[DHAKA] China has offered to sign a free trade agreement with Bangladesh to try to narrow a growing trade gap, the Bangladeshi foreign minister said on Monday.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi made the proposal during talks with his counterpart in Dhaka in a move which local exporters described as a "huge development".
"The Chinese minister has offered to sign a free trade agreement," Bangladesh Foreign Minister Abul Hassan Mahmood Ali told reporters.
"The Chinese government is well aware of the existing trade gap and they have assured us they want to minimise it," Mr Ali added after meeting Mr Yi.
The Bangladeshi minister did not say whether Bangladesh would sign up to any such agreement.
There was no comment from the Chinese minister, who wrapped up his three-day visit to Bangladesh on Monday. He met Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and the main opposition leader Khaleda Zia during the tour.
Two-way trade between Dhaka and Beijing soared to US$8.3 billion in the financial year ending in June, but exports from Bangladesh accounted for less than a tenth of the total.
Bangladesh is a signatory to several multilateral free trade agreements but has yet to sign any bilateral FTA.
The country's garment industry welcomed the Chinese offer, saying it could "massively boost" exports to the world's second largest economy. Bangladesh is the world's second largest garment exporter after China.
"This FTA offer from China is a huge development," said Shahidullah Azim, vice-president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association which represents the country's 4,500 textile factories.
"Its domestic garment market is worth over US$300 billion so one can imagine the kind of market access we have if Dhaka signs an FTA with Beijing," he said.
He added that thanks to some preferential trade access given by Beijing in recent years, Bangladesh's garment exports to China grew to US$240 million in the last financial year, from less than US$10 million in 2009-10.
Bangladesh's government is an ally of its neighbour India, but experts say Beijing has been attempting to woo Dhaka in recent years by increasing development aid.