Bangladesh-Japan Strategic Partnership Through the Lens of Geopolitics

The most talked-about diplomatic developments recently have been the new bilateral ties that Bangladesh and Japan formed on April 26, 2023, in Tokyo, Japan’s capital. The already-existing relations between the two nations reached a new level when both countries signed a memorandum of understanding and released a joint statement. Needless to say, the two countries’ relations have remained friendly ever since diplomatic ties were established in 1972.

Japan has consistently supplied loans and grants to Bangladesh as a development partner. It has been supplying financial and technical support for Bangladesh’s infrastructure development, including the construction of highways, airports, and seaports. Several significant infrastructure projects, including the third terminal of Dhaka Airport, the Matarbari Deep Sea Port, and an Araihazar special economic zone, are being constructed by Japan. In the fiscal year 2021–2022, two-way bilateral trade exceeded $4 billion for the first time.

On April 26, both nations referred to the new cooperation as a “strategic partnership,” despite the fact that they had previously referred to it as a “comprehensive partnership.” The MoU signed by the leaders of the two countries is based on Japan’s long-standing, dependable, and trustworthy relationship with Bangladesh. According to the statement, the two countries will work together through partnership and mutual cooperation in the areas of innovation, research, human resource development, the digital economy, digital literacy, cyber security, information sharing, fourth industrial revolution technology, etc. However, the term ‘strategic’ used to characterize the relationship has sparked curiosity in diplomatic circles and even among the general public.

Clearly, China’s rise to superpower status, the Russia-Ukraine conflict, and the geopolitical unrest in the Indo-Pacific region have all contributed to the current global polarization. Bangladesh and Japan have nonetheless established a strategic alliance despite their unequal economic, technological, and military capabilities. Through this approach, Bangladesh effectively joined the US and European power rings, counterbalancing the rings led by China.

Two decades ago, none of these countries had the diplomatic and military basis to forge military relations. Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founding father of Bangladesh, declared that “friendship with all, malice towards none” is the cornerstone of Bangladesh’s foreign policy. Moreover, Bangladesh lacked the military and economic power necessary to forge a strategic partnership.

On the other hand, Japan’s ability to form strategic relationships with other countries was constrained by constitutional restrictions. Japan had no right to go to war according to the constitution made under the control of the United States in 1947. But in July 1994, Japan changed its constitution in response to China’s hegemonic actions in the China Sea. This amendment restored Japan’s ability to declare war or form strategic partnerships with other countries. The question of regaining rights stems not only from constitutional reform but also from the US giving Japan the chance to forge a powerful ally against China.

Anyway, Japan has now begun focusing on increasing its military prowess. In recent years, Japan has prioritized military preparation, the production and sale of weapons, and military cooperation with other countries. The country is embarking on high-tech plans to increase its combat capabilities in water, land, and space.

To demonstrate the nature of the strategic cooperation, let’s examine the Memorandum of Understanding and Joint Declaration signed by the two countries. There are 30 points in the joint statement between Japan and Bangladesh on strategic partnership, which is divided into three sections: 1) Part I: Mutual cooperation to maintain regional peace and stability: 1–12 points; 2) Part II: Economic cooperation for mutual benefit and regional prosperity: 13–25 points; 3) Cultural cooperation and mutual exchange between the people of the two countries: 26–30 points. 

Although the joint declaration is referred to as a whole as a document of strategic partnership, its first 10 clauses primarily address the strategic cooperation between Bangladesh and Japan. The topics of economic and cultural relationships have also received particular attention in the second and third phases, respectively. This strategic partnership’s terms contain some provisions relating to both Bangladeshi and Japanese national interest issues.

Japan has adopted a strategic stance under the umbrella of the Quad, which includes its allies the United States, Australia, and India, in order to counter China’s assertive actions in the China Sea. The country has joined with the US in strongly condemning Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. In the joint declaration, Japan clarified its opposition to China and Russia and asserted that the Indo-Pacific and European areas’ security are intertwined and that maintaining their security is necessary to maintain the current global order.

It is noteworthy that Western powers, including Japan, consider Russia and China threats to the security of Europe and the Indo-Pacific region, respectively. By supporting Japan’s anti-Sino-Russian foreign and military policy, Bangladesh has effectively secured Japan’s military and economic security pledge.

By supporting Japan’s global foreign policy and diplomacy, Bangladesh has secured a promise to support the Rohingya policy from Japan and push Myanmar to repatriate the Rohingya in accordance with the five-point consensus declared by ASEAN. In addition, Bangladesh indirectly sought moral support from Japan against potential (or covert) aggressive activities by any parties in the Bay of Bengal, a sea area included in the Indo-Pacific region. Japan adopted an independent and free Indo-Pacific policy in the maritime domain, under which Bangladesh got Japan’s moral support in protecting its sovereignty in the Bay of Bengal.

Bangladesh has also received assurances of extensive cooperation in economic and technological development. Japan believes that since Bangladesh is located at the crossroads of South Asia and Southeast Asia, the development of the country’s communication infrastructure, increased industrial production, and improved supply chain will result in the growth of the region’s economy, which will contribute to the stability of the Indo-Pacific region.

Japan’s current position in relation to Bangladesh is specifically a result of the Big B policy that was agreed upon between the two nations ten years ago. It should be noted that in May 2014, Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina and Japanese PM Shinzo Abe agreed to implement the Big-B policy, under which Japan has pledged to cooperate in creating an industrial value chain and a resilient supply chain in Bangladesh.

The joint declaration touches on a significant aspect for China. In this statement, the two Prime Ministers expressed confidence in the development of military ties, citing the frequent arrival of Japanese Maritime Defense Force warships at Chittagong Port and the exchange of high-ranking military officials between the two countries. Bangladesh has decided to establish a defense wing in Tokyo, and Japan has decided to establish a national security wing (Kokka Anzen Hosho Wing) in Dhaka.

It has been suggested that the proposed military institutions will boost defense dialogue and, hence, increase military cooperation. The development of Bangladesh’s military infrastructure, the expansion of its arsenal, and the increase in military capabilities through the transfer of technology will all have been made possible by this military cooperation. Clause 4 of the MoU elaborates on the subject further by stating that collaboration and other defense-related activities will be strengthened as a result of this MoU, including defense dialogue, exchange of visits, education, training, courses, seminars, and workshops.

This analysis of the joint statement makes one thing very clear: Bangladesh and Japan have progressively built a military partnership while making concessions in terms of technology, culture, and economy. Bangladesh’s strategic dependence on other major powers will be reduced if this far-reaching strategic policy is successful. On the other hand, Japan will find a trustworthy regional ally to support its foreign policy objectives in the region.

[Photo by Prime Minister’s Office, Japan]

Dr. Sabera Chowdhury is a Senior Researcher at South Asian Studies, University of Toronto, Canada. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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