Deepening relations between Japan and Bangladesh are in the interest of India and the US to strengthen the Quad.
As the great power competition intensifies, middle countries in the Indo-Pacific region are increasingly drawing attention from both China and the United States. Despite intensifying superpower competition, the region is of great strategic and economic importance, demonstrating remarkable economic growth and a higher participation in global value chains, while maintaining a relatively neutral position on global affairs.
Bangladesh, which is situated on the resource-rich and strategic Bay of Bengal, is particularly attractive. It is crucial for the US policy of a free and open Indo-Pacific; it is considered as an immediate area of influence by India; it is important for China’s reach to the Global South and competition with India; and has been a priority for Japan’s development programs for many years. Besides the geostrategic importance of Bangladesh and the Bay of Bengal, these powers also recognise the economic potential of Bangladesh, which is in turn working to balance between these powers.
According tothe World Bank, Bangladesh was one of the few countries in Asia to keep growing despite the Covid-19 pandemic, as its GDP growth rate was 3.4% in 2020, 6.9% in 2021 and 7.2% in 2022. Moreover,Bangladesh is on course to become a developing country by 2026, and envisions becoming anupper-middle-income country by 2031 and a high-income one by 2041. With a population of about 165 million people and a GDP of $460 billion (2022), Bangladesh is ranked 35th largest economy in the world, moving up from 41st place. Although remarkable, GDP growth rates do not tell the whole story of Bangladesh’s rise. In light of the increasing competition over Bangladesh and mounting pressure on the South Asian country to choose sides, Bangladesh chose to remain neutral and leverage the geostrategic developments to its advantage.
China or Japan?
Since Xi Jinpingvisited Dhaka in 2016, China has increased its investments in Bangladesh and has engaged in several key infrastructure projects—the modernisation of Bangladesh’s second-largest port of Mongla, Karnaphuli tunnel in Chattogram and the “BNS Sheikh Hasina” submarine base located in Pekua, to name a few.The Chinese ambassador to Bangladesh said that China wants to take economic relations and cooperation to new heights. Nonetheless, contrary to some perceptions, Bangladesh is far from being dependent on China. Chinese loans account for only 8% of Bangladesh’s external debt.
The leading contributor to Bangladesh’s development is Japan. Recently, Japan concluded its funding deal to develop the first deep-sea port in Bangladesh. When operational,Matarbari port will become a connecting hub between East Asia, South Asia and the Middle East, and could offer an alternative to the Chinese-controlled port of Hambantota in Sri Lanka. Moreover, in a recentvisit of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to Japan and meeting with her counterpart, Kishida, the two countries elevated their relationship to a “strategic partnership”, reflecting the deep cooperation between the countries in many areas—ICT, cyber security, defence, agriculture and more. In addition, Japan assured Bangladesh it will provide another financial support for its development.
The deepening relations between Japan and Bangladesh are also in the interest of India and the United States as part of the strengthening “Quad” alignment. External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar who visited Dhaka this month, said that the relationship with Bangladesh is so broad, and comfort level is so high, that there is no domain today that is left untouched, calling it a 360-degree partnership. Indeed, the neighboring countries worked on several development projects such as the Maitree Thermal Power and increased their totalbilateral trade to reach almost $20 billion. This is what motivated both countries tomove all transactions between them from US dollars to rupee and taka and save millions of dollars lost on exchange rates.
While India is considered to be a close ally of Bangladesh, relations with the US are more complex. The US acknowledges the importance of Bangladesh for its strategy in Asia but criticises what is seen in Washington’s eyes as the backsliding of democracy in the country. Thus, President Joe Biden did not meet PM Hasina on her visit to the US. Yet, following several other high-level meetings, there are positive signs for embracing a more pragmatic approach by the US. On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the US-Bangladesh diplomatic relations,US officials in Washington hailed the development of Bangladesh, reiterating the need to expand bilateral trade and tech cooperation.
As the great power competition escalates, and countries are expected to choose sides between the so-called democratic and autocratic camps, PM Sheikh Hasina’s balancing policy has proven itself fruitful in engagement with rival powers. Building on its multifaceted foreign policy, now is the time for Bangladesh to continue its progress by transforming into a sustainable regional economic player with an enabling environment for innovation and attracting investments from these powers rather than financial aid.
Ekampreet Kaur has worked as a Junior Project Officer for the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and hosted shows on strategic affairs for The Honest Critique.
Ratnadeep Chakraborty is the co-founder of an independent media company that covers the spheres of strategic affairs called The Honest Critique. He is also the host of the podcast series, Line of Truth.