Sunday, February 12, 2012

Japan-Bangladesh relations at 40: Are relations waning?

Daily Sun
February 12, 2012
M. Serajul Islam

This February is a momentous landmark in Bangladesh-Japan relations. It marks the 40th year of establishment of relations between the two countries. It was on February 10, 1972 that Bangladesh and Japan established diplomatic ties. Like many countries, in fact all, Japan could not recognize Bangladesh during the war of liberation. However, it did not waste time to recognize Bangladesh soon after it was liberated on 16 December, 1971 becoming one of the earlier countries to do so.

Japan did not waste much time in supporting a newly independent country whose war of liberation its government could not support but whose spirit to fight that war was acknowledged and supported by its people. The story of Japanese school children skipping school tiffin and contributing that money saved towards the welfare of 10 million refugees who were forced to seek shelter in India was a great source of strength to us in those dark days of 1971.

By the time Japan recognized us and established diplomatic ties, it had emerged as a world economic power. It used that power to provide Bangladesh development aid to reconstruct a war ravaged country. Japan those days had placed Bangladesh on top of the list of countries to which it was providing development assistance. Japan has not looked back and till today, Japan is Bangladesh’s biggest development partner, ahead of the United States and Great Britain.
The excellence of Japan-Bangladesh relations owes a great deal to politicians such as Mr. Takashi Hayakawa. As a Member of Parliament and later as a Special Envoy of the Japanese Prime Minister to Bangladesh, he played a major role in the development of Bangladesh-Japan relations. He became a personal friend of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. He loved Bangladesh so much that according to his wishes, part of his ashes has been brought to Bangladesh where it still remains after his body was cremated in Tokyo.

The handling of the Japanese airlines hijacking in 1977 also earned for Bangladesh a permanent place in the hearts of the people of Japan. In that incident, the Bangladesh Government helped resolve the hijacking at great risks to itself where all passengers and the JAL aircraft came out safe. Although Bangladesh’s decision to contest a UN Security Council seat against Japan that it won created a few hiccups; it did not affect bilateral relations due to high degree of professionalism in Japanese way of conducting foreign relations. The strong foundations of bilateral relations built in the 1970s strengthened over the following decades where economic relations have provided essence to the relations.

Unlike many of our development partners, Japan has been selective in providing its development assistance. It has gone to the sectors that are crucial for our economic development. Japanese aid which is almost half and half in aid and grants has concentrated on such crucial areas as development of economic infrastructure and human resources development; poverty alleviation programmes; good governance, etc. Japan also coordinates its aid strategy in Bangladesh with our other development partners to give the country the maximum benefit.

Thus we see many of our major economic infrastructures such as the Jamuna Bridge and other major bridges built with Japanese assistance. Today, there are many thousands of Bangladeshis working both in the government and private sectors who have been trained in their nature of work in Japan with Japanese assistance and contributing effectively to our economic development.

Japan’s JICA had agreed to be a major donor in the proposed Padma Bridge together with the World Bank and the IDB. Japan decided to stop the funding after the WB raised allegations of corruption related to the project. JICA has also deferred funding the elevated expressway project in Dhaka after the project ran into internal problem between the authorities and the Bangladesh Air Force over re-routing. While these problems may have e explanations, nevertheless there is reason to feel that Japan-Bangladesh relations have stagnated of late where the excellent relations of the 1970s 1980s and the 1990s seem to be waning.

One reason of course has been the change in the dynamics of international politics since the end of the Cold War. In this period, Bangladesh’s role in international politics has receded. In South Asia, India has emerged from a developing country in the 1970s to a world economic power that has encouraged Japan to enter into a strategic partnership with it that in turn has pushed Bangladesh slightly into the edge in terms of Japan’s priorities in South Asia. It has been nearly 12 years since a Japanese Prime Minister has visited Bangladesh.

Bangladesh has also contributed its own share to a visible stagnation of bilateral relations. Japanese aid does not have many of the strings that aid we receive from our other development partner have. Nevertheless, the Japanese are very finicky about the rules related to their aid most of which is eventually made into grants. Even a question being raised related to corruption about any project under Japanese aid is a very serious matter to the Japanese because the absolute transparency that Japanese law demands on issue of Japanese ODA. Equally, changing project requirements once aid is in flow and failing on deadlines are equally unacceptable to rules related to Japanese ODA. On both Padma Bridge and the elevate expressway project, Bangladesh may have irked the Japanese.

Bangladesh may also have irked Japan by the way it is handling diplomatic relations with it under the present government. The Embassy in Japan has been without an Ambassador for a very long time now. The last Ambassador was withdrawn under unpleasant circumstances where the Government dragged taking action for months instead of recalling the Ambassador home on some pretext and then terminating his tour of duty. To top it all, the Ambassador was a junior Joint Secretary when he was sent to the post that must have caused eyebrows to be raised in the Japanese Foreign Ministry.

Thus as the two countries complete 40 years of diplomatic relations, there seems to be less enthusiasm to celebrate this important landmark. I was ambassador in Tokyo when we celebrated the 30th anniversary and there were many important events that were held throughout the year. In the 40th year, so far, neither from the Japanese Embassy website nor Bangladesh Government sources are there information about celebrations in the offing to mark this important landmark.
Japan nevertheless should be the most important country to conduct our diplomacy for furthering our economic and commercial interests. Unfortunately, we have largely failed to attract the vast potentials of Japanese FDI. For a long time, Japan has been eyeing Bangladesh as a potential investment destination under the China plus one concept where Japanese investors, wary of their humungous investments in China for political reasons, would like to relocate those investments elsewhere in phases. With Bangladesh making serious moves on regional connectivity, the country could provide added attractions to Japanese investors. With well thought out strategy, Bangladesh could benefit from Japanese investment the same way as Malaysia, China, and Vietnam and transform the economy dramatically.

However, attracting Japanese investment would require more than slogans as this Government is doing and previous ones have done. Bangladesh would need to encourage Japanese investors aggressively, adjust its investment laws to suit their needs and provide Japanese investors exclusive economic zones together with uninterrupted energy supply. The prospects of commerce are also equally bright but so far Bangladesh has not even scratched those potentials. Products such as our RMG, pharmaceuticals, etc would need patience and aggressive marketing to enter Japanese market that our government or our private sectors have not shown or done so far.

The Japanese Government has sent a new ambassador Mr. Shiro Sadoshima who is a senior diplomat with background in dealing with Japan’s aid and assistance to foreign countries. His appointment hints at Japan Government’s continuing interest in strengthening economic and commercial relations with Bangladesh. It is the Bangladesh Government and its private sectors that must match Japanese interest and give Japan the importance that it deserves to help Bangladesh realize the vast potentials of relations with Japan. There is literally a gold mine to be discovered in developing economic relations with Japan to its true potentials but for that we would need diplomacy and marketing strategy of much higher standard than what we have shown so far where on diplomacy, we have shown very poor vision.

The writer is a retired career diplomat and former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt

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