ALTHOUGH Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was invited to New Delhi on May 26 for the swearing-in ceremony of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, she left for Japan on May 25 for a four day visit (in response to an earlier invitation by her Japanese counterpart) to consolidate bilateral relations.
This demonstrates how much importance she attached to her visit to Japan to implement “Look East policy” of Bangladesh at a time when economic weight together with strategic power is shifting to the East during the “Asian century.”
This is Sheikh Hasina's first visit to a foreign country after the Awami League government took office through the January 5 elections. She last visited Japan in 2010, while the last visit of a Japanese prime minister to Bangladesh was in 2000.
Japan has extended support to Bangladesh's effort for economic and social development since our independence. Japan's assistance is classified into three types: grant aid, technical cooperation and loan aid. Given the fact that Bangladesh is a Least Developed Country (LCD), Japanese aid basically consists of grant aid and technical cooperation.
The total grants and aid reached $11 billion last year. Japan has already promised a loan of $1.18 billion in the next fiscal for five projects, mostly in the energy and city development sectors.
Japan's history of rivalry and conflict with China is well known. The country once prided itself as the second largest economy of the world but China has overtaken Japan, putting it into third place. Japan's Prime Minister Abe, who came to power in December 2012, is deeply committed to at least match economic growth in his country with that of China.
In that context, Japan has been investing heavily in Asian countries. For example, at least 35 Japanese investment projects are underway in Myanmar, the biggest being plans to develop the 2,400-hectare (5,900-acre) Thilawa Special Economic Zone near Yangon. In India, Japan has been building the Delhi-Mumbai industrial corridor, which will have several supporting infrastructure projects such as power facilities and rail connectivity to nearby ports, and will cover development of ports on the west coast of India.
Japan initially expressed its reservation along with US and European Union over Bangladesh's non-inclusive January 5 parliamentary elections, which returned Prime Minister Hasina to power for the third time.
The question is why did Japan change its strategy towards Bangladesh, necessitating the visit of Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida to the country on March 21-23? It might be that Japanese interests took higher priority over reservation on the parliamentary elections in Bangladesh.
One important fact that appears to effect Japanese policy toward Bangladesh is that both Bangladesh and Japan are set to contest for a non-permanent seat of UN Security Council from the Asia Pacific group for the 2015-16 term. The election will be held in October 2014 during the 69th session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York
Both countries are keen to contest the election of the UN Security Council from the same regional geographical group and have been lobbying hard for some time, although Japan was elected in 2008 to a seat at the UN Security Council for 2009-2010,
It is also recalled that Bangladesh secured a seat in the Security Council in 1978 defeating Japan, which was an extraordinary diplomatic triumph for Bangladesh within 4 years of its admission to the UN as a member. Against this background, Japan obviously does not want Bangladesh to contest from this group.
There is speculation that Japan might request Bangladesh not to contest the Security Council election. In return, it might offer to invest heavily in Bangladesh. If Bangladesh decides not contest the election, it would be a very prudent and pragmatic diplomatic step because it will gain two objectives: first Japan would cooperate with this current Bangladesh government all the way, and second, Japan could offer to provide loan of billion dollars to Bangladesh. It would be a win-win situation for both nations.
Bangladesh government reportedly needs $14.9 billion for implementing half a dozen development projects in the country, and it may ask for a loan of the same amount. The projects reportedly include railway-bridge over the Jamuna, Padma rail link at Dhaka-Jajira-Bhanga-Narail-Jessore, construction of inland container depot at Dhirasram, and building of Dhaka east-west elevated expressway and Ganges Barrage.
Although Security Council seats are highly coveted because they give countries a high profile in matters dealing with critical political issues impacting on international peace and security, there are some disadvantages as Bangladesh could be placed in an uncomfortable situation when rival big powers seek support from it at the Security Council and a decision at the Council could annoy a big power, which may be detrimental to Bangladesh's national interest in the long run.
The writer is a former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva.