Japan has long aspired to take its close cooperation with Bangladesh towards strategic partnership. An official declaration of this strategic partnership may be made during the Tokyo trip of prime minister Sheikh Hasina in April this year.
Speaking to senior officials of the foreign ministry, it was learnt that both countries are preparing to include the issue of strategic partnership in the joint communiqué during the prime minister’s trip.
With this, after China, Bangladesh will officially take its relations with Japan to a strategic level. In October 2016, during the visit of Chinese president Xi Jinping, the strategic partnership between the Bangladesh and China had been declared.
Prime minister Sheikh Hasina had been scheduled to visit Japan on 29 October last year. The trip was later cancelled due to Japan’s domestic politics and also an increase in the Covid contagion there, according to foreign minister AK Abdul Momen. Prior to that, a high level delegation had visited Bangladesh in October. The delegation had reiterated the issue of strategic partnership at the time.
When asked about the matter, foreign secretary Masud Bin Momen told Prothom Alo that prime minister Sheikh Hasina is scheduled to visit Japan in April this year. Details of the visit will feature importantly during a foreign secretary level meeting on 28 February in Tokyo.
Strategic partnership brings the issue of defence to the fore. During the Bangladesh visit of the Chinese president in 2016 when strategic partnership was established between the two countries, India’s unease was apparent. Immediately after that visit, the Indian defence minister of the time, Manohar Parrikar arrived in Bangladesh with a draft MOU for defence cooperation. The next year, during prime minister Sheikh Hasina’s India trip in 2017, the MOU was signed.
According to Dhaka and Tokyo’s diplomatic sources, since the second half of 2020 Japan has brought forward the issue of increasing defence cooperation with Bangladesh in consideration of the political and strategic importance of the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal region.
Centering on an official declaration of strategic partnership between the two countries, the matter of military hardware procurement will gain further importance in the coming days. Japan wants to sell modern arms and military technology, including radars, to Bangladesh. Two delegations from Japan visited Bangladesh in this connection last year.
Bangladesh has, in the meantime, responded to Japan’s request to open up a defence wing in its Dhaka embassy and recruit officials accordingly, reveal diplomatic sources. However, Bangladesh officials have told this correspondent that Bangladesh remains alert about the developing geopolitical race and polarisation in this region. That is why, after China, Bangladesh is giving consideration to establishing strategic partnership with Japan, a close ally of India and the US.
According to diplomatic sources in Dhaka, Japan has submitted the first draft proposal to establish strategic partnership. Bangladesh has given its feedback. Now Japan is working on finalising the details. In the case of this partnership, importance has been placed on defence, connectivity, cybersecurity, information and communication technology, cooperation between educational institutions and development cooperation.
So far six MOUs have been finalised for signing during prime minister Sheikh Hasina’s Japan trip. These are, metro rail survey, modernisation of ship breaking industry, modernisation of agro-processing, investment-friendly intellectual property rights, partnership in improving industrial standards and integration of the tariff sector.
Including defence, three more MOUs are in the process of being finalised. These may be finalised during the foreign secretary level meeting between the two countries. The deal pertaining to defence cooperation between the two countries includes capacity building of the armed forces through training, training for skill development in peacekeeping and establishing peace, joint exercises and so on. The draft proposal also includes the matter of modern weapon technology transfer from Japan.
During the prime minister’s Japan trip, a declaration may be made for direct flights between Dhaka and Tokyo as well as a declaration of Narayanganj and Naruta as twin cities.
Former foreign secretary Md. Shahidul Haque feels that Bangladesh’s relations with Japan are tried and tested on the basis of development. There had not been any significant cooperation in the defence sector between the two countries. If this cooperation is now to be taken to the strategic level, relations between the two countries will take on added significance.
He further said in recent times Japan has brought about changes to its foreign and defence policies. These policies exert Japan’s importance in the international arena more than ever before in the past. At the same time, by expanding its defence industry, Japan is focussing on arms sales. So as it enters a strategic partnership with Japan, it is to be observed how Bangladesh will continue maintaining a balance with other countries, Shahidul Haque added.
* The report has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir