Japan’s Official Security Assistance to Bangladesh: New Horizon in Defense Cooperation

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The past ten years have witnessed a notable development in the relationship between Bangladesh and Japan. Since the recognition of Bangladesh as an independent country by Japan in 1972, these two nations enjoyed a time-tested friendship. Following the visit of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2014, it was raised to a level of comprehensive partnership. Bangladesh is the largest recipient of development and economic assistance from Japan, second only to India. Since 1972, Tokyo has given Dhaka about US$25 billion in economic and development assistance, of which about US$9.2 billion has come from overseas development assistance.

Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina visited Japan in April 2023 when the two governments took their bilateral relationship to the next level; they upgraded their relationship from a “comprehensive” to a “strategic” relationship. The two sides have historically enjoyed robust economic relations, but strategic cooperation is likely to add a new dimension to their bilateral ties.

To further strengthen security cooperation, Japan announced the Official Security Assistance (OSA) in April 2023, a new framework for cooperation that will benefit the armed forces and other relevant organizations of like-minded nations. Under this initiative, Japan intended to strengthen the Bangladesh Navy’s monitoring, surveillance, and disaster relief capabilities, especially in the Bay of Bengal, which is “an important sea lane” for Japan in the face of Chinese naval incursions into the Indian Ocean. Japan is planning to give Bangladesh patrol boats, making Dhaka the second country to receive defense equipment. The vessels are being supplied through an official security assistance program that was started in April, with funding totaling ¥575 million ($3.82 million)., according to the Foreign Ministry of Japan.

Against such a backdrop, the OSA will add a new dimension to the strategic partnership between Bangladesh and Japan.

Defense as an Avenue of Cooperation

The OSA framework, which was first introduced in the updated National Security Strategy of Japan last December 2022 is designed to give partner nations mostly those located in the Asia-Pacific area aid in the development of infrastructure, supplies, and equipment in the form of grants rather than loans. Tokyo broke with the previous policy by allocating ¥2 billion to the framework this fiscal year, allowing it to be used for military purposes instead of development aid. The program is a component of Tokyo’s endeavors to broaden and reinforce its security partner network to counterbalance China’s increasing military power and its growing influence across several nations, including South Asia.

The Kishida administration’s overarching foreign policy acknowledges that, as the post-Cold War era draws to an end, the international community now stands at a historic crossroads. The major international events like the Ukraine war and, the Taiwan Crisis, The USA’s Indo-Pacific Pivot have changed the political landscape of the world. Nevertheless, Japan has chosen to address these challenges with a significant transformation symbolized by OSA. More significantly, the Quad’s determination to gain a regional foothold in South Asia is demonstrated by Japan’s strategic cooperation maneuvers.

Tokyo, having identified Bangladesh as a partner in realizing its goal of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP), now aspires to build a ‘strategic partnership’ with Dhaka. The potential for defense cooperation and its importance for both countries amid increasing global geopolitical tension. Following their meeting in April, Sheikh Hasina and Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio issued a joint statement that included this OSA issue. To further strengthen security cooperation, Prime Minister Hasina recognized that Japan had established the OSA for the benefit of armed forces and other relevant organizations of like-minded nations.

The high-level exchange visits between the Bangladeshi Armed Forces and the Japan Self-Defense Forces, as well as the recent, regular port calls at Chittagong by JMSDF ships, were warmly received by both prime ministers. The defense authorities from both sides agreed to continue promoting security cooperation in light of the Memorandum of Cooperation and Exchanges. This included mutual visits by aircraft and vessels, unit-to-unit exchanges, training programs, and goodwill exercises.

Boosting Bangladesh’s Defense Capabilities

Japan and Bangladesh are simultaneously looking to increase their defense cooperation. Japan views Bangladesh as a “Strategic Partner” and believes that Bangladesh must strengthen its monitoring and surveillance capacities in the Bay of Bengal and elsewhere because it is located close to vital sea lanes. In light of this, Japan’s decision to include Bangladesh in the OSA is strategically significant for several reasons. It is primarily done to further Tokyo’s geopolitical goal of counterbalancing China’s increasing defense and economic investments in Dhaka and the surrounding area. The decision to send military assistance to Bangladesh may indicate a substantial shift in the security landscape of the two nations.

April’s visit by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh to Japan signaled a growing push for cordial strategic ties between the two nations. Japan would give the Bangladesh Armed Forces military equipment, including four patrol boats, and training through the Official Security Assistance program. Tokyo seems to be attempting to use OSA to lessen that reliance and increase the variety of companies that supply Dhaka with defense hardware. This is in alignment with Bangladesh’s desire, as expressed in the Forces Goal 2030, to modernize its armed forces. The efforts made by both countries to strengthen regional security were unquestionably duly acknowledged.

Bangladesh would be able to fulfill its goal of “building a three-dimensional force capable of conducting multi-platform warfare” under the Forces Goals 2030 by expanding and modernizing its army, navy, and air force. Besides, instead of being in the form of loans, the OSA will be in the form of grants intended to bolster the “comprehensive defense architecture” of the region without requiring repayment. As a result, Dhaka will be able to make great progress toward its objective of military modernization.

Under the Forces Goals 2030, Bangladesh has attempted to diversify its sources of security assistance lessening its reliance on Chinese military hardware. Beijing supplied $1.93 billion, or 71.8 percent, of Bangladesh’s defense purchases between 2008 and 2018. The main cause of this was China’s competitive pricing when compared to its Western competitors. As a part of this, Bangladesh has started importing weapons from Western nations, Turkey, and India.

Japan can be a source for Bangladesh by increasing its defense ties with it. Under a Tk 212 grant agreement, Japan had previously given Bangladesh more than twenty 10-meter rescue boats and four 20-meter boats equipped with oil pollution control equipment. By giving Bangladesh military hardware, Japan hopes to expand its defense exports in line with its New Defense Strategy. On the flip side, this may help Bangladesh to diversify its import baskets in terms of military weapons.

It seems that Bangladesh’s recent deepening of relationship with Japan is an outcome of Dhaka’s careful balancing act of geopolitical affairs, at a time when major regional powers feel pressured to choose sides amid escalations. Moreover, Dhaka, with its policy of ‘friendship to all, malice to none,’ is enjoying the ‘benefits of engagement’ with multiple players ‘without the obligations of entanglement’ with anyone. It is unlikely to abandon this approach anytime in the future. Due to its non-hegemonic image and historical relationship with Bangladesh, Japan can be an alternative source for Bangladesh to increase its security cooperation and fulfill the modernization of its military. Therefore, the inclusion of Bangladesh in the OSA framework ha new has opened a new aspect in the future bilateral cooperation which was less talked about until now.

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

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