Hasina’s Tokyo Visit: Catalyzing Regional and Sub-regional Connectivity

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The summit this week between Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Japanese Prime Minister Kishida is set to give a strategic direction to regional and sub-regional connectivity in the Bay of Bengal and South Asian regions. Japan, under 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, initiated in 2014 by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, would be supported by large-scale infrastructure projects undertaken by JICA, the Japan International Cooperation Agency. Given that Bangladesh connects India and the ASEAN, Bangladesh’s economic growth and prosperity are essential for the stability of the whole Indo-Pacific region.

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 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.

Japan and sub-regional cooperation

With its economic growth and expansion, the Global South is gaining more influence. It is at the centre of the US-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

Japan 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.

The Bay is growing prominence in the larger Indo-Pacific arena of global geopolitics. 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 Fumio 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 northeast Indian states, notably Tripura, and larger worldwide markets. For both Bangladesh and India, the proposal is a win-win situation. Construction of an industrial centre 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 PM 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 role in connectivity blueprint

Bangladesh has undeniable importance for Japan in championing its strategic vision under the dictum of Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP). The geographic location of Bangladesh makes it a critical player in several inter and 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.

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). Japan hopes that Bangladesh would play a vital role in materializing its FOIP vision.

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 pitching Bangladesh into the centre 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. 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.

Kishida, 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. 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.” The connection goes beyond Northeast India to Bangladesh, Bhutan, and Nepal.

Hasina’s Tokyo visit will open up new vistas in ties and collaboration with the Bay of Bengal littorals, thanks to the BIG-B Initiative of Japan. 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. BIG-B has the prospect of connecting BIMSTEC with ASEAN which will create strong regional connectivity. Bangladesh has already been touted as a hub of industrial activity connecting the littoral regions which is likely to be strengthened through the talks between the two prime ministers.

– Saume Saptaparna Nath is a Research Associate at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA).

Published in South Asia Monitor [Link]