In recent years, Bangladesh has emerged as a crucial player in Japan’s strategic ambitions in North-East India. Japan’s increasing concern over Chinese involvement in South Asia, particularly in the Indo-Pacific region, has led to a shift in its development assistance strategy towards Bangladesh, Myanmar, and India. Japan sees this region as a potential alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and aims to invest more in North-East India, with Bangladesh acting as a vital connector between the two countries.
The strong economic and strategic partnership between Bangladesh and Japan has provided a solid framework for collaboration in various sectors. Over the past five decades, Japan has been a major source of foreign assistance for Bangladesh, surpassing any other country in its support. The Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean hold significant importance for Japan, as the majority of its trade passes through these waters. Bangladesh’s direct access to the Indian Ocean positions it as a strategic route for Japan, enabling efficient trade and connectivity between the two countries. Recognizing the potential for further development, Japan has expressed great enthusiasm in promoting the Bay of Bengal Industrial Growth Belt (Big-B) initiative in Bangladesh. This initiative aligns with regional initiatives such as BIMSTEC, BCIM, and MGC, creating an interconnected network that benefits not only Bangladesh and Japan but also the North-East region of India. By investing in quality infrastructure and increasing investment opportunities, this collaboration aims to strengthen bilateral trade, foster socio-economic development, and promote regional integration in the Indo-Pacific region.
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What’s Japan’s FOIP vision?
Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) vision, initially introduced by the late Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2016, emphasizes the importance of an open, inclusive, and rules-based regional trade network in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. This vision serves as the foundation of Japan’s security involvement and investment policy in the Indo-Pacific region. Japan aims to counterbalance China’s influence by promoting a free and open Indo-Pacific, which aligns with its strategic priorities and economic interests.
Moreover, Japan’s FOIP vision is driven by its commitment to maintaining regional stability and advancing its economic interests. The emphasis on an open, inclusive, and rules-based regional trade network reflects Japan’s recognition of the interconnectedness and interdependence of nations in the Indo-Pacific region. By promoting a free and open Indo-Pacific, Japan seeks to foster an environment conducive to economic growth, innovation, and sustainable development. This vision aligns with Japan’s strategic priorities, which include maintaining freedom of navigation, upholding international law, and ensuring the peaceful resolution of disputes. Furthermore, Japan’s FOIP vision serves as a counterbalance to China’s expanding influence in the region, as it seeks to provide alternative options for countries seeking economic partnerships and development opportunities. Through its strategic involvement and investment policy, Japan aims to contribute to the stability, prosperity, and resilience of the Indo-Pacific region while upholding the principles of openness, inclusivity, and rules-based governance.
Japan’s development assistance in the North-East
Japan has been actively involved in development projects in North-East India, gradually expanding its cooperation beyond sericulture development to infrastructure projects. The establishment of the Japan-India Coordination Forum on Development of the North Eastern Region in 2017 exemplifies Japan’s commitment to this region. Projects such as the Guwahati Sewage Project, Guwahati Water Supply Project, and various hydroelectric power projects have received substantial Official Development Assistance (ODA) investments from Japan, amounting to approximately USD 1.9 billion as of 2021.
Bangladesh’s role in Japan’s North-East India strategy
Bangladesh holds immense significance in Japan’s North-East India strategy. Besides jointly developed infrastructure projects with India, Japan aims to establish an industrial hub in Bangladesh with supply chains linked to North-East India, Bhutan, and Nepal. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s visit to India in March 2023 underscored Japan’s optimistic attitude towards the development of this industrial hub in the Bay of Bengal and the North-East region, facilitating inter-regional development and trade. Japan has approved USD 1.27 billion in funding for three infrastructure projects in Bangladesh, including the Matarbari deep-sea commercial port. The connectivity between Bangladesh and North-East India, facilitated by ongoing projects like the Ashuganj Port, Ashuganj-Akhaura Road, Belonia-Belonia Rail Link, and Akhaura-Agartala Rail Link, plays a vital role in regional integration and provides North-East India with access to Chittagong port.
The establishment of an industrial hub in Bangladesh linked to North-East India, Bhutan, and Nepal is a testament to Bangladesh’s crucial role in Japan’s North-East India strategy. This industrial hub holds immense potential for economic growth and regional integration. The connectivity initiatives between Bangladesh and North-East India are pivotal in facilitating trade and commerce. Notably, ongoing projects like the Ashuganj Port, Ashuganj-Akhaura Road, Belonia-Belonia Rail Link, and Akhaura-Agartala Rail Link are enhancing regional connectivity and opening up new avenues for economic cooperation. These infrastructure projects enable efficient transportation of goods, providing North-East India with access to the Chittagong port, which serves as a major gateway for international trade.
Furthermore, Japan’s substantial investment of USD 1.27 billion in funding for three infrastructure projects in Bangladesh, including the Matarbari deep-sea commercial port, demonstrates its commitment to strengthening the connectivity and development of the region. Through these initiatives, Bangladesh’s role as a vital connector in Japan’s North-East India strategy becomes evident, as it creates opportunities for enhanced trade, investment, and socio-economic progress in the region.
Bolstering strong economic and strategic partnership
Bangladesh and Japan have enjoyed a strong economic and strategic partnership for over five decades. Japan has provided significant foreign assistance to Bangladesh, surpassing that of any other country. The Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean hold critical importance for Japan, as around 80% of its total trade volume passes through these waters. Bangladesh’s direct access to the Indian Ocean positions it as a strategic route for Japan. In line with this, Japan has shown great enthusiasm in developing the Bay of Bengal Industrial Growth Belt (Big-B) initiative in Bangladesh, aiming for quality infrastructure development and increased investment opportunities. This initiative aligns with regional initiatives like BIMSTEC, BCIM, and MGC, effectively connecting South Asia and Southeast Asia, with India’s North-East region benefiting from improved sea-borne trade accessibility.
Geostrategic significance of Bangladesh to Japan and North-East India
Bangladesh’s geographic location holds immense geostrategic significance for both Japan and North-East India. It serves as a natural bridge connecting South Asia and Southeast Asia, making it a vital transit point for trade and connectivity initiatives. The establishment of efficient transportation corridors, such as road, rail, and waterways, between Bangladesh and North-East India enhances regional integration and opens up new economic opportunities. Furthermore, Bangladesh’s stable political environment, growing economy, and investment-friendly policies make it an attractive destination for foreign investors. Japan recognizes the potential of Bangladesh as a manufacturing and investment hub, which can further strengthen its own supply chains and economic interests. The collaboration between Japan and Bangladesh in developing infrastructure projects and industrial zones not only boosts bilateral trade but also creates employment opportunities and promotes socio-economic development in the region.
Cultural and people-to-people exchanges
Apart from economic and strategic aspects, cultural and people-to-people exchanges play a crucial role in strengthening the relationship between Japan, Bangladesh, and North-East India. Both Japan and Bangladesh share a rich cultural heritage and historical ties, which provide a strong foundation for fostering cultural understanding and collaboration. Various initiatives, such as cultural festivals, educational exchanges, and tourism promotion, contribute to building mutual trust and fostering closer bonds between the peoples of Japan, Bangladesh, and North-East India.
Security cooperation and maritime domain awareness
Given the maritime nature of the region, security cooperation and maritime domain awareness are essential for ensuring peace, stability, and freedom of navigation in the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean. Japan and Bangladesh have been collaborating on maritime security initiatives, including capacity building, joint exercises, and information sharing. Strengthening maritime security in the region benefits not only Japan and Bangladesh but also North-East India, as it ensures the safe passage of goods and promotes regional stability.
Challenges and opportunities persist
While the Japan-Bangladesh-North-East India partnership holds great promise, it also faces several challenges. These include bureaucratic hurdles, regulatory complexities, infrastructure gaps, and connectivity issues. Addressing these challenges requires sustained commitment from all stakeholders, including governments, private sectors, and civil society organizations. Moreover, competing interests and influence in the region from other countries, particularly China, may pose additional challenges to the partnership. Nevertheless, the collaboration between Japan, Bangladesh, and North-East India presents significant opportunities for economic growth, regional integration, and geopolitical stability. By leveraging each other’s strengths and addressing common challenges, the three parties can forge a robust and mutually beneficial partnership that contributes to the overall development and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific region.
To conclude, Bangladesh’s emerging role in Japan’s North-East India strategy is of paramount importance. Japan’s focus on a free and open Indo-Pacific, combined with Bangladesh’s strategic location, economic potential, and historical ties, has laid the foundation for a strong partnership. Through infrastructure development, trade connectivity, cultural exchanges, and security cooperation, Japan, Bangladesh, and North-East India can work together to realize their shared vision of a prosperous and interconnected Indo-Pacific region.