On April 26th Bangladesh and Japan signed a strategic partnership agreement during Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s Japan visit. This is the latest strategic partnership agreement of Bangladesh. Through this, Japan becomes the 2nd Strategic partner in East Asia after China. The partnership is likely to bring significant implications for the bilateral relations. The wordings in the joint statement suggest that the partnership is also likely to bring new implications for Indo-Pacific geopolitics.
The 11-page-long joint statement is signed by both Prime Ministers. The statement is divided into three thematic parts and has 30 points in it. In the beginning, the statement acknowledges the Comprehensive Partnership agreement between Bangladesh and Japan inked in 2014. The preamble also focused on historic and ‘time-tested’ friendship among the nations since the independence of Bangladesh. The preamble also celebrated the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations. The statement explains the Partnership Agreement and the following 30 points as guiding principles for the next 50 years and beyond.
In part 1- Cooperation for Peace and Stability in the Region and Beyond, Bangladesh reaffirmed its commitment towards a free and open Indo-pacific based on the rule of law, freedom, and sovereignty. Interestingly, in Both Bangladesh’s Indo-Pacific Outlook (IPO)- announced recently, and in the Joint Statement, Bangladesh incorporated Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP).
Bangladesh’s reaffirming concepts such as the rule of law, freedom, openness, and inclusion suggest that it also adheres to existing liberal values and norms of the Westphalian international order. These liberal values are also coherent with Bangladesh’s IPO.
Japan on the other hand also recognized Bangladesh’s geostrategic significance and acknowledged that developing a quality structure in Bangladesh will increase regional connectivity and contribute to the development of both Bangladesh and the region. In this context, both countries stressed the importance of transparent and fair development finance. They also stressed the importance of adhering to international rules and standards such as debt sustainability and transparency.
Such wording suggests that perhaps to balance Chinese development finance in Bangladesh, Japan, and G7 may increase investment in the future. G7 launched a global development finance scheme worth $600 billion in June 2022 It is likely that Bangladesh may avail of development finance from it.
In the area of defense cooperation, Japan is willing to transfer defense equipment and technology to Bangladesh. Bangladesh is aligning this with its own military modernization project, Forces Goal-2030. Such defense cooperation will strengthen Japan’s strategic hold over South Asia and at the same time will allow Bangladesh to diversify its defense procurement.
On maritime issues, both countries reiterated to adhere to UNCLOS. They also expressed that a unilateral attempt to change the status quo is unacceptable. Such wordings in the context of the East and South China Seas reflect that Bangladesh is aligning with Western countries on the question of the status quo. It also implies that even though Bangladesh will remain neutral, it will not support any adventurous attempt to change the status quo in the region.
Moreover, Bangladesh’s overt stance over North Korea’s nuclear program suggests that it is also an effort to ensure Japan’s security in East Asia.
Apart from these, both countries’ intention to deepen relations with ASEAN on the Myanmar issue, adhering to the Non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, Zero-Tolerance on Terrorism, and the Rohingya issue suggest that it is likely that Japan and Bangladesh will be more active than before on regional security issues in Asia-Pacific.
Historically, Japan is one of the largest development partners of Bangladesh. Japan and Bangladesh are already developing the Bay of Bengal Industrial Growth Belt (BIG-B). Recently, the Japanese Prime Minister also expressed his intention to develop an industrial value chain that connects Bangladesh with Northeast India.
In this context, the second part of the joint statement expresses cooperation in developing regional connectivity and creating an industrial value chain here. The joint statement also focuses on developing integrated infrastructure, especially in the Southern part of Bangladesh. Japan is already building the country’s first deep seaport in Matarbari. It is likely that the number of Japanese projects will be increased in Bangladesh in the coming days. When Bangladesh signed such an agreement with China back in 2016, the number of Chinese projects in the country increased drastically within a short period of time.
Both countries also want to improve the business environment in Bangladesh and promote trade and investment in the region. The joint statement mentioned Bangladesh Special Economic Zone (BSEZ) which is dedicated to Japanese investors.
To improve economic relations, the joint statement was also announced to inaugurate a study on Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA).
Both countries also acknowledged ‘the need for intensified global efforts to combat climate change’. Japan also appreciated Bangladesh’s Mujib Climate Prosperity Plan (MCPP). As a climate-vulnerable country, Bangladesh has a special focus on combatting climate change. In this aspect, it requires global acknowledgment and partnership of its plan, MCPP as it is largely dependent on climate financing and foreign investment. Previously, Bangladesh signed its first climate accord with the UK on March 12th, 2023 which also acknowledged MCPP.
Apart from development projects, trade, and investment, the joint statement’s focus on Bangladesh’s labor export is likely to increase skilled workers’ migration to Japan. Such migration will open a new market for Bangladesh’s labor export.
The last part of the agreement focuses on cross-cultural connections. In this aspect, Japan has a focus on promoting the Japanese language, culture, and philosophy in Bangladesh. As a result, Japan announces its intention in the joint statement to increase its support to Japanese Language programs and the Japan Studies department at the University of Dhaka. These programs are likely to attract further aid from Japan. Apart from these, Japan-related research, scholarship, and student exchange program are likely to increase.
A Possible Strategic Hedging?
Considering the heated geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific region, and analyzing the wording of the joint statement suggests that Bangladesh may be intending a possible strategic hedging towards Japan through this agreement. The agreement intends to deepen geopolitical and economic connections among the nations. For a while now, the Western alliance is perceiving Bangladesh as a country tilting towards China. The country found it difficult to balance the US and Chinese interests in this region. As the US and China share contradicting interests, Bangladesh needed a way to maintain a balance. So, the wording and areas of cooperation mentioned in the joint statement suggest that Bangladesh is likely to hedge towards Japan which would increase the Japanese stake in South Asia; and hence equalize odds with China- ultimately striking a balance between the Western alliance and China.
Lastly, it is likely that Japanese engagement in all aspects will increase in Bangladesh over the next few years like China’s after 2016’s Strategic Partnership agreement.
Aziz Patwary is a British-Bangladeshi Citizen and Former Employee of the World Bank