In a span of three months, the Japanese Prime Minister and his Bangladeshi counterpart met twice, first in Tokyo (May 2014) and recently in Dhaka (September 2014).
This commentary analyses the nature of bilateral visit and the extent of Japanese investments in Bangladesh; and two political challenges facing the two countries on further cooperation.
Expanding Japanese Investment in Bangladesh
In general, both the countries have emphasized the visit for building a ‘comprehensive partnership’ with a promise of boosting bilateral ties. On the economic front, Japan has come forward with a new level of commitment unlike the past. Japan has committed to pump US $6 billion in the next four to five years for infrastructure development in Bangladesh. The number of business delegates in Abe’s entourage is a significant indication of Japan’s serious thought about her investment in Bangladesh.
Although the number of Japanese companies investing in Bangladesh has increased over the years, it requires a jump to match with development of Bangladesh economy as well as Japan’s plan for relocation of its industries. Therefore, Japanese investment in Bangladesh was widely discussed. Another significant issue was the opening of Japanese market for readymade garments (RMG) products from Bangladesh which would provide a huge financial boost; this would also reduce Bangladesh’s dependence on foreign assistance.
Other projects such as the financing for mega projects such as Padma Barrage, multi-modal tunnel under river Jamuna, dedicated Railway Bridge over river Jamuna, multi-modal Dhaka Eastern Bypass, and ecological restoration of four rivers around Dhaka - are concrete issues of cooperation in economic arena of Bangladesh-Japan relations, both the leaders have developed solid understanding of diplomatic and political issues.
Bangladesh and Japan: Two Political Challenges
Two issues are particularly critical. First, during Abe’s visit Bangladesh declared the withdrawal of candidacy from the race to vie for a seat as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council from the Asia Pacific Group for 2016-2017. The decision of Bangladesh has been extremely significant given its history. Bangladesh has never withdrawn its candidature from such a global body; it rather defeated Japan in its bid to become the non-permanent member of the UN Security Council for the first time in 1979-1980. Understandably, it has sparked a debate in Bangladesh about the pros and cons of this diplomatic decision.
The issue of ‘give and take’ has been raised in the sense that Bangladesh took the crucial decision without any concrete gains from Japan. It has generally been argued that the decision reflects more of momentous and strong urge for deeper relations. Without pointing out directly to domestic politics in Bangladesh some analysts argued that this decision demonstrated ‘governance and credibility crisis’ of the government of Bangladesh. What surprised people in Bangladesh is that the opposition parties particularly the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Jamaat-e-Islami have shown a lukewarm disagreement, if not indifference, to the decision by the government. One may argue that Bangladesh’s decision for withdrawal of its candidature has met a favorable time for the current government. Besides, Japan enjoys largely a bipartisan acceptability in otherwise strongly polarized political culture in Bangladesh.
Second critical issue is the idea of the “Bay of Bengal Industrial Growth Belt” (BIG-B) launched by Japan. The Government of Japan has been promoting the concept of BIG-B as a program for Bangladesh to help achieve economic development of both countries arguing that it would help bring prosperity of the two nations. To the Abe Government BIG-B can be the “centrepiece” of Japanese cooperation in Bangladesh. Improvement of infrastructure for industrial development, the creation of better environment for investments and the promotion of regional connectivity were the three dimensions of BIG-B. In elaborating the idea further, the Japanese Ambassador in Bangladesh, Shiro Sadoshima argues that Japan has a grand design of combining the two oceanic regions – Pacific Ocean and Indian Ocean – for more geo-political space to boost its economy. The largest Bay in the world, Bay of Bengal forms the north-eastern part of the Indian Ocean. Bangladesh is located in the north of this Bay.
The idea of BIG-B brings to the center stage other ideas such as China supported ‘Silk Road’ and Bangladesh supported ‘blue economy’ in the recent years. The idea of ‘Maritime Silk-Road’ recently coined by the Chinese Premier and foreign policy makers is based on the historic “Silk-Road” of trade and cultural routes in Central, South and East Asia. Starting from Han Dynasty about 200 BC, China had played a key role to maintain these important and strategic trade and cultural routes, which connected countries from Asia, Middle East and Europe.
Specifically, China is pursuing Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) cooperation in its bid to revive the ancient silk-road. On the other hand, Bangladesh organized an international workshop on blue economy on 1-2 September 2014 in Dhaka. Bangladesh hosted this workshop for the first time bringing together more than 30 experts and representatives of 20 countries. About the vision of blue economy Bangladesh Foreign Minister states that it must be inclusive and people-centric. Amid new ideas of cooperation frameworks Abe’s visit to Dhaka leaves a strong imprint of partnership between the two unequal, but long trusted friendly nations.