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By Shahab Enam Khan
Executive Director, Bangladesh Center for Indo-Pacific Affairs, Jahangirnagar University, Bangladesh
April 19, 2024
Bangladesh reveres Japan as a true friend, a friend in need, in success, and in growth. The genesis of this long-standing genuine friendship begins with the independence of Bangladesh; more precisely, it began to deepen with the visit of the Father of the Nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, to Japan from 18 to 24 October 1973. The government of Japan extended an official invitation to Bangabandhu, and he was accorded a warm, red-carpet reception in Tokyo. The then Prime Minister of Japan Mr. Kakuei Tanaka, accompanied by Mrs. Tanaka and Foreign Minister Mr. Ohira, came to the airport ramp to whole-heartedly receive Bangabandhu. This marked the first-ever visit of the head of the government of newly independent Bangladesh.

The visit was crucial not only for Bangladesh but for its neighborhood. The esteemed leaders vowed to work together to keep the region peaceful and promote multilateralism. Both sides paved the way for cooperation to make South and Southeast peaceful through connectivity projects, refugee repatriation, food and agricultural development, and poverty alleviation programs. The visit also brought engineers, educators, and the private sector from both countries closer. The result of such collaboration and cooperation can now be felt in Bangladesh.

Bangladesh country has become a significant developing market economy. It is the second-largest South Asian economy, contributing to collective growth and development, the 33rd largest in the world in nominal terms, and the 25th most significant in purchasing power parity. The country offers vast potential for investment in its territory along with the Bay of Bengal, now a core feature of the Indo-Pacific power politics. Despite constant armed provocations from Myanmar, the country shows the highest restraint and yet hosts 1.1 million Rohingya refugees of Myanmar origin.

Bangladesh’s growth prospects and strategic stability have attracted global attention, making it an emerging power in the Bay of Bengal and the South Asian region. However, Bangladesh is pursuing a “Balancing Act” between the Western powers and its Eastern neighbors to sustain the growth momentum. The West remains the key destination of exports for Bangladesh, while imports and trade with the Eastern countries are critical for Bangladesh. In this balancing act, Japan is placed as a prime country of foreign policy focus for Bangladesh. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, daughter of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, visited Tokyo in April 2023 for the sixth time as Prime Minister at the invitation of her counterpart, Fumio Kishida.

Fifty years after Bangabandhu’s visit to Tokyo, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s visit marks an extraordinary milestone between these two countries as both countries committed to strengthening rules-based free and open Indo-Pacific and jointly cooperating on security and safe use of the sea. The issue of regional and international peace, stability, and prosperity was a significant focus of mutual interests. Hence, there is a continuity in relations between Bangladesh and Japan. This is a remarkable fact in the Asian history of international relations.

Both prime ministers highlighted the need for defense cooperation between Bangladesh's armed forces and Japan's Self-Defense Forces, particularly the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force. The cooperation has been directed toward capacity building, exchange of expertise, defense equipment, and technology transfer. I had the opportunity to visit the facilities of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force in Tokyo, which was a compelling experience not only to rethink the strategic engagement between Bangladesh and Japan but also a testimony that this strategic engagement could be beneficial for all the countries in the Indo-Pacific region. Japanese technologies and maritime policies are conducive to Bangladesh’s national interest and defensive postures in securing strategic autonomy over its territorial waters in the Bay of Bengal.

To keep the Indo-Pacific region stable and secure, the Japanese government has declared the Official Security Assistance (OSA) to provide defense aid to four countries – Bangladesh, Malaysia, Philippines, and Fiji. The bilateral defense cooperation under OSA compliments the defense architecture and framework of Bangladesh Armed Forces’ Forces Goal 2030. While the defense cooperation is crucial for Bangladesh to keep its borders secured and protect its maritime interests intrinsically linked with economic growth and development, the visit has opened doors for new economic cooperation that can have a positive spillover effect on the impoverished regions in Bangladesh’s neighborhood.

During my visits to Tokyo, I observed the importance of the Japanese-supported Bay of Bengal Industrial Growth Belt (BIG-B) initiative in Cox’s Bazar. The BIG-B project serves as a development cooperation role model without geopolitical scrutiny. My discussions with the leading thinkers in Tokyo also attest to the fact that scaling up BIG-B can help stabilize the conflict-prone Rakhine province of Myanmar, Bangladesh's immediate neighbor. Bangladesh seeks to establish economic connectivity with Southeast Asia, for which a stable Rakhine is critical.

The Moheshkhali-Matarbari Integrated Infrastructure Development Initiative (MIDI) is another crucial agenda Bangladesh-Japan can deliver as a practically viable development model. Bangladesh seeks to connect its economy with Southeast Asia, making it a connectivity hub between South and Southeast Asia with the support of Japanese investment in infrastructure. To make these efforts even more fruitful, increased participation of Japanese firms in agro-business, fisheries, skills development, automobile and shipping, manufacturing and service sectors, environmental services, and technology should be encouraged. There is no doubt that Bangladesh’s image in the Japanese policy and corporate communities is improving; both countries are required to bolster people-to-people exchange, media cooperation, and exchanges between public-private sectors.

Bangladesh duly recognizes the contribution of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) as its largest development partner. JICA has provided US$22 billion as Official Development Assistance(ODA)Yen Loan to Bangladesh as of November 2023, along with US$965 million as grants, technical assistance worth US$699 million, and US$166 million to develop the private sector. The benefits of these supports have significantly improved Bangladesh’s progress pathways, economic resilience, and social inclusivity. These supports have created social capital and economic spaces to convert aid support into trade support to sustain Bangladesh’s growth momentum. Hence, both countries should work together to strengthen Bangladesh’s trade regimes by making economic institutions more accountable, transparent, and inclusive.

The strengthening of trade regimes, along with the defense and connectivity sectors, will require greater bilateral diplomatic cooperation and political communication. One must not forget that Bangladesh’s quest for strategic autonomy would require a deeper understanding of Bangladesh’s geopolitical realities. Bangladesh’s strategic needs and economic interdependence with major powers should not be seen through the prisms of any third country or alliance politics. Neither Bangladesh’s security needs nor interests should be assessed through third-country priorities. Bangladesh’s economy and peaceful existence outpaced many neighbors, making it a country without conflict records.

The new bilateral era should focus on creative diplomacy, mutual strategic objectives, and greater private-sector engagement. To deepen the ties, a summit-level meeting between Bangladesh and Japan in 2024, civil society-to-civil-society collaboration, media-to-media partnership, and regular meetings among the business chambers should be encouraged. The deepening of the multifaceted ties will reduce pressures on Bangladesh to choose sides amid geopolitical rivalries yet help lift economic ties with the power centers across the international power centers. This will undoubtedly be of win-win interests for both Bangladesh and Japan.
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