The Platform

Photo illustration by John Lyman

Partly driven by China and also by necessity, Bangladesh and Japan are working more closely together.

In April, Bangladesh and Japan signed a strategic partnership agreement during Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s visit to Tokyo. Japan now becomes the country’s second strategic partner in Asia after China. The agreement is likely to bring significant benefits to both countries.

The agreement is divided into several parts. In the beginning, the agreement acknowledges the over five decades of diplomatic relations between the two countries since Bangladesh’s founding.

Through the agreement, Bangladesh reaffirmed its commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific based on the rule of law, freedom of movement, and sovereignty. In other words, Bangladesh has confirmed that its future lies with Western liberalism and not with the authoritarianism being embraced by China, India, and other Asian countries. However, China may not view Bangladesh’s embrace of liberalism positively as these values are Western concepts intended to keep Chinese power in check.

Japan on the other hand also recognized Bangladesh’s geostrategic significance and acknowledged that helping Bangladesh modernize its economy will increase regional connectivity and contribute to the development of both Bangladesh and the region. They also stressed the importance of adhering to international rules and standards such as debt sustainability and transparency.

Such wording suggests that perhaps to balance against Chinese largesse in Bangladesh, Japan, and other developed economies, may need to increase investments in the country. In 2022, the G7 launched a global development finance scheme worth $600 billion. Bangladesh may likely be a recipient of some of this financing.

In the area of military cooperation, Japan is willing to transfer defense equipment and technology to Bangladesh. Such defense cooperation will strengthen Japan’s strategic hold over South Asia and at the same time allow Bangladesh to diversify and modernize its military. This will likely decrease China’s arms trade with Bangladesh as China is currently the largest provider of arms to the country.

On maritime issues, both countries reiterated their commitment to the Law of the Sea Convention. They also expressed that a unilateral attempt to change the status quo is unacceptable. Such wording in the context of China reflects that Bangladesh is aligning with Western countries on the question of the status quo. It also implies that even though Bangladesh will remain neutral, it will not support any attempt to change the status quo in the region.

Moreover, Bangladesh has joined much of the rest of the Western world and condemned North Korea’s nuclear program. Such a position is a bit unusual for Bangladesh because the country has traditionally avoided wading into such thorny issues.

Both countries also agreed to work on resolving the crisis in Myanmar, and more importantly, the Rohingya issue. However, Japan’s reference to Rohingya refugees as “forcibly displaced persons of Rakhine State” was a diplomatic failure for Bangladesh.

The two countries are also committed to creating an industrial value chain in Bangladesh and to developing integrated infrastructure, especially in southern Bangladesh. Japan is already building the country’s first deepwater port in Matarbari to be followed by a number of other Japanese infrastructure projects. Ultimately, Japanese infrastructure projects will undercut China’s hold over the country.

Both countries also acknowledged “the need for intensified global efforts to combat climate change.” As a climate-vulnerable country, Bangladesh has a special focus on combatting climate change. However, it requires global partners and, more importantly, international financing.

Both countries also agreed to open each other’s labour markets to foreign workers. This will likely result in more skilled workers migrating to Japan.

Another development to come from the agreement is that there will be an effort to promote the Japanese language and culture in Bangladesh. As a result, Japan announced its intention to increase its support of Japanese language programs at the University of Dhaka.

The United States and Europe have traditionally viewed Bangladesh as a country more inclined to side with China and its values. As the U.S. and China share opposing interests, Bangladesh needed to strike a balance and the agreement reached in Japan does just that. Ultimately, Bangladesh is trying to strike a balance between China and the West and it appears to be doing a masterful job.

Aziz Patwary is a British-Bangladeshi citizen and former employee of the World Bank. He often contributes on contemporary issues related to Bangladesh and South Asia.