Army general said Washington had to decide how long to keep troops at bases in the north or south before consolidating the force in the capital Kabul."The issue is how long we stay engaged at the regional level in the transition year of 2015," he said.Asked by Senator John McCain, chairman of the committee, if he supported the options to push back the withdrawal timeline, Campbell said: "Yes, absolutely."McCain has been a fierce critic of Obama's plan to pull out troops, saying that the decision has been driven by politics instead of security conditions on the ground."A group of us met with President Ghani over the weekend, and he was very strong and adamant that this current plan will put the nation in danger," McCain said.Obama and his fellow Democrats in Congress are anxious to wrap up the US military role in Afghanistan after a 13-year-old war that has left more than 2,000 American troops dead and some 20,000 wounded.But amid concerns over a resurgent Taliban, the Obama administration has already adjusted its drawdown plan. In December, officials announced that an additional 1,000 US troops would remain in Afghanistan in 2015 to meet a shortfall of NATO forces.There are 10,600 American troops in the 13,000-strong coalition force currently on the ground.- IS in Afghanistan? -Lawmakers at the hearing also raised concerns about Islamic State jihadists possibly gaining a foothold in Afghanistan.Campbell said the IS group, or Daesh, had a "nascent" presence that appeared to be "more of a rebranding of a few marginalized Taliban.""But we're still taking this potential threat, with its dangerous rhetoric and ideology, very, very seriously."Although the White House has touted the end of "combat operations" in Afghanistan, US and Afghan special operations have stepped up secret raids against Taliban and Al-Qaeda in recent months, according to the New York Times.The expanded operations are based on valuable intelligence from a laptop computer and files seized in a raid in October on an Al-Qaeda leader, according to the New York Times.The increase in raids also was a result of a new bilateral security agreement signed last year by the new Afghan president. The deal softened restrictions on night raids by American and Afghan forces that had been imposed by the former president, Hamid Karzai, the newspaper reported.

The Daily Star, 14 February 2015

Obama's visit aimed at containing China: Report

Pti, Beijing

As US President Barack Obama arrived in India for an unprecedented second visit, a wary Beijing kept a close watch on its outcome amid commentaries by official think tanks here that the trip is aimed at containing China but New Delhi will not fall for it.
Obama's arrival was a breaking news on state-run CCTV which showed live feed of him being received by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the airport with questions on how it is going to impact China and whether it was part of the US strategy to contain Beijing's growing influence in the region.
Highlighting the significance of Obama's visit from China's point of view, Prof Wang Yewei of the School of international relations at the Renmin University told CCTV that Obama became the first US President visiting India for the second time and the visit was also aimed at leaving his diplomatic legacy.
Also from US point of view, India is the key for America's so called Indo-Pacific strategy aimed at containing China besides balancing Beijing's Silk Road push into the Indian Ocean, he said.
"Of course it is American strategy to use India against China. But we understand India also need strategic co-operation with US in defence and security because India has suffered due to separatists and terrorist attacks and need capital investment from the US. We should understand that from India's needs," Wang said.
The visit was also aimed at containing the Chinese and Russian influence in India, he said.

"But India is a civilisational state for long time and pursues independent foreign policy. It is not easy for anybody to use it," he said.
The Daily Star, 26 January 2015

Bangladesh-US : Towards new engagements

Delwar Hossain     

The third round of the 2014 Bangladesh US security dialogue was held in Dhaka on 22 April. It focused on issues such as peacekeeping, counterterrorism, disastermanagement, maritime security and regional security. 
The security dialogue is part of a larger dialogue process that encompasses defencetodefense dialogue; militarytomilitary dialogue; security dialogue; and partnership dialogue between Dhaka and Washington. This security dialogue has been taking place annually since 2012. The first twoday meeting to bolster bilateral and regional cooperation between the two countries under the Joint Declaration of the BangladeshUS Partnership Dialogue took place in Washington, in September 2012. On the economic front, the first meeting of Trade and 
Investment Cooperation Forum Agreement (TICFA) between Bangladesh and the US was held in April 2014. The TICFA seeks to further bolster the annual bilateral trade – that exceeded $6 billion in 2013 – between the Dhaka and Washington. 
Amid conflicting positions of Bangladesh and the US over several domestic, bilateral and global issues, one may interpret these meetings as puzzling developments. In the postelection period, at the bilateral level, both the countries have continued with old discords on issues such as labour rights, the Yunus factor, the dutyfree, quotafree market access, and the suspension of Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) facilities to Bangladesh, among others. From a Bangladeshi perspective, the US’ stance on domestic political changes in the former is a major irritant to smooth bilateral relations. The US’ insistence on holding credible and inclusive general elections in Bangladesh afresh – after the January 2014 elections – has created a diplomatic challenge for the incumbent Sheikh Hasina government. Globally, the Kosovo and the Crimea questions clearly demonstrate Bangladesh’s different foreign policy priorities. 
However, despite the continuing discord, Bangladesh and the US have remained engaged – as demonstrated via the dialogue process and the maiden meeting of TICFA. A strong view prevails in the policy community that these meetings will put US–Bangladesh relations on the path to recovery. Unlike in the past, the US has made it clear that preventing the spread of global terrorism and strategic understanding are its foremost agendas visàvis Bangladesh. Both countries have developed three structured fora for mutual engagement. They are: the USBangladesh Dialogue on Security Issues; the BangladeshUS Partnership Dialogue; and the US–Bangladesh TICFA. The US recognises that Bangladesh has a vital role in ensuring security and stability regionally and globally.  As the head of the US delegation to the Security Dialogue, Tom Kelly, observed, “A strong bilateral partnership and improved defense ties between Bangladesh and the United States are in both of our interests.... In a broader perspective US values Bangladesh's geographical location. It sees an important role for Bangladesh in the overall security context of the Middle East, and IndianPacificOceans region. This is why US wants Bangladesh by its side in its strategic pursuits.” 
Thus, for the US, geostrategic developments in the South Asian and the Asia Pacific regions have accorded Bangladesh a degree of importance. This is also linked to the shift of the 2010 US defence strategy, that the US cannot go solo, and in its attempt to address primary 
security issues, countries like Bangladesh matter. 
Interestingly, Bangladesh appeared to be shy of expressing much optimism and enthusiasm, specifically regarding the outcomes of the meetings, and on bilateral ties in general. The head of the Bangladesh delegation mentioned that the dialogue was “very fruitful” and appreciated the US for the institutionalisation of the process of talks for intensive bilateral cooperation. The apparent lack of buoyant attitude on Bangladesh’s part reflects frustration about the US for its continuing emphasis on holding fresh elections in Bangladesh. It is also a reflection of Washington’s denial of the GSP facilities and duty freequota free access. 
However, in reality Bangladesh shows a degree of pragmatism while dealing with the US in the current context. The benefits of BangladeshUS bilateral ties – from trade to investment, and from culture to development – are substantive for both the nations. Although the rules of engagement for Dhaka and Washington have been crafted in a new regional environment in South Asia, the issue of the security dialogue may generate disquiet among regional powers such as China and India. Simultaneously, the US may also find it little troubling when Bangladesh joined the naval exercise with China along with India and Pakistan. In April 2014, ships from Bangladesh, Pakistan and India reached the Chinese port of Qingdao to partake in a rare naval exercise 
On the SinoBangladesh naval cooperation, Tom Kelly asserts that the US fully respects Bangladesh's sovereign right to establish cooperation with any other country. Similarly, the Indian High Commissioner to Bangladesh,
Pankaj Saran, maintains that “It is up to you [Bangladesh] to choose a strategic partner. India has nothing to say in the matter.” 
The first TICFA meeting may vindicate the critics that the US would use the platform to create a new regime for protecting its economic interests in Bangladesh, thereby undermining the latter’s development needs. Bangladesh’s opposition to form a women’s economic empowerment committee and a labour affairs committee in the first Meeting is an example. The TICFA and/or the Security Dialogue may open new avenues of bilateral talks, but Dhaka and Washington need to deal with major issues of mutual discord. Under the Westphalian order, attempts to use domestic politics as a diplomatic instrument may undermine gains of bilateral cooperation between the two.

Modi promises 'unlimited' reforms to India economy

Afp, Gandhinagar

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised "truly unlimited" reforms Sunday in his bid to transform India's economy into a global powerhouse as he showcased his long-time fiefdom to global political and business leaders.
Speaking at a major investment summit in the western state of Gujarat attended by US Secretary of State John Kerry, UN chief Ban Ki-moon and World Bank supremo Jim Yong Kim, Modi pledged to slash red tape and banish India's reputation as a hard place to do business.
Modi was Gujarat chief minister for 13 years before leading his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to national power last May, and much of his electoral appeal centred around his economic stewardship of the coastal state.
The presence of Kerry and Kim at the summit is seen as a vote of confidence in Modi's efforts to replicate his local success and kickstart growth in Asia's third-largest economy.
Kim predicted that Modi's government was on the verge of lifting millions of Indians out of poverty, while Kerry said the world's two largest democracies could make huge strides together.
Modi said his right-wing BJP government had already introduced a slew of initiatives since ending a decade of rule by the left-leaning Congress.
"In a very short span of seven months, we have been able to change the atmosphere of despair and uncertainty," he told the crowd of thousands of business leaders and foreign government ministers.
"Since day one, my government is actively working to revive the economy. My government is committed to create a policy environment that is predictable, transparent and fair."
But Modi said he was planning even greater, unspecified reforms to make it easier to do business in India and revive the flagging economy, which is struggling through the worst slowdown in decades.
"We are planning to take a quantum leap. It is not limited to one sector or region, it is truly unlimited," he said. "We want to do this is a cleaner and greener way."
Under the previous Congress government, investors frequently complained about a hostile business climate in India, frustrated by bureaucracy and corruption.
In contrast, Gujarat won a reputation as India's most investor-friendly state during the era of 'Modi-nomics' -- even if critics say he tilted the playing field in favour of big business through tax breaks and subsidies.
Kerry told the gathering the United States has looking forward to stronger trade and diplomatic ties between the world's two largest democracies, with American companies primed for more investment.
"I can't think of a moment in all my years in public life when our destinies are converging as significantly as they are today," said Kerry, who is due to visit a Ford auto plant in Gujarat during his trip.
"This is a relationship where we believe we can turn sustainable growth into opportunities we have not seen before," he told the crowd.
Kerry's visit to India, his second in six months, comes a fortnight before US President Barack Obama is due in New Delhi as Washington seeks to warm up sometimes frosty ties.
It is only a year since Washington ended a de facto boycott of Modi, who was blacklisted following deadly communal riots in Gujarat in 2002.
Modi received a rapturous reception from members of the diaspora on a visit to the US last autumn and a number of Indian-origin bosses, including MasterCard's Ajaypal Singh Banga, are attending the Gujarat summit.
At the opening session, World Bank president Kim hailed Modi as a "visionary leader" and forecast India's growth would hit 6.4 percent this year and even faster next.
"We project that India will a bright spot in an otherwise mediocre global economic outlook," Kim told the summit.
He said Modi's government must press on with reforms, including by slashing bureaucratic red-tape and simplifying taxation by introducing a national goods and services tax.
As well as simplifying labour rules, Modi has made manufacturing a priority of his leadership, echoing his time in Gujarat.

In his address, he promoted his 'Make in India' campaign launched in September to fire up a manufacturing sector that is lagging behind China.

The Daily Star, 12 January 2015

Should China worry about India-US rapprochement?

Mohammad Atique Rahman

THE historic visit to India by United States President Barack Obama has opened up a new vista of diplomatic relations and cooperation between India and the US. The signing of the “India-US Civil Nuclear Cooperation” agreement no doubt symbolises the new level of mutual trust and confidence between the two largest democracies in the world. President Obama's executive power to roll back the condition that US authorities be allowed to monitor use of nuclear material purchased by India even from third countries is a sign of such high level of mutual confidence.
President Obama extended his hand of cooperation to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to foster economic prosperity and security cooperation not only for themselves but also for the region. There were lots of aspirations and expectations in the air with regard to his visit. In spite of this enthusiasm, the reaction of another powerhouse in Asia -- China -- is quite uneasy, particularly after the India-US joint statement regarding the adoption of new vision in Asia and Pacific. In the joint statement, India and US declared that they affirm “the importance of safeguarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and over-flight throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea.” Now the question is, why should China worry about US-India rapprochement in Asia and Pacific? Does such an alliance overlap China's expectations over the South China Sea?
To answer these questions, let us explore Chinese interests in the South China Sea and how they may overlap with the joint interests of India and the US. First of all, given the current Chinese economic and military interests in the region, it is difficult to bypass China while discussing economic and security cooperation in Asia and Pacific. In 2009, George Friedman in his book The Next 100 Years wrote: “Any discussion of the future has to begin with a discussion of China as future global power.” Ted C. Fishman, in his book China Inc. wrote: “China is everywhere these days, powered by the world's most rapidly changing large economy which influences consumers, employers and citizens in the region and around the world.”
It is the world's second largest economy, maintaining 10% of GDP or more over the last 30 years, and has become the largest manufacturing country of the world. Geo-politically, however, China is an island country. Most interestingly it is not surrounded by water but by impassable terrain and wastelands -- Siberia and the Mongolian grassland in the North; the impassable Himalayas in the Southwest; and mountain and jungles along the Southern borders with Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam. China's only viable access is the South China Sea. This sea route is critically important for China in its trade with other nations. The majority of the people of China live within one thousand miles of the coast located in the major port cities like Shanghai and Guangzhou.
China, over the last two decades, has become a gold mine for low cost manufacturing of products. The label “Made in China” has become universal. But nowadays, China is experiencing sharp increase in labour cost, which increased by 10% in 2014 compared to Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Therefore, China and the world's MNCs are now adopting 'China Plus' policy to relocate their production plants in East, South and South East Asian countries which are also located in the South China Sea region.
The current government in China therefore adopted the historic 'Maritime Silk Road' policy in the region to develop an effective, secure, reliable and navigable international sea route for trading and connecting future manufacturing zones of Chinese companies and MNCs in the East, South and South Asian countries. China is desperately trying to enhance maritime trade security among the East, South and South East Asian countries, developing an effective framework of economic cooperation including Free Trade Zone, and supporting infrastructure projects like building roads and railways in the region to materialise the idea of Maritime Silk Road. China has also developed effective relations with Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean to allow Chinese submarines to dock at their ports. China's relations with its maritime neighbours are both friendly and tense. As for example, China is engaged in territorial disputes over Spratly Islands with Vietnam and over Senkaku Islands with Japan.
Today, the sea is the most cost-effective and reliable trading route, and no doubt India and the US have vital strategic and economic interests in the Indian Ocean and South China Sea across the Asia-Pacific as US allies Japan, Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam are located in this region. The US has also entered into a Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement with Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam. On the other hand, India has aspirations to achieve blue water capabilities and explore huge amounts of natural resources and establish viable trading route in the Indian Ocean.
The rise of China and India is a reality in Asia. Both the nations are increasing the size and capabilities of their naval powers in the vast deep oceans. C. Raja Mohan, in his book Samudra Manthan: Sino-Indian Rivalry in the Indo-Pacific published in 2013, argued that rising China and emerging India are becoming major maritime powers. Beijing and Delhi are building powerful blue water navies to secure their vital interests far beyond their immediate shores. As the naval footprints of China and India overlap, their maritime competition has begun to roil the waters of the Indo-Pacific, the vast littoral stretching from Africa to Australasia. While China has quantitative advantage, India has been gaining qualitative and strategic advantage over China in the oceans. Therefore, the joint statement of strategic cooperation between India and US in Asia-Pacific reveals their mutual interests in the Indian Ocean and South China Sea regions. In future, their joint effort could help them gain balance with the growing strategic presence of China in the greater Indian Ocean. So the question remains, why should China not worry about their rapprochement?

The writer is Assistant Professor, Dept. of International Relations, University of Dhaka.

The Daily Star, 31 January 2015

Fatwa must not violate laws SC says in full verdict

Ashutosh Sarkar

The Supreme Court yesterday released the full judgment in a case regarding fatwa, (Islamic religious edict) in which it said properly educated people could issue fatwa without violating the laws of the land.
“Fatwa on religious matters only may be given by the properly educated persons which may be accepted only voluntarily but any coercion or undue influence in any form is forbidden,” it said in the 138-page judgment.
“But no person can pronounce fatwa which violates or affects the rights or reputation or dignity of any person which is covered by the laws of the land. No punishment, including physical violence and/or mental torture in any form, can be imposed or inflicted on anybody in pursuance of fatwa,” the SC said.
The Appellate Division of the SC released the full judgment more than 44 months into the announcement of a short verdict on it.
The apex court allowed the High Court to issue a suo moto rule on the matter without any petition, as there was a debate among the jurists on whether the HC had the jurisdiction to issue such a rule.
The SC had come up with the verdict on May 12, 2011, after endorsing in part two separate appeals filed against the two HC verdicts that had declared all kinds of fatwa and punishment in its name illegal.
The HC in January 2001 had declared fatwa illegal, after bigots forced a woman to engage in a Hilla marriage in Naogaon. Hilla marriage is a system in which if a man divorces his wife and then wants to remarry her, she has to marry a third person before her ex-husband can marry her again.
In another verdict in 2010, the HC banned punishment of any person using fatwa.
Fatwa came to limelight after it was used to punish mainly women in village arbitrations.
The six-member bench of the Appellate Division headed by the then chief justice ABM Khairul Haque delivered the verdict by majority views.
Other five judges of the bench are -- former chief justice Md Muzammel Hossain, present Chief Justice Surendra Kumar Sinha, Justice Md Abdul Wahhab Miah, Justice Syed Mahmud Hossain and Justice Muhammad Imman Ali.
“As such, although a Mufti, Maulana, or Imam may pronounce a fatwa, if requested, but cannot violate the laws of the land, rather, are bound by it. He should also be respectful of the fatwa or opinion of others,” Justice Khairul said in his part of the verdict.
Justice Wahhab Miah had disagreed with the five judges in the verdict. He said in his judgment that the HC had no jurisdiction to issue any suo moto rule.
Meanwhile, the SC in the judgment said, “The issuance of fatwa involving a finding of an 'offence against shari'at' and resulting in imposition and execution of extra-judicial penalties by person is not in accordance with law.
“The kind of offences for which women have been subjected to lashing and beating are 'talking to a man', 'pre-marital relations,' 'having a child outside the wedlock.' None of these is an offence under the prevailing Bangladesh laws.”
The SC said, “While in some cases, women have been found 'guilty' of adultery and punished, under Bangladesh law, adultery is an offence under section 497 of the Penal Code, but it does not envisage that a woman maybe an accused or subject to any penalty.”

“Fatwa may be given strictly keeping in mind the restrictions imposed by this judgment. If any Fatwa is given violating the restrictions, it would amount to contempt of Court and if any person is found indulging in such violation will be punished accordingly,” it ruled.

The Daily Star, 26 January 2015

Dhaka likely to seek $10.79b from China


Dhaka is likely to seek USD 10.79 billion in concessional or soft loans from China to modernise the country’s rail communications by implementing eight projects. 
This was decided at an inter-ministerial meeting, chaired by the additional secretary of the railway ministry, and head of the committee on Chinese proposals for investment in railways, Shashi Kumar Singha, on February 10. Meanwhile, China assured Bangladesh of assistance in constructing the Dhaka-Cox’s Bazar broad gauge rail track and setting up coal-based power plants and a rice research centre, and in exploring oil and natural gas, among others.   
The assurances came during the three-day visit of Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi last December.
Wang Yi observed that China and Bangladesh, without any dispute in history and conflict in the present, can only enjoy friendship and cooperation. “China highly appreciates the firm and consistent support of Bangladesh to issues concerning China's core interests,” he said.
Under the Chinese investment proposal, Bangladesh wants to implement the following railway projects: Padma rail link project phase 1 for Dhaka-Maowa-Bhanga part (USD 2,184 million); Padma rail link project phase 2 for Bhanga-Jessore part (USD 1,143 million); construction of a single line dual gauge railway track from Dohazari to Cox’s Bazar via Ramu and Ramu to Guhdum near Myanmar (USD 1,808 million); construction of a double track standard gauge railway line from Dhaka to Chittagong via Comilla (USD 3,968 million); construction of a double line (dual gauge) between Joydebpur and Ishurdi sections (USD 897 million); construction of a double gauge track parallel to the existing medium gauge line in Joydebpur-Mymensingh section (USD 331 million); construction of a modern railway workshop at Rajbari project (USD 200 million); and procurement of 30-set broad gauge DEMU and 200 broad gauge coaches (USD 265 million).
According to the working paper of the meeting, the Planning Commission has already approved the pre-detailed project plans (PDPP) of the Padma rail link project phases 1 and 2 in principle. PDPPs have been sent to the Economic Relations Division (ERD) to start negotiations for the loan. Besides, a memorandum of understanding (MoU) has been signed between Bangladesh Railway and China Railway Group Ltd regarding implementation of the project on January 28.
The committee also proposed to receive even commercial loans and bidder financing, if concessional loans are not available.

The Daily Star, 24 February 2015

Dhaka eyes $11b from Beijing for railways


Bangladesh is going to seek US$10.83 billion as loan from China for development of the country’s railway sector, officials said. 
Earlier on January 14, at a meeting with senior government officials, the Chinese charge d' affaires in Dhaka, Qu Guan Zhou, announced that China was interested to invest $15 billion to $20 billion in Bangladesh’s rail sector, according to sources at the Prime Minister’s Office.

Following the offer, the government formed a three-member committee, headed by additional railway secretary Shashi Kumar Singh.
The committee recently selected eight large projects to implement with financial support from China. The list of projects has been sent to the Economic Relations Division (ERD) to start negotiations with Beijing.   
Previously, Railways Minister M Mujibul Haque said a 20-year master plan has been devised for development of the railway sector as the government wants to ensure rail services for all.  
Meanwhile, the government has decided to update the railway sector by implementing various projects. For implementing the projects, including 50 short, medium and long term ones, the authorities have prepared a work plan. 
According to the railway ministry, 21 short-term projects will be implemented by June this year and 22 middle-term projects by 2016. The authorities also plan to finish the work of six long-term projects by 2018.
According to the work plan, short-term projects include filling up of vacant positions, creating new positions, finalising an organogram, reopening closed stations, setting up new loop lines for avoiding accidents, refurbishing seats of 2,500 chair coaches, building a double line from Tongi to Bhairab, remodelling Chittagong station, enhancing security and improving on board catering.
Middle-term projects include finalising work of the Dhaka-Chittagong dual line, taking delivery of 10 new engines funded by the government and 270 coaches funded by ADB and India, completing 17 ongoing projects, constructing second Bhairab and Titas bridges, modernising 38 signal and interlocking systems, constructing a 78.80 km track from Ishwardi to Dhalarchar and a dual gauge double line on the Tongi- Joydevpur and Akhaura-Laksam sections.
Long-term projects include repairing of Kulaura-Shahbajpur rail line, constructing a new  line from Khulna to Mongla and a meter gauge (MG) track from Ramu to Gundum near Myanmar, acquiring 70 locomotives under suppliers’ credit and 200 MG coaches under tenderers’ financing, and constructing Dhaka-Comilla elevated line and Bogra-Sirajganj-Raipur-Sadanandapur meter gauge line.

The Independent, 22 March 2015

Rushed MoU between RHD and Chinese firm under spotlight

Shahidul Islam Chowdhury

A memorandum of understanding signed between the Roads and Highway Department (RHD) and a Chinese company, for the construction of Bangladesh, China, India, Myanmar Economic Corridor, violates the Rules of Business, claimed a senior government official.
RHD additional chief engineer Bipul Chandra Saha last year signed the MoU on three Tk 100 non-judicial stamps, which ‘is extremely unusual,’ said the official.
According to rule 29 of the Rules of Business, 1996, all correspondence with a foreign government should be conducted through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. A sub-rule under the rule further states all requests for technical assistance should be made through the Economic Relations Division or Finance Division.
A senior foreign ministry official said the BCIM EC ‘is yet to get formal shape, rather, is in the process of formation.’
The official questioned how, before forming the Economic Corridor, a government organisation could enter into a contract with any company, local or foreign.
The Joint Study Group formed for the economic corridor had its second meeting in Cox’s Bazar last December and is going to have its third meeting in India in the second part of this year, informed the official.
‘The study group will submit its final report to their respective governments for the final approval of forming the BCIM EC after the third meeting,’ he added.
The MoU itself was signed on Tk 100 stamps as if somebody ‘is buying property,’ he pointed out.
Any agreement or memorandum of understanding, where the government is a party, is signed on white paper.
This type of initiative may raise suspicion among the other BCIM member countries, said another senior government official.
‘When you have both – China and India – in one organisation, everybody must be very careful with their initiatives,’ he said.
The official feared if India ‘feels threatened’ by any Chinese initiative, New Delhi might not actively play a positive role in the group.
The MoU stated ‘In view of the urgent requirement for the construction of BCIM Economic Corridor against Chinese government funding (on G to G basis), this MoU is executed between RHD and CCCC.’
Both the parties agreed that CCCC might send a team to RHD to inspect the project area of the BCIM EC Bangladesh portion, and conduct feasibility and commercial viability and study for assessment of funding for implementation of the BCIM construction projects, the MoU said.
When asked if the MoU was signed violating the Rules of Business, Bipul Chandra said it was signed with appropriate approval of the concerned ministry.
According to the documents accessed by New Age, the Chinese company sent copies of the MoU to at least six ministers, including the Road Transport and Bridges Division minister Obaidul Quader, and several top secretaries of the government.
Describing the MoU as ‘a non-binding agreement’, Saha said the MoU will be executed if the Chinese company can gather grant from its government.
So far there has been no development in implementing the MoU, he said.
This sort of agreements or MoUs ‘are often signed,’ he added.
The BCIM initiative is the result of ‘track II diplomacy’ and got a boost when China and India in 2013 agreed to discuss the issue formally.

The New Age, 22 March 2015

Economic zone can boost Chinese FDI

Says ambassador Ma Mingqiang
Ma Mingqiang
Diplomatic Correspondent

The foreign direct investment (FDI) by China in Bangladesh can witness a phenomenal boost with an economic zone in place for Chinese investors, said new Chinese envoy Ma Mingqiang. 
“There could be a 50 percent increase [in FDI],” said Mingqiang, adding, “Private companies are investing everywhere. If they are confident enough and are not left alone, they will be coming in more numbers.”
Dhaka has already cleared allocation of a separate economic and industrial zone in Chittagong for Chinese investors.
Talking with senior journalists at The Daily Star during his first courtesy visit yesterday, the ambassador also said trade was heavily in favour of China, but Bangladesh's export to his country was also increasing.
The Daily Star Editor Mahfuz Anam welcomed the Chinese ambassador and moderated the session.
The ambassador said Bangladesh had a huge potential in quality leather, which could tap the Chinese market. Garment products were also being exported there, while there were many other opportunities that needed to be tapped by Bangladesh, he observed.
In reply to a question, the ambassador said China provided grants and concessionary loan to Bangladesh. The interest rate was set at 2 percent and China did not impose any conditions, he added.
“We don't have any conditional loan with Bangladesh,” he claimed.
Historically, Chinese loans to Bangladesh had mostly been hard in nature. In recent years, China provided $224 million loan for the second unit of Barapukuria coal power project with an interest rate of 6.5 percent.
“The good thing is that the Chinese loan is very speedy,” he said and added that his government was considering Bangladesh's plea to further slash the interest rate to the standards of the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank.
“We are working on it,” he said.
Moreover, he said the Chinese loan was not only very speedy but the cost of projects funded by them was also much lower compared to other countries.
Asked about delay in completion of several projects in Bangladesh, the envoy said Chinese companies were fully capable in terms of their technological expertise and financial power.
However, in some cases they were not familiar with circumstances, legal complexities, social factors and atmosphere in other countries, which might cause some delay, he added.
He noted that Sinohydro had delayed the Dhaka-Chittagong highway expansion project due to various reasons but expressed the hope that it would be completed without further delay.
Mentioning the Chinese company that would build the Padma bridge, he said it had the expertise in constructing the longest 46-kilometre bridge over sea in China.
In reply to another question, Ambassador Ma said China was currently assisting several mega projects in Bangladesh with loans and grants in the areas of water treatment plant, tunnel under the Karnaphuli river, construction of railroad and bridge, establishment of refinery data centre for telecom, among others.
China was also assisting construction of the Dhaka-Cox's Bazar broad-gauge railway track and setting up of a coal-based power plant.
He said China assured Bangladesh of setting up a hybrid rice research centre so that Bangladesh could grow more crops and be self-reliant in food.
About Chinese initiative of the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, the ambassador said the project was not solely by China as it would be designed by all, would have ownership of all and the main objective was win-win for all stakeholders.
“It's a very much inclusive project and everybody will get benefit from it.”
On India-China relationship, he said the two giants of Asia had very collaborative initiatives and strong partnership for economic development. “We want peaceful coexistence and grow together for the benefit of the people.”
In this context, he said Bangladesh had unique opportunities to grow and develop as it was a bridge between Southeast and South Asia and its location was strategically very important.
“My mission is to further cement and consolidate the bilateral relations with you,” he said, noting that media had a critical role in enhancing mutual understanding and trust among the people.
“Diplomats come and go, the governments come and go, but the people remain. “You are the one who can help us having people's support for us,” he added.

Chinese embassy officials Hu Hailiang and Li Guanya accompanied the ambassador.

The Daily Star, 08 April 2015

2015 is going to be a milestone in world history

Sheikh Hasina

As we are stepping into the New Year, we need to have an image of 2015 and also beyond.
The future is not entirely unpredictable. The best way to predict our future is to create it ourselves. Our world in 2015 and post-2015 will be what we now dream it to be. How it will look will depend largely on what our actions are now. Our actions should therefore reflect our words, and that is the only way we can predict and build a tangible future.
Our vision for the world beyond 2015 should focus on people -- on the aspirations and hopes of the people -- in a just and a fair world. This is largely steered by promoting a culture of peace, right to development, right for equal future, empowerment of people, particularly women and the underprivileged, access to education for all, health and greater economic opportunities -- thus ensuring a  secular, progressive and democratic human society. Realising these visions depends on every human being of this world, public and government alike.
Poverty and ignorance are the greatest impediments to development and therefore eradication of poverty and access to education should remain at the very heart of contemporary development debate of the Post-2015 Development Agenda. With 60 million children still remaining outside schools, 75% of them girls, and 1.3 billion people still living in extreme poverty, we can never really attain sustainable development unless we address these issues.
The Government of Bangladesh has integrated the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) into the national five-year plans and also in our 'Vision-2021.' This people-centric vision aspires to transform Bangladesh into a knowledge-based, technology-driven Middle Income Country by 2021. We have already met or are on track to meet MDG-1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6. Poverty has been reduced from 57% in 1991 to below 25% today.
I also need to mention that although the MDGs have been the most successful global anti-poverty push in history, the progress is uneven and unequal within and among countries and regions. Over 1.3 billion people still live in utter poverty. As we reflect on the newer development challenges, poverty alleviation, therefore, should be the cornerstone of the Post-2015 Agenda.
Acknowledging the fact that girls' right to education is mandatory to combat different forms of discriminatory and harmful practices against them that are still prevalent in many societies in our world, every policy of the Government of Bangladesh is targeted towards removing obstacles to girls' education and empowerment. We made education free for our girls up to Grade Twelve and have plans to take it to graduate levels. Stipends and free meals for female students from poorer families have helped achieve gender parity in primary and secondary schools. In 2014, out of the 12.8 million stipend recipients, including from the Prime Minister's Education Trust Fund, 75% were girls. 60% positions in primary schools are reserved for female teachers. Non-formal education measures have enabled girls who have dropped out of school to continue education. Education receives the highest importance in our Women Development Policy that was formulated in 2011.
We have taken measures to set up six technical educational institutions only for girls. In addition to self-employment and skills training, collateral-free small loans are being offered to potential college-going women entrepreneurs. We have established in Chittagong the first Asian University for Women to promote higher education for girls from Asian countries. We have taken these measures keeping in mind our vision of the post-2015 world and our mission to play an active and equal role in the coming decade.
In Bangladesh, the percentage of women is rising fast in all professions, including politics, civil service, judiciary, armed forces, technical profession, aviation (pilots), sports including cricket, football and even mountaineering, as our girls have conquered Mount Everest. Bangladesh today is perhaps the only country in the world that has to its credit a female prime minister, female speaker of the parliament, female leader of the opposition and a female leader and deputy leader of the parliament. Many western societies may not be able to match this. Our female work-force has risen from 24% to 36% in the last three years, contributing to our 6.2% growth rate. Bangladesh is the second largest exporter of Ready Made Garments in the world and 90% of that entire global sector is laboured by our young energetic female workforce.
We learn from our past experiences and at times from mistakes. Our past makes us stronger. Let us keep in mind the lessons taught by our past and build our future based on what we have learned. Let us keep in mind that all that is ever important is the “now” in which we live in and all that is going to be important is the “tomorrow” that we leave for our children.

The writer is Honourable Prime Minister, People's Republic of Bangladesh.

The Daily Star, 11 January 2015

Bangladesh loses appeal among global firms for political unrest

Kayes Sohel

Bangladesh has lost its appeal as a frontier market to the multinational companies taking cue from the political front, according to a new study.
Corporate sentiment towards all three South Asian frontier markets—Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Pakistan—were among 10 countries that experienced the steepest declines in corporate sentiment, said the latest WSJ/FSG Frontier Market Sentiment Index released recently.
“South Asia seems to be losing its appeal,” it said. 
Frontier markets are less advanced capital markets from the developing world and countries with investable stock markets that are less established than those in the emerging markets.
Based on a study of around 200 multinational companies, the index, created exclusively for Wall Street Journal (WSJ) Frontiers by Washington-based consultancy Frontier Strategy Group (FSG), tracks which frontier markets major European and American firms are focusing their attention on. 
Corporate sentiment is calculated as the percentage of companies that include a country on their watch-list. If 50 of the 200 companies are watching a particular country, the sentiment index score would be 25%.
The extensive damage caused by the ongoing political standoff has hit the country afresh on one year completion of controversial January 5 election which brought ruling Awami League into the helm with its arch rival BNP boycotting. 
 The country is also currently undergoing nationwide non-stop blockade called the opposition party demanding fresh national election.  
VIPB Asset Management Company Chief Executive Officer Shahidul Islam said the foreign multinationals, unlike the portfolio investors, make direct investments. 
“Their sentiment about Bangladesh is negative mostly because of the ongoing political uncertainties in the country,” he said.
Another reason might be that slow pace in implementation of infrastructure projects and lack of economic reforms might discourage them. “For the same reasons, domestic investments have also been low in the recent months.”
Portfolio investment is also negatively affected by the similar factors despite some rise in the last year, Islam noted. 
According to the Dhaka Stock Exchange, foreign investment in 2014 stood at Tk2,608 crore, a rise of over 34% from Tk1,943 crore in 2013.
However, due to the collapse of Bangladesh stock market in 2010 and 2011, the valuations of some of the listed stocks may have been attractive to some portfolio investors, according to CEO of VIPB.
“Therefore, inflow of portfolio investments has been pretty robust in the last few months.”
According to the Frontier Index, Nigeria has held the top spot since the index was launched in June 2014 despite having endured a rough ride for the past few months.
The trends in corporate attention illustrate starkly the impact lower oil prices are having on other oil-dependent frontier markets, said WSJ. 
The three worst performers in terms of change in sentiment in this quarter’s survey are all oil exporters: Angola, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, according to the Index.
Sentiment declined toward 37 markets out of a total of 68 during the fourth quarter. In the preceding quarter 48 of the 68 markets experienced an increase in corporate attention.
Overall, though, the magnitude of the changes in corporate sentiment towards frontier markets was remarkably low, ranging from +2.62 percentage points to -2.78 percentage points. The previous quarter’s range was +8.68 percentage points to -7.45 percentage points.
Vietnam, with a gain of 1.98 percentage points, climbed to second place on the list. 
Vietnam is not the only market in the region to attract more interest. Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos were all in the top five of countries that saw the greatest improvement in sentiment.

Central and Eastern Europe’s frontier markets were also among the top gainers, a refreshing change for countries such as Serbia, Croatia and Bulgaria that had been some of the worst performers in previous surveys. 

The Dhaka Tribune, 25 January 2015