|Bangladesh’s Prime Minister met her Japanese counterpart Kishida Fumio in Tokyo|
Last week Bangladesh’s Prime Minister met her Japanese counterpart Kishida Fumio in Tokyo, which political observers described as a much-awaited crucial strategic partnership.
Before embarking upon a three-nation tour of Japan, the United States and Britain, Hasina buried months of speculation on the strategic alliance on 26 April.
Bangladesh unveiled its “Indo-Pacific Outlook (IPO)”, and these three nations have crucial roles in pursuing the policy of an open and free Indo-Pacific.
The Indo-Pacific Outlook is based on the dictum “Friendship towards all, malice towards none.” Whether this dictum would be enough to address the Chinese concern about committing to the objectives of rules-based order and a free and open Indo-Pacific has to be seen in the coming days, remarks veteran columnist Kamal Ahmed.
Bangladesh took a deep breath to develop a strategic partnership with Japan against Chinese hegemony through the implementation of an ambitious Road and Belt Initiative (BRI) in the region.
In fact, the two countries have achieved significant progress in bilateral relations based on the “Comprehensive Partnership” established in 2014, the joint Bangladesh-Japan statement said.
The Japanese initiative envisages replacing BRI with the Bay of Bengal Industrial Growth Belt (BIG-B).
Japan was one of the very few countries that extended foreign aid for reconstructing war-torn Bangladesh during the post-independence era. Since then, Japan has become Bangladesh’s single largest bilateral donor.
The ‘Land of the Rising Sun’ has been an all-weather economic and development partner of Bangladesh before China’s inroads into the country.
In the fiscal year 2020-2021, Japan provided more aid to Bangladesh than any other country, amounting to $2.63 billion. Since Bangladesh’s independence, Japan has provided a total of $24.72 billion, almost evenly split between grants and loans, writes Hussain Shazzad in The Diplomat.
Japan’s financial assistance to Bangladesh has been proven mutually beneficial for both countries rather than being exploitative, unlike a few development partners that have been blamed for encouraging corruption in getting approval for mega projects.
Columnist Ahmed writes in The Daily Star: The United States, which originally conceived and floated the Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS), has been urging Bangladesh for the last few years to join them in implementing the IPS. Though Bangladesh doesn’t use the term strategy or IPS, the vision it lays out is remarkably similar to the IPS.
Japan’s Prime Minister Kishida also outlined a newly released plan for a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP),” which will strengthen Japan’s efforts to further promote the FOIP vision, with the four pillars of cooperation: “Principles for Peace and Rules for Prosperity”; “Addressing Challenges in an Indo-Pacific Way”; “Multi-layered Connectivity” and “Extending Efforts for Security and Safe Use of the Sea to the Air” and hopes that Bangladesh will also agree with the strategy.
Hasina reiterated Bangladesh’s principled position on a “free, open, inclusive, peaceful and secure Indo-Pacific based on international law and shared prosperity for all” and she believes the international community and global commons will contribute to the development of (the) blue economy in the exploitation of the use of the sea.
The joint statement gave a green signal, which was a blessing for India and G-7 members including the United States, who are partners of the much-talked-about QUAD (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue).
Quad was first mooted by former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2007 and aims to ensure and support a “free, open and prosperous” Indo-Pacific region is a strategic security dialogue between Australia, India, Japan and the United States with a shared but unstated goal of countering China’s growing political, economic and military power in the region.
Hasina could finally, shrug off her ‘Tom and Jerry’ policy with China and lend her diplomatic support to Indo-Pacific countries, despite China’s warning of “substantial damage” to ties if Bangladesh joined the US-led Quad alliance.
Beijing described joining the QUAD, a military alliance against China’s adversaries (India, Japan and the USA) and its relationship with neighbours.
The former Chinese ambassador Li Jiming on 10 May 2021, breaking diplomatic norms in Dhaka, told Bangladesh authorities that relations with Beijing would “substantially get damaged.”
Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang’s surprise “technical stopover” at Dhaka in early January, en route to African nations was in fact not for late midnight tête-à-têtes over coffee between the two leaders.
For Qin, it was his first meeting with his counterpart, Dr Abul Kalam Abdul Momen in Dhaka since assuming office last year. He did not hesitate to vent his frustration over unfulfilled promises from China.
Bangladesh’s lopsided export to China was over $12 billion deficit, which was a special concern to Dhaka in the backdrop of the shaky foreign exchange reserves amid the global economic turmoil sparked by the war in Ukraine.
Momen reminded his counterpart that Chinese President Xi Jinping’s 2016 visit to Bangladesh had promised many investment pledges that have not materialised even after over six years. The complaint includes that an agreement to remove duties and quotas on 98 per cent of Bangladeshi goods has yet to see the light of day.
Whereas, Japan is Bangladesh’s largest export destination in Asia, in the last decade, Bangladesh’s exports (mostly apparel and leather products) to Tokyo have almost doubled. Nevertheless, there is still huge untapped trade potential for Bangladesh, which are “pharmaceuticals, agricultural and fishery products”, according to a Japanese diplomat.
The makeover of marginal trade imbalance will be reorganised after the signing of the free trade agreement (FTA).
A fresh impetus for strengthening trusted relations between the two countries could materialise, as Bangladesh is one of the most Japanese-friendly countries in Asia, with 71 per cent of Bangladeshis holding a favourable view of Japan, according to a 2014 Pew Research survey.
Japan’s BIG-B, an initiative for changing South Asia’s economic outlook, can play a key role in transforming Bangladesh into the heart of the regional economy by creating a gateway between South Asia and Southeast Asia, ensuring closer interregional cooperation, and incorporating Bangladesh into regional and global value chains, experts said.
Recently in New Delhi, when Kishida proposed developing an industrial hub in Bangladesh with “supply chains” to the landlocked north-eastern states of India, and to Nepal and Bhutan beyond by developing a port and transport in the region, “to foster the growth of the entire region,” hardly anybody understood the depth of his vision.
He was indicating to a mega deep-sea port under construction in southern Bangladesh would be a key economic hub for Japan and India as the QUAD partners aim to counter Chinese influence.
Development of the port of Matarbari will put a Japan-backed facility just north of Sonadia, another prime location on the Bay of Bengal where China has been eyeing development of a deep-water port.
In fact, that facility never materialised, and Dhaka reportedly dropped the idea a few years ago on the behest of multi-pronged diplomacy by Delhi, reported Nikkei Asia.
“Geostrategy, much like real estate, is about location, location, location, and with Matarbari one can certainly check off that box,” said Michael Kugelman, director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Centre in Washington.
Japan, Bangladesh’s biggest development partner for decades, has long been aware of its strategic significance, which is why it committed to developing a port there about five years ago, said Kugelman.
The feel-good project to serve as a key port for the landlocked northeast Indian states (also known as Seven Sisters) is expected in 2027. The economic development will immensely contribute to the rich cultural heritage of the millions of vibrant communities living in the region, bordering China on the side and restive Myanmar in the south.
Meanwhile, projects for road and railway connectivity projects to the desired port from the Seven Sisters are almost completed by India and Bangladesh.
First published in India Narrative, New Delhi, India on 2 May 2023
(Saleem Samad is an award-winning independent journalist based in Bangladesh. Views expressed are personal. Twitter: @saleemsamad)