Why is Japan edging closer to Bangladesh and India in the region?

Bangladesh, Japan, and India will hold a meeting in Tripura on 11-12 April to put in place connectivity initiatives to harness the commercial potential of the region.

By Fumiko Yamada

Asian Confluence, a think tank based out of North East India, in collaboration with India’s foreign ministry, is organising the event. It will be attended by deputy foreign ministers of Bangladesh and India along with the chief minister of Tripura and the Japanese envoy to India, reports the Economic Times.

Japan is investing in Northeast India and Bangladesh including the deep-sea port at Matarbari that will connect the landlocked region with the Bay of Bengal.

Asian Confluence recently conducted a study that suggested both Northeast India and Bangladesh need to scale up their multi-modal connectivity, which would not only help the region to raise its competitiveness but also narrow the development gaps in the region.

The study suggested in parallel, both entities should work together to bring synergy in trade facilitation and build express corridors for the transshipment and transit of goods from the Northeast Region to the Chattogram Port.

Creation of industrial value chains to create a win-win situation for all stakeholders in India and Bangladesh and Japanese companies in the region, the study added.

It was also suggested to establish the Japan-Northeast India Chamber of Commerce to promote Japanese investment in NE India, and a Northeast India India-Bangladesh-Japan CEO Forum so that it can provide the required business leadership.

However, Bangladesh is an important country in the Indo-Pacific region.  It is also a country in which Japan is investing in a big way. Tokyo is involved in many projects in the country, including the Matarbari Port.

Japan and Bangladesh have had close ties ever since Tokyo recognized the People’s Republic of Bangladesh on February 10, 1972. It was soon after the new country had declared its independence.

In neighboring areas, Japan has made significant investments in Northeast India. In fact, because of the region’s strategic location, Japan is the only country that has been allowed to invest in Northeast India in a big way. Northeast India shares borders with Bhutan, China, Myanmar and Bangladesh.

All of these factors played a role in designing one of the signature initiatives of Japanese foreign policy, the “free and open Indo-Pacific” vision. While this was conceived by Shinzo Abe, the former Japanese prime minister, it has been continued by successive administrations since then. As part of the same, Japan has been working to ensure that a rules-based order is maintained in the Indo-Pacific region.

Although Japan has been one of its closest development partners of Bangladesh since its birth, it has been outsmarted by China in recent times. Especially after the launch of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which Bangladesh has signed on to.

It was in June 2018 that the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) signed loan agreements in the amount of ¥2.65 billion JPY ($19.65 million USD) with the Government of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh. Their purpose was to provide for the development of the Matarbari Port in Bangladesh. Tokyo is also involved in the Dhaka mass rapid transport network as part of its development assistance to the country.

While unveiling a “free and open Indo Pacific” new policy” Prime Minister of Japan Fumio Kishida said recently “Northeast India, surrounded by land, still has unexploited economic potential.

Viewing Bangladesh and other areas to the south as a single economic zone, Japan will build Bengal-Northeast India industrial value chain concept in cooperation with India and Bangladesh to foster the growth of the entire region.

Japan and India have already formed an Act East forum to take up projects in Bangladesh and other countries. Visiting Japan PM elaborated on the policy while giving a lecture at the Indian Council of World Affairs at Sushma Swaraj Bhavan in New Delhi on Monday. Before giving the lecture Japan’s PM had a bilateral meeting with PM Narendra Modi.

He said that Japan is working with India to bring stability in South Asia region. He also said Japan has already formed an economic study group with Bangladesh to forge an economic partnership as Bangladesh is graduating from a least developed country to a developing nation.

Japan’s PM said “The waters that connect Japan and the Pacific Island countries have no borders. The Pacific Islands region is exposed to many challenges such as rising sea levels due to climate change, infectious diseases such as COVID-19, and natural disasters such as volcanic eruptions.”

Giving an idea of cooperation PM Japan said,” In a post-Covid-19 world, digital connectivity is also increasingly vital. We will promote reliable digital technology including Open RAN, and develop information infrastructure including submarine cable laying projects. We will also cooperate in the materialization of smart cities utilizing digital technology. We believe that there is great potential to utilize Japanese technology and India’s strength in the IT field, as well as to provide support for infrastructure development through Japanese ODA. “

Japan will be focusing on the development of Matarbari Port in Bangladesh as part of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s new ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ plan. It will be part of Tokyo’s larger infrastructure development efforts in the Bay of Bengal and Northeast India with a focus on “multilayer connectivity” as laid out in the plan.

Japan recently unveiled its new vision for a Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) which includes integrated development of Northeast India and Bangladesh as part of a broader Bay of Bengal community.

Calling India an “indispensable partner”, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida outlined his new Indo-Pacific strategy during a policy speech at the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA), immediately after a meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Kishida listed three important regions—Southeast Asia, South Asia, and the Pacific Islands—where multi-layered connectivity could overcome vulnerabilities and boost economic growth.

“Northeast India, which is surrounded by land, still has unexploited economic potential. Viewing Bangladesh and other areas to the south as a single economic zone, we will promote the Bay of Bengal-Northeast India industrial value chain concept in cooperation with India and Bangladesh to foster the growth of the entire region,” said the Japanese PM.

Briefing a small media group, Noriyuki Shikata, Cabinet Secretary for Public Affairs said that right now Northeast India and Bangladesh were on Tokyo’s radar. Myanmar will reappear in the frame once the political situation in Naypyidaw eases.

During his address, PM Kishida stressed that Japan has already launched a Joint Study Group on the possibility of an Economic Partnership Agreement with Bangladesh.

Shikata pointed out that landlocked Bhutan could also be included in the broader Bay of Bengal initiative, though the focus right now was on the Northeast India-Bangladesh connect.

Prime Minister Kishida’s vision especially focused on emerging economies and developing countries in the Indo-Pacific region, including the far-flung island territories, vulnerable to climate change and natural disasters in the Pacific.

To fulfill Kishida’s vision of transparent and inclusive development of the region, Tokyo will mobilise US $75 billion in public and private funds in the Indo-Pacific region by 2030.

With China’s engagement diplomacy as the subtext, the Japanese will focus on fair development finance on building quality infrastructure development, including undersea cables to far-flung island territories.

Kishida cited the critical situation in Sri Lanka and insisted on rules to prevent “opaque and unfair development finance” which are necessary for nations to grow autonomously and sustainably. “It is essential that Sri Lanka’s debt restructuring advances in a fair and transparent manner,” the Japanese premier observed. He also stressed that Tokyo will closely collaborate with India in the South Asian region.

Analysts point out that Japan appears to be exploring deeper cooperation with India in South Asia as a major step before a broader engagement with New Delhi can unfurl in other geographies including the Middle East and Africa.

“I believe that Japan and India are in an extremely unique position in the current international relations and, furthermore, in the history of the world,” said the Japanese PM in his address.

Kishida chose India to make the significant announcement as it was here that Japan’s longest-serving Prime Minister, the late Shinzo Abe, delivered his famous ‘The Confluence of Two Seas’ speech in the Indian Parliament in August 2007 and came up with the concept of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ for the first time.

Promising that Japan will “spare no efforts” to cooperate with India for the success of the G20, Kishida said both countries have a great responsibility for maintaining and strengthening “a free and open international order based on the rule of law”.

Now, the moot question is whether it is possible to link up Japan’s investments in Bangladesh and Northeast India. Options available for consideration should be reviewed before the question of whether Japanese investments in the two areas are compatible. what is the nature of goods that are going to be transported from Bangladesh to India? These could include textiles, fish products and produce from outside Bangladesh that would be offloaded in Matarbari. The present government led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is friendly towards India and Japan. the infrastructure would have to be built out. It would be challenging to link Bangladesh and Northeast India with existing roadways. Besides, railway connectivity is poor due to a host of factors.  On the other hand, India can also join hands with Japan to develop railway connectivity between the two, both in Bangladesh and on the Northeast Indian side of the border.

Japanese national Fumiko Yamada has a passion for “international affairs.” She works as a research associate at the Australian “University of Melbourne.” She received her degree in South Asian Studies from the University of Toronto in Canada.

Pressenza New York