Why Japan is edging closer to Bangladesh and India in the region

Viewing Bangladesh and other areas to the south as a single economic zone, Japan will build Bengal-Northeast India industrial value chain concept in cooperation with India and Bangladesh to foster the growth of the entire region.

Fumiko Yamada Apr 16, 2023
Bangladesh-India and Japan

Bangladesh, Japan, and India will hold a meeting in Agartala, Tripura, the Indian state bordering Bangladesh, on 11-12 April to put in place connectivity initiatives to harness the commercial potential of the underexploited region. Japan is investing in northeastern India and Bangladesh, including the deep-sea port at Matarbari, which will connect the landlocked region with the Bay of Bengal.

Asian Confluence, a Shillong-based think tank, recently conducted a study that suggested both Northeast India and Bangladesh need to scale up their multi-modal connectivity, which would not only help the region to raise its competitiveness but also narrow the development gaps in the region.

The study suggested that both entities work in parallel to bring synergy in trade facilitation and build express corridors for the transshipment and transit of goods from the Northeast Region to Chattogram Port. It also suggested the creation of industrial value chains to create a win-win situation for all stakeholders in India and Bangladesh and Japanese companies in the region.

It also suggested establishing the Japan-Northeast India Chamber of Commerce to promote Japanese investment in Northeast India, and a Northeast India India-Bangladesh-Japan CEO Forum that can provide the required business leadership.

Japan's growing role 

Bangladesh is becoming an important country in the Indo-Pacific region. Japan is investing in it in a big way, and Tokyo is involved in many projects in the country, including the Matarbari Port

Japan has also made significant investments in Northeast India. In fact, because of the region's strategic location, Japan is the only country that has been allowed to invest in the region in a big way. Northeast India shares borders with BhutanChinaMyanmar and Bangladesh.

All of these factors played a role in designing one of the signature initiatives of Japanese foreign policy, the "free and open Indo-Pacific" vision. While this was conceived by Shinzo Abe, the late Japanese prime minister who was assassinated, it has been continued by successive administrations since then. 

Although Japan has been one of its closest development partners of Bangladesh since its birth, it has been outsmarted by China in recent times, especially after the launch of Beijing's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which Bangladesh had signed on to.

Viewing Bangladesh and other areas to the south as a single economic zone, Japan will build Bengal-Northeast India industrial value chain concept in cooperation with India and Bangladesh to foster the growth of the entire region.

'Bringing stability to South Asia'

During his visit to New Delhi last month, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said that Japan is working with India to bring stability to the South Asia region. He said Japan has already formed an economic study group with Bangladesh to forge an economic partnership as Bangladesh is graduating from a least developed country to a developing nation.


Kishida said "The waters that connect Japan and the Pacific Island countries have no borders. The Pacific Islands region is exposed to many challenges such as rising sea levels due to climate change, infectious diseases such as COVID-19, and natural disasters such as volcanic eruptions."

Japan will be focusing on the development of Matarbari Port as part of Tokyo's larger infrastructure development efforts in the Bay of Bengal and Northeast India with a focus on "multilayer connectivity".

Japan recently unveiled its new vision for a Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) which includes integrated development of Northeast India and Bangladesh as part of a broader Bay of Bengal community.

Calling India an “indispensable partner”, Kishida listed three important regions—Southeast Asia, South Asia and the Pacific Islands—where multi-layered connectivity could overcome vulnerabilities and boost economic growth.

“The Northeast India, which is surrounded by land, still has unexploited economic potential. Viewing Bangladesh and other areas to the south as a single economic zone, we will promote the Bay of Bengal-Northeast India industrial value chain concept in cooperation with India and Bangladesh to foster the growth of the entire region,” said Kishida

Kishida has said that Japan has already launched a Joint Study Group on the possibility of an Economic Partnership Agreement with Bangladesh.

A Japanese cabinet official had said, while briefing media persons in New Delhi, that landlocked Bhutan could also be included in the broader Bay of Bengal initiative, though the focus right now was on the Northeast India-Bangladesh connect.

India will be the key

Kishida’s vision especially focused on emerging economies and developing countries in the Indo-Pacific region, including the far-flung island territories, vulnerable to climate change and natural disasters in the Pacific.

To fulfill Kishida’s vision of transparent and inclusive development of the region, Tokyo will mobilise USD 75 billion in public and private funds in the Indo-Pacific region by 2030.

With China’s engagement diplomacy as the subtext, the Japanese will focus on fair development finance on building quality infrastructure development, including undersea cables to far-flung island territories.

Kishida cited the critical situation in Sri Lanka and insisted on rules to prevent “opaque and unfair development finance” which are necessary for nations to grow autonomously and sustainably. “It is essential that Sri Lanka’s debt restructuring advances in a fair and transparent manner,” he observed. He also stressed that Tokyo will closely collaborate with India in the South Asian region.

Analysts point out that Japan appears to be exploring deeper engagement with India in South Asia as a first step before a broader engagement with New Delhi can take shape in other geographies, including the Middle East and Africa.

“I believe that Japan and India are in an extremely unique position in the current international relations and, furthermore, in the history of the world,” said Kishida in his address.

Kishida chose India to make the significant announcement as it was here that Japan’s longest-serving Prime Minister, the late Shinzo Abe, delivered his famous ‘The Confluence of Two Seas’ speech in the Indian Parliament in August 2007 and came up with the concept of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ for the first time.

Promising that Japan will “spare no efforts” to cooperate with India for the success of the G20, Kishida said both countries have a great responsibility for maintaining and strengthening “a free and open international order based on the rule of law”.

Now, the moot question is whether it is possible to link up Japan's investments in Bangladesh and Northeast India. Options available for consideration should be reviewed with the question of whether Japanese investments in the two areas are compatible with their current infrastructure. Since Bangladesh and India currently enjoy excellent relations, both countries can involve Japanese help to upgrade their connectivity infrastructure in a way that would benefit the whole region and the three countries.

 (The author, who has a degree in South Asian Studies from the University of Toronto, Canada, currently works as a research associate at the University of Melbourne, Australia. Views are personal)

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