Even though—or perhaps because—the two are not contiguous neighbors, Nepal and Bangladesh have always had cordial relations. Nepalis fondly recall the establishment of SAARC in 1985 under the initiative of Bangladeshi President Zihaur Rahman and King Birendra. Nepal and Bangladesh share the same vision for South Asia: a more integrated region that can better tackle common problems like poverty, disease, illiteracy, and big-power rivalry.
It’s a pity that the two countries with just 27 km separating them don’t trade and engage more with each other. According to the World Bank, in 2017 Bangladesh was Nepal’s ninth biggest trade partner, accounting for 1.3 percent of its trade. Nepal in fact trades more with Turkey (6.4 percent of its trade) and Italy (1.6 percent). This again highlights a shocking lack of connectivity in South Asia, which remains among the least integrated regions in the world. Bangladesh and Nepal, two of the fastest growing economies in South Asia, have every incentive to engage more with each other.
The Nepal visit of Bangladeshi President Mohammad Abdul Hamid is thus timely. True, he is only a ceremonial president. Yet he is also a towering figure in Bangladeshi politics whose words carry weight. During his Nepal visit, no concrete agreements were signed. It made sense, too, as it was a ‘confidence-building’ trip. We can expect more substantive agreements between the two countries in the days ahead, capitalizing on Hamid’s commitment to improve his country’s land, water and air connectivity with Nepal.
Bangladesh is keen to invest in hydropower in Nepal and buy the electricity thus produced. If Nepal can supply, it could import up to 9,000 MW to power its booming economy and replace its dirty coal and diesel-powered plants. Hamid also expressed an interest in linking the two countries’ river systems to boost water trade. As importantly for Nepal, Bangladesh is the gateway to the lucrative Southeast Asian markets. But for there to be any significant headway in Nepal-Bangla ties, the consent and goodwill of India, which controls the intervening territory, is indispensable.
Nepal-India ties have been rocked by the Kalapani dispute. But in the long run India, Bangladesh, Nepal and every other country in the region have no option but to cooperate to tackle common cross-border challenges like poverty, climate change and terrorism. Just as well. The more the countries talk and trade, the less they are likely to fight.