Japan's Big-B initiative aligns with Bangladesh's blue economy vision

As traditional geopolitics transforms, with the Gulf regaining centrality in the larger Indo-Pacific arena, India, Japan, and Southeast Asia see their strategic perspectives increasingly converge. The Big-B plan has significant implications for India, Bangladesh's Look East policy, and Thailand's Look West policy.

Abu Sufian Jan 03, 2024
Representational Photo

The blue economy is centred on ocean resources. The economics of harnessing the enormous seas and the diverse riches that lie under their surface. That is, if any maritime resource contributes to the country's economy, it falls into the blue-economy stage. The blue economy has long been used in wealthy nations. The blue economy has a great contribution to the core economies of the countries. Recently, attempts have been undertaken to incorporate the contribution of the blue economy into the Bangladeshi economy. If Bangladesh's potential is realised, the country's economy will shift dramatically.

Bangladesh's entire marine area is now 1 lakh 18 thousand 813 square kilometres, which is almost equal to the country's land area. After gaining control of the maritime border, this sector has enormous potential for economic growth in Bangladesh. Hilsa is in high demand in many nations throughout the globe, including Bangladesh. Hilsa accounts for 16 per cent of all sea-caught fish in Bangladesh. In addition, the Bay of Bengal has 475 species of fish and 36 kinds of prawns. These prawns are likewise in great demand. Additionally, oil and gas mines are believed to exist inside Bangladesh's territorial waters.

About 13 million Bangladeshis work in fishing, while 6 million work in the salt production and shipbuilding sectors. Around 30 million people in the country rely on the sea for their survival and livelihood. Keeping these issues in mind, the Bangladesh government has already undertaken 26 initiatives toward economic development centred on the sea. These include shipping, coastal shipping, seaports, passenger services by ferry, inland waterways, shipbuilding, ship recycling industry, fisheries, marine aquatic products, marine biotechnology, oil and gas, sea salt production, ocean renewable energy, blue energy, mineral resources (sand, gravel, and others), marine genetic resources, coastal tourism, recreational water sports, yachting and marines, cruise tourism, coastal protection, artificial islands, green coastal belt or delta planning, human resources, maritime safety and surveillance, and marine aggregate spatial planning (MSP).

The ocean provides more than $6 billion to the Bangladesh economy each year and has the potential to create much more cash. The marine area is almost as large as the country's land area and is rich in precious resources. The marine domain includes 26 blocks obtained from India and Myanmar. Those concerned believe that leasing these blocks might yield around 40 trillion cubic feet of gas.

Realising marine economy potential

In 2017, the government established the Blue Economy Cell inside the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources. To fully realise Bangladesh's marine economy's potential, five types of strategies have been adopted. These include completing the multi-dimensional marine resource survey as soon as possible, increasing the number of coastal vessels, modernising and expanding the capacity of seaports, bolstering the activities of both deep- and shallow-water fishing, introducing marine ecotourism and boating, and maintaining clean seashores and seaports.

The current government is giving special attention to developing skilled human resources to exploit the blue-economy opportunities. Recently, the government has established the Bangladesh Oceanographic Research Institute and a Maritime University for marine research and human resource development. Bangladesh has also signed a bilateral agreement with India on the maritime economy. China has offered to sign a MoU. Japan has also expressed investment interest. If additional important resources such as gas, seafood resources, port development, and tourism are extracted as planned, it is expected to generate a huge amount of money per year by 2030.

According to a 2015 report by the Economic Intelligence Unit, in recent years, the governments of various coastal countries and islands around the world have begun to look to the sea as a new front for the economy. The countries are adopting a policy of growth based on the sea economy. Despite the potential, Bangladesh's maritime victory has passed for a long time, but we are lagging due to various reasons.

Experts say that apart from livestock, there is valuable sand, uranium, and thorium in 13 places in the Bay of Bengal. These contain precious metal elements like ilmenite, garnet, zircon, rutile, and magnetite. Moreover, there is a lot of clay suitable for making cement under the sea in Bangladesh. Meanwhile, Article 14 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) mentions the exploration and conservation of marine resources in sustainable development. Therefore, to meet the SDGs by 2030, the importance of extracting marine resources is immense.

Following sea demarcation, 26 new blocks were established, 11 of which are shallow sea blocks and 15 of which are deep sea blocks. After that a long period passed with no sign of development. Contracts for exploration in just four blocks have been signed with foreign businesses, according to the most recent 2019 statistics. However, Bangladesh was unable to drill a single well. The remaining 22 blocks are motionless. The good news is that since 2016, a marine research and survey vessel called the "RV Meen Shandhani" has been conducting surveys of bottom and surface fish, including sea prawns, down to a depth of 200 metres in the ocean. One encouraging development is that Bangladesh and India have previously inked a bilateral agreement on the marine economy. Additionally, China and Japan have also shown a willingness to reach a compromise arrangement.

Japan a long-time ally

The Bangladesh government is also building a deep-sea port known as the Matarbari Deep Sea Port. Additionally, the thermal power plant that China and Bangladesh are jointly developing in the Payra coastal region would present several opportunities. However, the coal issue has already hampered the power plant's output. Despite this, it is projected that the bright economy will open the doors to possibilities within a few years.

For several reasons, Japan, a long-time ally, is ready to lend a helping hand to Bangladesh's blue economy and emerge as a vehicle for collaborative growth. Japan has traditionally maintained positive connections with nations such as Bangladesh, Myanmar, India, and Sri Lanka through cooperation, FDI, loans, and grants. Japan is these nations' major development partner. As a result, Japan's involvement in the area is expected to increase.

Second, the Bay of Bengal Industrial Growth Belt (Big-B) plan is critical to further strengthening Bangladesh-Japan ties. Furthermore, Japan may seek to improve regional connections to spur economic growth. Japan has already committed $200 million to the development of a new cargo port in Yangon, Myanmar. Tokyo also collaborates closely with India, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka.

Third, Japan's Big-B initiative is critical for improving collaboration with the Bay of Bengal's coastline where the position of Bangladesh is crucial. Because of the country's strategic location in the Indo-Pacific area, which includes the Bay of Bengal from the sea to South Asia and Southeast Asia from the land, Japan's plan to connect Big-B, BIMSTEC and ASEAN is expected to strengthen regional ties.

Fourth, non-traditional security challenges such as economics, energy, connectivity, and natural catastrophes are of great significance to coastal nations. The significance of the blue economy in exploiting deep-sea resources, the development of Portland, and increased connectivity in the area necessitate Japan's investment in basic infrastructure such as dependable electricity and communications, as well as an optic fibre across the Gulf. These strategic components of the Bay of Bengal are critical to the littoral nations' mutual prosperity.

As traditional geopolitics transforms, with the Gulf regaining centrality in the larger Indo-Pacific arena, India, Japan, and Southeast Asia see their strategic perspectives increasingly converge. The Big-B plan has significant implications for India, Bangladesh's Look East policy, and Thailand's Look West policy. It is also useful for multilateral forums like BIMSTEC, ASEAN, and MGC. 

(The author is a geopolitical researcher and columnist in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Views are personal. He can be contacted at sufianasif444@gmail.com)

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