Bangladesh-Japan Relations: An Upward Trend Towards Strategic Partnership?

A famous Japanese proverb says, “Don’t walk in front of me… I may not follow; Don’t walk behind me… I may not lead; Walk beside me… just be my friend”. Internet frenzy people attribute this quote to Albert Camus with bare evidence, but the original Japanese proverb exists. This means the meaning of friendship is not following one another or leading one another, but surmounting all difficulties in wild storms and slamming waves and walking gently together. Unsurprisingly, this idea of friendship reverberates through the Bangladesh-Japan diplomatic ties, an unfettered journey of 51 years marked to be in this February.

Historically Bangladesh and Japan have maintained their diplomatic relations since 10 February 1972. Japan was the first developed country among the OECD members to first call on recognition of a newly born out-of-war South Asian country. The unconditional support for the liberation war and the resistance fighters of Bangladesh gained from Japan is still remembered despite their close alliance with the United States after the Second World War. This was possible because of the long inter-cultural and people-to-people connections that existed between the two countries before independence.

Justice Dr. Radhabinod Pal, a luminous son of East Bengal (Kushtia), appointed by the British government, dissented by giving the claim of ‘Victor’s Justice’ to Japanese wartime leaders in the Tokyo Trial (1946-1948). The father of Diet, Takashi Hayakawa played a prominent role in assisting the Bangladeshi people in the 1970 cyclone and also the 1971 Liberation War. His proactive political endeavor accelerated Bangladesh’s international support and also post-war diplomatic relations between the two countries. In 1973, the first bilateral state-level visit led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Takashi Hayakawa initiated the dawn of a long-lasting unfettered friendship that still continues today.

Since 1972, Japan has been the earnest donor of Official Development Assistance (ODA) to Bangladesh, which has only seen a positive trend over the past years. Bangladesh remains the largest ODA recipient from Japan amounting to USD 27.43 billion in total. In 2020, the 41st ODA worth USD 3.2 billion to Bangladesh was the largest ODA in Japan FY2020. In 2020, in co-finance with ADB, Japan also provided COVID-19 Crisis Response emergency ODA support worth USD 330 million to Bangladesh. Japan employs the bulk ODA support in forms of concessional loans, grant, technical assistance with low-interest-rate to mainly assist the Bangladeshi project aid, food aid and commodity aid program. Japan-aided major development projects in Bangladesh include Dhaka-Mass Rapid Transit Development project, Matarbari Coal-Fired Power project, Matarbari Port Development project, Jamuna Railway Bridge Construction project, Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport Expansion Project etc.

               In December 2022, Bangladesh to ease the city-traffic congestion inaugurated its first Metro Rail Service engineered by China and mostly funded by JICA, costing around USD 3.2 billion. Ichiguchi Tomohide, the chief representative of JICA described the event as the “shining example” of Japan-Bangladesh cooperation. In Japan’s active role in Bangladesh’s development bonanza in recent years, the two countries are showing mutual interest in forming a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) to boost bilateral trade activities. In this regard, two countries initiated a feasibility study program in December 2022 to sign a FTA before Bangladesh’ graduation from LDC in 2026.

               However, the extensive development cooperation is partly the result of the Japan-Bangladesh Comprehensive Partnership agreement signed in 2014 by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Among other issues, the agreement stressed on facilitating Bangladesh’s multiple development projects and focused on the extension in all forms of bilateral cooperation issues in defense, economic and cultural agendas. For Japan, the economic cooperation falls largely under the BIG-B (Bay of Bengal Industrial Growth Belt) initiative. According to the Japanese economist Shintani, Bangladesh needs to concentrate more on infrastructure development and developing special economic zones to attract Japanese companies to show interest. Also, as an economic component of the Comprehensive Partnership Agreement, BIG-B also extends to the geopolitical considerations in South and Southeast Asia.

               After the Second World War, the archipelagic nation shifted from its perceived ‘reactive state’ in old geography to a more ‘proactive state’ in new strategic reality. Especially with the demise of the Soviet Union, Japan has focused more on its external strategic relations in Asia-Pacific as well as the Indo-Pacific region. Japan’s Indo-Pacific interest also finds expression in growing economic opportunities and trade-liberalization activities in South Asia including India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

               Aside from economic imperatives, a Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) and open sea doctrine remain key interests in the Indo-Pacific region for Japan. For instance, Japan’s 80% maritime trade is conducted through the Indian Ocean which makes free and open maritime navigation an essential for Japan’s maritime strategy. In this regard, Japanese ambassador Ito Naoki stressed Bangladesh cooperation for ensuring a peaceful, stable and prosperous FOIP back in September.

               In this context, the Japanese ambassador also expressed that the country wants to elevate the development partnership to a “strategic level” relation including cooperation in defense and security areas. However, the “strategic level” partnership was to be more detailed in Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s visit in November which was postponed. The strategic interest of Japan and Bangladesh is also visible in Japan’s supporting role in Rohingya repatriation and Bangladesh’s supportive role in Japan’s UNSC candidacy in 2014. Japan’s long supportive nature in South Asia through aid and development assistance, a soft power exercise, might be an effective tool to ensure its geopolitical interest in the region. Bangladesh has been Japan’s one of best friends in this region, but certainly not without Japanese own strategic interests. Hence, the relation could move towards a strategic partnership in near future.

               As Ahmed correctly points out before forging out any FTA or strategic deal with Japan, Dhaka needs to tread cautiously and do its homework on agreements. Free Trade won’t be free, thus profits, cost and benefits must be thoroughly assessed. As for geopolitical issues, Bangladesh needs to set out its strategic priorities in the South Asia region. As for development projects, Bangladesh also has to make sure of foreign aid’s revenue outcomes. A stable economic and political pursuit from both sides can carry out long-sustaining friendship between the two countries in the upcoming years.

Aziz Patwary
Aziz Patwary
Aziz Patwary is a British-Bangladeshi and former World Bank Employee