Locating Bangladesh in Japan’s North-East India Ambition

In a Japanese proverb, deru kugi wa utareru means that a nail that sticks out needs to be immediately hammered down. This might be truer for Japanese concern over Chinese involvement in South Asia, especially in the Indo-Pacific region. Japan’s development assistance to Bangladesh, Myanmar, and India has turned into a strategic priority to wane down Chinese footholds in the region. Now, Japan is willing to invest more in North-East India to connect both Bangladesh and India, a possible step that may emerge as an alternative regional trade bloc to China’s BRI. However, one should take Japan’s warm-hearted engagement in India cautiously, and its political economy in light of India’s neighbor relations, especially Bangladesh is the most critical geopolitical location for Japan and India, as well as the connector of the Indian Ocean, South, and South-East Asia.

Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) holds the central idea of an open, free-for-all, and inclusive Indian and Pacific Ocean, a critical condition for a wider regional trade connectivity network. This idea is mostly indebted to the assassinated Prime Minister Shinzo Abe who recognized the deadlock of the QUAD and the need to respond to the rapid rise of China, termed the idea of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” vision in 2016 focusing on rules-based order, freedom of trade navigation and ensuring peace and stability commitment. However, even after eight years, Abe’s legacy of a free and open Indo-Pacific still remains central to Japan’s security involvement and investment policy in this Indo-Pacific region.

Besides the Indo-Pacific Strategy, Japan also relies on globalizing its development finance and cooperation as a part of its security strategy Since the 1980s onward.

Before the 2010s, India did not wholeheartedly accept any foreign country’s cooperation in development assistance. However, Japan was the only country that has been cooperating with sericulture development in the North-Eastern region since the 1990s and gradually expanded itself into infrastructure development in later periods. In 2017, the Japan-India Coordination Forum on Development of the North Eastern Region was founded as a dedicated cooperation forum in North-East India. In practice, Japan is involved in the Guwahati Sewage Project, Guwahati Water Supply Project, Tripura’s Sustainable Catchment Forest Management Project, Stage III Hydroelectric Power Station project in Meghalaya, etc. which amounts to a total ODA investment to Northeast India of around USD 1.9 billion as of 2021.

Bangladesh is also an important ally for Japan in its North-Eastern goals. Aside from the jointly developed infrastructure projects with India, Japan is also willing to establish an industrial hub in Bangladesh with supply chains linked to North-East India, Bhutan, and Nepal. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s India visit in March highlighted a more optimistic attitude towards the new industrial hub in the Bay of Bengal and the North-East region enabling inter-regional development and trade facilities. Also, the Japanese government approved USD 1.27 billion in funding to Bangladesh for three new infrastructure projects including Matarbari deep-sea commercial port. In terms of regional integration with North-East India, the connectivity with Bangladesh is very critical as the ongoing four major projects will also enhance this connectivity including Ashuganj Port, Ashuganj-Akhaura Road, Belonia-Belonia Rail Link, and Akhaura-Agartala Rail link. The Akhaura-Agartala Rail link will also provide Chittagong port access to North-East India. Bangladesh’s seaports are crucial for the landlocked Northeastern part of India as Bangladesh can provide the shortest route to the sea.

Bangladesh and Japan hold strong proven ties of an economic and strategic partnership lasting over five decades. In FY 2020-2021, Japan provided foreign assistance worth USD 2.63 billion to Bangladesh, more than any other country. Japan’s critical interest in the Bay of Bengal, Indian Ocean and Bangladesh also lies in the fact that the Indian Ocean serves as the lifeline of Japan. Around 80% of Japan’s total trade volume passes through this ocean. Bangladesh provides direct access to this ocean which has made the country an important strategic route for Japan.

This also explains Japan’s profound enthusiasm in developing the Bay of Bengal Industrial Growth Belt (Big-B) initiative in Bangladesh with a promising outlook for quality infrastructure development and more investment opportunities. The initiative with three pillars- industry and trade, energy and economic connectivity is also compatible with other regional initiatives such as BIMSTEC, BCIM, MGC etc. Importantly, the initiative will serve as the connector between South Asia and Southeast Asia, a notable point being India’s North Eastern region. India will also benefit from these as North-Eastern states will bear the easy accessibility of sea-borne trades and commodities. International Shipping Lane (ISL) will also give India and Japan significant advantages over maritime benefits.

Japan’s surge in interest in the NER is also a reflection of its shifting development priority and geostrategic reasons. Previously, Bangladesh’s ODA came on mitigating climate vulnerability and poverty alleviation. Now, foreign assistance through partnership often involves the donor country’s foreign objectives imbued with the national interest. Japan’s development assistance here in Bangladesh is integrated with strategic, political, and economic interests shaped by its priority to develop relations with the country and also uphold its regional development leadership. A trusted ally of the United States, Japan is also cautious in its Indo-Pacific strategic markup as the regional blocs may act as an alternative to China’s OBOR initiative.

Bangladesh has no scope in bypassing the discussion of its stance on the IPS issue. In fact, the country had already finalized its position paper last year, indicating its neutral stance over leaning towards either the US or China but a positive attitude towards its economic aspects of it. This suggests Bangladesh is more interested in protecting its maritime security and cooperation based on its domestic policy and also willing to engage in development themes within IPS economic cooperation. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s upcoming visit to Japan this April expects to bring more value to this matter with an on-hand summit meeting. There are also possibilities of signing several  MoUs that would benefit both Bangladesh and Japan to improve connectivity and develop an Industrial Belt in this region.

Indo-Pacific Strategy has been a critical element of global politics in South Asia and Southeast Asia region. Despite Bangladesh’s clear neutral stance over security and political aspects of it and favoring the economic benefits, the country can not ignore the political economy of development politics. Particularly, this is more visible in Japan’s concentrated look over the North-Eastern region. Bangladesh needs to be pragmatic in its future development cooperation to accrue the most gains tackling political vicissitudes signaling within.

Doreen Chowdhury
Doreen Chowdhury
Doreen Chowdhury is a Doctoral Researcher at University of Groningen. Her areas of interest are Comparative Politics, Globalization, South Asian Studies, and Migration Studies.