Bangladesh-Australia Relations: A Path Toward Mutual Growth and Strategic Partnership

As we navigate through the complexities of the 21st century, Bangladesh’s relationship with Australia stands at a pivotal juncture, ripe with opportunities for deepened cooperation and mutual growth. Both nations, diverse in their geographic and cultural landscapes, share common aspirations for economic development, regional stability, and global integration. Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong is scheduled to visit Bangladesh on 21-22 May 2024 to strengthen the bilateral relationship and find ways to boost cooperation between the two countries. The visit of Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong presents a unique opportunity to transform this bilateral relationship into a robust strategic partnership that can significantly benefit both countries.

Australia officially acknowledged the sovereignty of Bangladesh on January 31, 1972, and took the lead among the developed nations in persuading other countries to do the same. In January 1975, former Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam traveled to Dhaka and had a meeting with the Father of the Nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. This encounter marked the establishment of a robust foundation for the relationship between Bangladesh and Australia. Recently, bilateral relations gained pace when the Prime Minister of Bangladesh embarked on a three-day official visit to Australia upon the invitation of her Australian counterpart, Malcolm Turnbull.

Economic Synergies and Trade Potential

With Bangladesh’s rise as a middle-income economy in the Indian Ocean region, Australia is eager to enhance economic relations with the country, particularly given the current geopolitical climate. The economic ties between Bangladesh and Australia have experienced substantial expansion in recent years. In 2021, Bangladesh and Australia entered a Trade and Investment Framework Arrangement (TIFA), which has created exciting opportunities for enhancing bilateral trade and investment. This TIFA demonstrates the immense possibilities for economic collaboration between our countries.

The trade relationship between the two nations has been flourishing. Bangladesh has been exporting textiles, garments, and agricultural products to Australia while importing Australian commodities such as coal, wheat, and liquefied natural gas. Australia’s trade with Bangladesh has experienced remarkable growth over the past decade, with two-way trade exceeding AUD 4 billion. This significant increase positions Bangladesh as one of Australia’s top trade partners. Australia has become an important export market for Bangladesh. 

The trade relationship between Bangladesh and Australia has experienced significant growth over the past decade, with an average annual increase of over 11 percent. Last year, Bangladesh experienced a significant increase of approximately 38 percent in its exports to Australia compared to the previous year. Australia has emerged as a significant trade partner for Bangladesh, particularly in the import of ready-made garments. Australia is a major destination for Bangladesh’s ready-made garment products, with exports totaling around $1.5 billion annually. This accounts for approximately 93 percent of Bangladesh’s total exports to Australia. Bangladesh has successfully gained a significant share of the Australian market in this sector.

Despite the significant increase in bilateral trade in recent years, both countries have yet to fully explore the untapped potential. Bangladesh, a rapidly developing economy, presents a promising market for Australian goods and services. Australia’s advanced technology, expertise in education, and robust agricultural sector offer valuable resources for Bangladesh’s ongoing development.

It is important for both countries to prioritize negotiations for trade agreements that can lead to reduced tariffs and improved trade flows, ultimately strengthening their economic partnership. Promoting Australian investment in Bangladesh’s emerging sectors, like information technology and renewable energy, has the potential to generate substantial economic advantages.

Strategic and Security Cooperation

There is significant scope for growth in strategic and security cooperation. The Indo-Pacific region, where both countries are key players, faces numerous challenges, including maritime security, counterterrorism, and climate change. Enhanced cooperation in these areas can contribute to regional stability and security.

The 2023 Defense Strategic Review identified the northeastern Indian Ocean as being within Australia’s primary area of military interest, along with the Pacific and maritime Southeast Asia. Indeed, the Australian government is now stepping up its political, security and economic engagement with Bangladesh. As a part of it, Australia recently sent a defense advisor to its High Commission in Dhaka, and reciprocally, they welcomed a defense advisor from Bangladesh in Australia. From Australia’s perspective, the defense adviser symbolizes the country’s “intention and willingness” to cooperate on defense matters.

Joint naval exercises, intelligence sharing, and collaborative efforts in disaster response and humanitarian assistance are potential avenues for further strengthening security ties. Moreover, both nations can benefit from a coordinated approach to addressing the impacts of climate change, particularly through sharing knowledge and technology for sustainable development and disaster resilience.

Education and Knowledge Exchange

Education remains a cornerstone of the Bangladesh-Australia relationship. Australia is a preferred destination for Bangladeshi students seeking higher education, with thousands enrolling in Australian universities annually. Almost 11,000 Bangladeshi students enrolled to study in Australia between January and September 2023, an increase of 61 percent from the same period last year. This educational linkage benefits students and fosters a deeper understanding and appreciation of each other’s cultures and values.

Expanding scholarship programs, joint research initiatives and academic exchanges can further solidify this educational bond. Additionally, Australia’s vocational and technical training expertise can be leveraged to equip the Bangladeshi workforce with the skills necessary for a modern economy, thereby enhancing employment prospects and economic productivity in Bangladesh.


Cultural and People-to-People Ties

About 100,000 Bangladeshi diasporas live in Australia and contribute to Australian nation-building efforts. Strong people-to-people ties underpin Bangladesh’s relationship with Australia. The Bangladeshi diaspora in Australia has been instrumental in fostering cultural exchanges and mutual understanding. Community events, cultural festivals, and bilateral tourism can further enhance these connections, promoting goodwill and cooperation at the grassroots level.

Both governments should support initiatives celebrating cultural heritage and facilitating easier travel between the two countries to capitalize on these ties. This can include visa liberalization measures, tourism promotion, and support for cultural organizations.

Cooperation on the Rohingya Crisis

Bangladesh is currently carrying an extraordinary burden by housing the world’s largest refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar. Australia’s government has recognized this and has committed $153 million from 2023 to 2025 to meet the needs of the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh as well as to provide humanitarian support to Myanmar.

The Australian foreign minister is likely to visit the Rohingya camp during her visit to see the situation there. Bangladesh seeks Australia’s support in keeping the Rohingya issue alive globally with a view to the ultimate repatriation of the forcibly displaced Myanmar nationals sheltered in Bangladesh. Australia commits to continue the humanitarian assistance for the Rohingyas and support Bangladesh in their repatriation effort.

To move forward, both nations need to adopt a pragmatic approach, focusing on common interests and long-term benefits. Establishing regular high-level dialogues, enhancing diplomatic engagements, and promoting public-private partnerships can pave the way for a more dynamic and mutually beneficial relationship.

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