Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina paid an official visit to Japan from April 25 to 28 at the invitation of Japan’s Prime Minister, Kishida Fumio. During their bilateral meeting on the 26th of April, the two Prime Ministers acknowledged the longstanding and time-tested friendship that has existed between the two nations since Bangladesh’s independence. In addition, the two countries made tremendous progress in bilateral ties based on the “Comprehensive Partnership” formed in 2014. However, the Indo-Pacific Strategy has gained momentum in their current geopolitical landscape. Against this backdrop, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s recent trip to Japan has significant geopolitical repercussions due to a number of factors, including the facilitation of diplomatic connections, economic cooperation, and strategic alliances. The trip also serves as an instance of Bangladesh’s growing strategic importance in the Indo-Pacific region and its vital role as a partner in Japan’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) vision.

Significance of the Hasina-Kishida Summit

The two nations’ core beliefs and values served as a guide for the two Prime Ministers and reiterated their dedication to achieving a free and open Indo-Pacific that is founded on the rule of law, in which all nations’ rights, freedom, and sovereignty are safeguarded by international law, rules, and norms regardless of their size or strength. Amid the meeting, they specifically emphasized on the common value based maritime order and the use of the sea as a global common to support the growth of the blue economy. This Summit has also resulted in bolstering a new form of mutual understanding between two nations regarding the Indo-Pacific region. Prime Minister Hasina commended Japan for its ongoing efforts to support the maintenance of peace, stability, and prosperity on a regional and global scale. She reaffirmed Bangladesh’s strong stance in favor of an Indo-Pacific region that is free, open, inclusive, secure, and founded on international law and shared prosperity for everyone. Due to the two PMs’ meeting, a greater footprint of Japan has been ensured in the Indo-pacific, which evokes China to seek new strategic partners in the region. However, Bangladesh is going to be a regional economic hub between South and Southeast Asia with the implementation of Bay of Bengal Industrial Growth Belt (BIG-B) projects, directing to change South Asia’s economic reality. The two Prime Ministers commended the advancements of Matarbari deep seaport and other projects in the Southern Chattogram area under BIG-B initiative. The BIG-B strategy aims to speed up industrial agglomeration along the Dhaka-Chattogram-Cox’s Bazar belt area and beyond through improving investment climate and boosting connectivity. For both the countries, to expand economic ties and advance BIG-B, Hasina-Kishida Summit is of utmost importance.

The Role of Bangladesh in Japan’s Grand Maritime Strategy

The geopolitical context of the nation and Prime Minister Kishida’s political position are significant determinants of Japan’s foreign and defense policies. Ensuring Japan’s security is progressively getting difficult on a national scale in its backyard. China is quickly flexing its economic and military mussels which put the nations in a ‘neck-neck race’. North Korea is increasing its stockpile of nuclear weapons and missiles. Additionally, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is demonstrating how revisionist nations might use their military force to attempt to overturn the status quo. These changes significantly worry Japan and are among the main factors influencing its foreign and defense policies. However, Japan’s support for Bangladesh, Myanmar, and India’s growth has evolved into a strategic objective to weaken Chinese influence in the area. As an alternative regional economic bloc to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Japan is now prepared to spend more in North-East India in order to connect Bangladesh and India. Hence, Bangladesh serves as a bridge between the Indian Ocean, South and Southeast Asia, making it the vital geopolitical location between Japan and India. Moreover, Japan’s involvement in Bangladesh, the Bay of Bengal, and Indian Ocean is crucial since the Indian Ocean is Japan’s lifeline. 80 percent of Japan’s overall trade goes via Indian ocean. In this connection, Bangladesh is a vital strategic route for Japan as it offers direct access to this ocean through Bay of Bengal. This also explains Japan’s intense enthusiasm for Bangladesh’s Big-B initiative, which has a clear prognosis for the development of high-quality infrastructure and increased business prospects. The three-pillared strategy, BIG-B, which focuses on the energy, economic connectivity, and industry and commerce, is also compatible with other regional projects like BIMSTEC, BCIM, and MGC. Significantly, the effort will act as a bridge between South and Southeast Asia, a notable point linking India’s North Eastern region.

During the meeting, the two prime ministers reaffirmed that the two countries would continue to develop economic infrastructure, improve the investment environment, and enhance regional connectivity in Bangladesh under the rubric of the BIG-B initiative as well as the recently launched concept of an Industrial Value Chain connecting the Bay of Bengal and neighboring regions. The development of Bangladesh through regional connectivity would contribute to the overall stability of the Indo-Pacific region. Hence, under the framework, Japan is trying to create a Bay of Bengal Community where Bangladesh’s presence is indispensable.

The Two PM’s Summit: A Conjuncture for IPO & FOIP

Before the tri-national visit of PM Sheikh Hasina, Bangladesh has unveiled its “Indo-Pacific Outlook” (IPO), which envisions a free, open, peaceful, secure, and inclusive Indo-Pacific. On the other hand, Japan has promoted the concept of “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) in 2016, which aspires to foster regional economic growth, security, and stability. Remarkably, both the countries share a common vision of a free, open, inclusive, peaceful, and secure Indo-Pacific region with shared prosperity for all. Through the PM’s recent tour to Japan, Bangladesh’s contribution to the Indo-Pacific region has been highlighted. The two prime ministers of Bangladesh and Japan have reiterated their commitment to “realizing a free and open Indo-Pacific based on the rule of law.” They stated in particular that maritime order based on shared values, such as freedom of navigation, is a key to the peace and prosperity of the international community, and also a cornerstone for the use of sea as global commons, which is likely to contribute to the development of blue economy. Bangladesh is a major player in the area due to its strategic location at the confluence of South and Southeast Asia and the country’s growing ties to Japan, which may encourage deeper regional cooperation.

Besides, Bangladesh is a key ally for Japan in pursuing its objectives in the North East India. Aside from the infrastructural projects that Japan and India have jointly created, the country is also eager to build an industrial hub in Bangladesh with supply chains connecting it to North-East India, Bhutan, and Nepal. Thereby, the connectivity with Bangladesh is crucial for regional integration with North-East India, as the ongoing four major projects – Ashuganj Port, Ashuganj-Akhaura Road, Belonia-Belonias Rail Link and Akhaura-Agartala Rail link – would also improve this connectivity. Additionally, Bangladesh can offer the fastest path to the sea, making its seaports essential for India’s landlocked Northeast.

The Japanese idea of a free and just Indo-Pacific is in line with Bangladesh’s IPO and the region’s as a whole, in terms of economy and foreign policy. This is more in the direction of developing a sustainable Global South, which will be advantageous to all the nations in this area. Japan showed its intent to work with Bangladesh in this regard. Hence, to reap the highest benefits, while addressing internal political vicissitudes, Bangladesh must be realistic in its future development cooperation.

Saume Saptaparna Nath is a Research Associate at the KRF CBGA.