Dhaka Discourse

Bangladesh: A New Thrust Towards East Asia

16 Jun, 2014    ·   4512

Prof Delwar Hossain analyses the importance of Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's recent visits to Japan and China

The Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina’s back-to-back visits to Japan and China provide a diplomatic bonanza to the government bedeviled by legitimacy crisis at home and abroad following the 5 January general elections this year. Hasina took the opportunity to silence her critics by making substantive gains in bilateral relations with the two East Asian countries. Japan is generally known as a committed development partner of South Asian countries – as reflected in volumes of official development assistance (ODA) pumped into the region every year. Japanese investment and bilateral trade volume between Tokyo and Dhaka have been seen a rise, especially over the past decade. Japan has remained the largest bilateral donor to Bangladesh for the past fifteen years. Both countries have developed a strong development partnership with growing activity by Japanese investors in Bangladesh.

The 21 point Japan-Bangladesh Comprehensive Partnership signed by the respective prime ministers during Hasina’s May 2014 visit is a demonstration of strong commitment to engage Japan more substantively in Bangladesh’s development process. In the past seven years, the number of Japanese companies operating in Bangladesh has nearly tripled – from 61 in 2007 to 176 in 2013; and the total grants and aid from Japan stood at $11 billion in 2013. Japan’s strategic intention was to combine two oceanic regions – the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean – for what the Japanese ambassador in Dhaka called a larger space for Japan’s economic activities.

He added that it looks like a “butterfly” in which Bangladesh and Myanmar occupies the “lynchpin position” to connect these oceanic regions. Apart from appreciating the strategic importance of Bangladesh, Tokyo would also be happy to receive Dhaka’s support in its bid for a permanent seat at the UNSC – and also to the issue of the abduction of Japanese nationals by North Korea. Recently, the Bangladeshi government recognised a number of foreign friends, including a few Japanese, for their contribution during the Bangldesh Liberation War.

As a result, the prime minister’s Japan visit has contributed to an agreement on a range of specific projects vis-à-vis, inter alia, the construction of Ganges Barrage, a multi-modal tunnel under Jamuna River, a dedicated Railway Bridge over Jamuna River, a multi-modal Dhaka Eastern Bypass, and the ecological restoration of four rivers around Dhaka. A Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was signed between the Japan External Trade Organization and the Bangladesh Export Processing Zones Authority that reserves important facilities in 5 EPZs in Bangladesh for Japanese investors. Japan has also committed its support for capacity building in nuclear safety and security. In an unprecedented gesture, Japan committed an ODA of $6 billion over the next five years that is crucial for infrastructure development in Bangladesh.

In a rare show of diplomatic moves, Hasina made a six-day official visit to China in early June with a 70-member business delegation immediately after she visited Japan. With these back to back visits, Hasina scored high points in diplomatic maneuvering both for her new government and the state. The much discussed China visit resulted in five deals, including Chinese assistance in the construction of a power plant in Patuakhali and building a multi-lane road tunnel under the Karnaphuli River. Chinese President Xi Jinping described Bangladesh as an important country along the maritime Silk Road project that he has been championing, and which envisages enhancing connectivities, building ports and free trade zones, and boosting trade with littoral countries in the Indian Ocean region and in Southeast Asia. China made it clear that it attaches great importance to the Beijing-Dhaka relationship and regards Bangladesh as an important development partner and cooperative partner in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region.

Bangladesh is an important country along the Maritime Silk Road for China, and Beijing welcomes Dhaka’s participation in the development of the cooperation initiatives of the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road. The issue of constructing the Bangladesh–China–India–Myanmar (BCIM) economic corridor also garnered the interest of both leaders as part of efforts towards enhancing connectivity between China and eastern South Asia. However, the absence of any deal on construction of the Sonadia deep sea port was conspicuous. The diplomatic circles in both countries had widely expected a deal on this mega project. As revealed by Bangladesh’s State Minister of Foreign Affairs Shahriar Alam, “Bangladesh has decided to take time to pick the best offer over the construction of a deep seaport at Sonadia in Cox’s Bazar as a number of countries have shown interest in the lucrative mega project.”

High level visits often turn out ceremonial and declaratory in substance. But these two visits of Bangladesh’s prime minister have been a diplomatic breakthrough for Dhaka in cementing its foreign policy thrust towards the east. The diplomatic overtures by Japan and China have emboldened the Hasina government in Bangladesh to strengthen her position domestically and internationally. Although Japan and China are traditional friends of Bangladesh, there has always been a gap in their economic engagement, particularly in the context of Bangladesh’s growing economic and social performance. The outcomes of the recent visits might lead to reduction in the gap, especially amid the new matrix of external roles in Dhaka’s domestic politics.