Bangladesh-Japan Summit, 2023: Catalysing Regional and Sub-Regional Connectivity

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The upcoming Summit between Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Japanese Prime Minister Kishida is set to put a great impact on the directions of regional and sub-regional connectivity in the Bay of Bengal and South Asian regions. Japan under the dictum of its global gateway project is promoting infrastructures at a large scale in the Bay of Bengal region. The Bay of Bengal Industrial Development Belt (BIG-B) program, introduced in 2014 by Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo and Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, would be supported by large-scale infrastructure projects undertaken by JICA. Given that Bangladesh connects India and ASEAN, Bangladesh’s economic growth and prosperity are essential for the stability of the whole Indo-Pacific region. Under the direction of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Dhaka played a crucial role as a hub of regional connectivity and diplomacy. It demonstrated Bangladesh’s strong standing in the region, which is reflected in its swift economic expansion and political stability. Undoubtedly, Bangladesh will play a bigger part in advancing regional cooperation and tackling global issues.

Japan has a stake in promoting maritime stability in the Bay of Bengal region. It has significant Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC) that expand communication with littoral nations and create business possibilities. In its shift from isolationism to internationalism, Japan has more actively supported the maritime stability and security initiatives of nations like India, Myanmar, and Bangladesh. Even while Japan’s growing influence in the Indo-Pacific has drawn considerable attention, the possibility of shared economic benefits has motivated Japan to keep strengthening its marine presence in the Bay of Bengal. The assets and skill sets Japan has offered for littoral countries build capacity to counter maritime security threats in the region.

How Can Japan Create Sub-Regional Cooperation?

With the economic expansion, the Global South has more influence and cannot be disregarded. It is at the center of the U.S.-China rivalry, with China attempting to amplify its influence through the Belt and Road Initiative, a hugely ambitious program of infrastructure building.  Initially seen as a linchpin in Japan’s Asia strategy, South Asia progressively began to play a pivotal role in world politics, particularly in the years following the Cold War. It is clear from an examination of South Asia’s history, geography, and international relations that the Bay of Bengal littoral region’s disparate foreign policy objectives provide the strongest obstacle to interregional cooperation. Japan, though, has the potential to become a tool for global growth for a number of reasons. Over the last few decades, Tokyo has played a significant role in supporting the region’s various countries’ need for economic stability. A US-led global system based on free trade, multilateralism, and rule-based order is required for Tokyo to preserve its strategic autonomy, and this will compel China to change its position. Japan recognizes the significance of South Asia in this arrangement and regards ASEAN as the policy’s forum.

The Bay is growing prominence in the larger Indo-Pacific Arena as conventional geopolitics are evolving into new ones. India, Japan, and South East Asia viewpoints are naturally convergent, and as a result, there is a sense that they should collaborate more actively. By building a port and transportation infrastructure in the area, Japan has suggested creating an industrial hub in Bangladesh with supply chains to the landlocked northeastern states of India and beyond, to Nepal and Bhutan. Following Japanese PM Kishida’s recent visit to India, his government authorized providing Bangladesh with US$1.27 billion in Japanese finance for three infrastructure projects, including a new commercial port in the Matarbari region with connections to neighboring landlocked Indian states, notably Tripura, and larger worldwide markets. For both Bangladesh and India, the proposal is a win-win situation. Construction of an industrial center linking India’s landlocked interior with the capital city of Bangladesh. Japan will focus on the development of Bangladesh’s Matarbari Port as part of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s new “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” strategy. It will be a part of Tokyo’s larger Bay of Bengal and Northeast India infrastructure development initiatives, with a focus on a “multilayer connection,” as stated in the plan.

Bangladesh’s Indispensable Role in Japan’s Connectivity Blueprint

Bangladesh has ‘undeniable importance’ for Japan in championing its strategic vision under the dictum of Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP). Bangladesh is a key component of Japan’s strategic-diplomatic strategy in South Asia. Bangladesh’s economy, which is one of South Asia’s most free-market and trade-oriented nations, is steadily growing into one of the most promising and lucrative in the region The geographic location of Bangladesh makes it a critical player in several interand intra-regional connectivity initiatives, including the Trans-Asian Railway and Asian Highway. Furthermore, as the founding member of the two regional cooperation processes in the sub-region SAARC and BIMSTEC, Bangladesh is now the epicenter of the key regional and sub-regional frameworks. In the meanwhile, Bangladesh might position itself as a desirable option to Myanmar in the current situation.

BIG-B is therefore compatible with other crucial regional cooperation frameworks like the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), Mekong Ganga Initiative (MGC), Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Forum for Regional Cooperation (BCIM), and Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). The strategy gives Japanese businesses the chance to participate in infrastructure projects abroad and get access to the markets. Japan hopes that Bangladesh would play a vital role in materializing its new Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) vision. Japanese PM mentioned connectivity in specific term connectivity between Matarbari and Northeast India. “This is a new idea. Japan expects Bangladesh’s contribution to the trilateral initiative on the connectivity front. Due to its geographic proximity, Bangladesh will be a key player in implementing FOIP and will play a significant role in bridging South Asia and South East Asia through its BIG B program. Bangladesh’s location at the confluence of ASEAN and India makes it essential to the stability and growth of the whole Indo-Pacific region. It is predicted that Bangladesh would considerably improve regional cooperation and the achievement of global goals

Bangladesh’s BIG B: A Regional Connectivity Hub

By establishing a bridge between South Asia and Southeast Asia, fostering closer interregional cooperation, and integrating Bangladesh into regional and global value chains, Japan’s Bay of Bengal Industrial Growth Belt (BIG-B), an initiative for changing South Asia’s economic outlook, can play a significant role in transforming Bangladesh into the center of the regional economy. The MRT line in Dhaka, the deep-sea port at Matarbari, Terminal 3 of the Dhaka Airport, and the economic zone at Araihazar are the principal projects being carried out under BIG-B in Bangladesh. These initiatives are anticipated to transform Bangladesh’s infrastructure, promote industrial agglomeration, guarantee energy security, and improve interregional connectivity once they are put into action. Bangladesh may cross international boundaries and become the industrial center of South Asia with the aid of Japan’s BIG-B. The BIG B plan is advantageous for multilateral forums like BIMSTEC, ASEAN, and MGC and has substantial ramifications for India’s Look East Policy, Bangladesh’s Look East Policy, and Thailand’s Look West Policy.

Fumio Kishida, the prime minister of Japan in a speech given during his visit to Delhi, declared, “We would develop the Bay of Bengal-Northeast India industrial value chain idea in partnership with India and Bangladesh to stimulate the expansion of the entire region. We view Bangladesh and other territories to the south as a unified economic zone.” Japan wants to link Northeast India with the rest of Southeast Asia as part of the bigger goal of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific.” As of now, this has taken the form of infrastructure development investments made through Japan’s international development aid. The connection goes beyond Northeast India to Bangladesh, Bhutan, and Nepal.

Improving ties and collaboration with the Bay of Bengal littorals is vital thanks to the IG-B Initiative. Bangladesh serves as the pivot point for the Indo-Pacific area, which spans the Bay of Bengal from the sea and South Asia and South East Asia from the land point of view. Japan’s initiative BIG-B has a prospect of connecting BIMSTEC with ASEAN which will create Strong regional connectivity.

– Delwar Hossain, PhD is Professor of International Relations, University of Dhaka, Bangladesh, and the founder of the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA). And
– Saume Saptaparna Nath is a Research Associate at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA).

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