A Budding Partnership: The Growth of Japanese–Bangladeshi Politico-Strategic Ties

On Nov. 11, 2023, the 14.3-km long channel of the Matarbari deep-sea port and the first unit of the 1,200 MW Matarbari coal-fired power plant were inaugurated in Bangladesh. These twin projects contain great significance for the country’s economic and energy security. At the same time, the projects symbolize the depth of the mutually beneficial partnership between Bangladesh and Japan, because both the deep-sea port and the power plant are being constructed and financed by Japan. At present, the strategic ties between Dhaka and Tokyo are rapidly expanding.

Historical Background

Since the independence of Bangladesh in 1971, Bangladesh and Japan have forged strong economic, diplomatic, and political ties. Japan recognized Bangladesh on Feb. 10, 1972, becoming the first OECD member-state to recognize the newly independent state. Since then, Tokyo has emerged as the largest source of Official Development Assistance (ODA) for Dhaka, and it has provided, or committed to provide, the latter with more than $30.32 billion in the form of grants, loans and technical assistance. The Japanese–Bangladeshi bilateral trade currently amounts to more than $4.124 billion, and the balance of payments is in Japan’s favor. In dealing with Bangladesh, the Japanese have primarily focused on the economic sphere, and mostly refrained from interfering in the internal political processes in the country. As a result, irrespective of the party in power, Dhaka has maintained a close partnership with Tokyo over the decades, and Japan has managed to cultivate the image of ‘all-weather friend’ in the country.

Initially, Japanese interest in Bangladesh primarily emanated from Japanese search for markets and investments as well as Japan’s desire to expand its influence in South and Southeast Asia. As a result of the intensifying Sino–Japanese strategic competition, limiting Chinese influence in Bangladesh became another key Japanese objective in the country. So, Tokyo and Beijing are currently engaged in a discreet competition with each other in Bangladesh. Consequently, Japan’s stakes in Bangladesh are expanding. Meanwhile, Bangladesh is interested in maintaining its close partnership with Japan to further its socio-economic development, for which it requires Japanese foreign direct investment (FDI), infrastructure development assistance, high-tech industrial equipment, and other industrial goods. Moreover, Bangladesh needs to maintain its strategic autonomy vis-à-vis all great and regional powers, and since Japan is one of those powers, Dhaka values its partnership with Tokyo. Accordingly, Dhaka and Tokyo have expanded the horizons of their partnership over the previous decade.

The Growth of Japanese–Bangladeshi Politico-Strategic Ties 

Traditionally, Japan’s involvement in Bangladesh has been concentrated in the economic and cultural sectors. However, Tokyo is currently seeking to forge strong political and strategic ties with Dhaka through a number of ways.

First, Japan is heavily involved in the socio-economic development in Bangladesh. At present, approximately 350 Japanese companies are operating in Bangladesh, with a combined investment of about $380 million. The Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) has so far financed the construction of 134 bridges in Bangladesh. Japan has also constructed hospitals, colleges, training institutes, and even retirement homes in the country. At present, Japan is involved in a number of major infrastructure projects in Bangladesh, including the Dhaka Metro Rail Project, the Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport Terminal expansion project, the Chattogram City Outer Ring Road Project, the Chattogram WASA Karnaphuli Water Supply Project, the National Power Transmission Network Development Project, and the Natural Gas Efficiency Project.

Moreover, Japan is constructing the Matarbari deep-sea port and the Matarbari coal-fired power plant. Modelled on the Japanese deep-sea ports of Kashima and Niigata, the Matarbari port is the first deep-sea port in Bangladesh. It would not only lessen the pressure on the port of Chattogram but also provide a hub for nearby landlocked regions, including Northeast India and the Himalayan states of Nepal and Bhutan. Initially, China had proposed to build a deep-sea port for Bangladesh at the Sonadia Island, but the project was scrapped after facing opposition from India, Japan and the United States (US). Instead, Japan received the contract to construct a deep-sea port at Matarbari, obtaining a geopolitical and geo-economic success vis-à-vis China. Thus, Japan has developed significant political and economic stakes in Bangladesh, and has become an important component of Bangladesh’s economic and energy security.

Second, Dhaka and Tokyo forged a ‘comprehensive partnership’ on 26 May 2014. Under this undertaking, the two states initiated a bilateral dialogue at the Foreign Secretary level, accelerated the construction of the Bangladesh Peacebuilding Centre in Dhaka with Japanese assistance, announced the launch of the Joint Bangladesh–Japan Public–Private Economic Dialogue, and committed themselves to the further expansion of Japanese–Bangladeshi political, economic, and cultural ties. On 26 April 2023, the two countries upgraded their ties to the level of ‘strategic partnership’. Among other things, Dhaka decided to open a Defense Wing in the Bangladeshi Embassy in Tokyo under this agreement, and in its turn, Tokyo decided to open a National Security Wing in the Japanese Embassy in Dhaka. Moreover, Bangladesh stated its support for a free, open, peaceful, and secure Indo-Pacific, while Japan expressed its support for the safe, voluntary, and dignified repatriation of the Rohingya refugees.

Last but not the least, for the first time in the history of Japanese–Bangladeshi ties, Japan has decided to provide Bangladesh with Official Security Assistance (OSA), and it is poised to supply Bangladesh with four patrol boats worth $3.82 million under this framework. Bangladesh is one of the very few countries which has been selected for receiving Japanese OSA, and it demonstrates Bangladesh’s growing importance to Japan. In addition, the Bangladesh Armed Forces and the Japan Self-Defense Forces are developing bilateral security cooperation by arranging for high-level visits, unit-to-unit exchanges, training programs and goodwill exercises. Moreover, vessels of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) have recently started making frequent port calls at Chattogram, the main seaport of Bangladesh.

Thus, Japan is steadily expanding its politico-strategic footprints in Bangladesh through increasing its stakes in the latter’s traditional as well as non-traditional security sectors.

Strategic Implications

The growing expansion of the Japanese–Bangladeshi ties signify the increasing Japanese political, economic, and strategic stakes in Bangladesh. Owing to the intensification of the geopolitical competition in the Indo-Pacific region and the Sino–Japanese strategic rivalry, Japan is seeking to expand its influence in Bangladesh and the broader Bay of Bengal region by undertaking strategically significant projects such as the Matarbari deep-sea port, increasing military-political ties with Dhaka and extending military aid to the country. Accordingly, it has emerged as an important strategic partner for Dhaka. 

Meanwhile, Bangladesh is focused on the preservation of its strategic autonomy, the acceleration of its socio-economic development and the modernization of its armed forces. Japan’s growing interest in Bangladesh has the potential to assist the latter in realizing its national goals. However, the expansion of the Japanese–Bangladeshi politico-strategic ties can have potential negative geopolitical repercussions for Bangladesh as well, particularly vis-à-vis China. Hence, Dhaka should carefully manage its ties with Tokyo to shield itself from any negative fallouts while maximizing its politico-economic gains from the partnership.

[Photo by Prime Minister’s Office, Japan]

Md. Himel Rahman is a post-graduate student of Security Studies at the Department of International Relations, University of Dhaka, Bangladesh, and a freelance analyst on international and strategic affairs. His articles have been published in a number of outlets, including the South Asian Voices, the Geopolitics, the Eurasia Review, the Daily Star and the Daily Observer. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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