Was Abe's Dhaka visit a strategic game changer?
In a few hours Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan leaves our shores to fly to his next destination, Sri Lanka. In the past twenty hours in Dhaka, he covered a lot of ground to talk and listen to the economic and commercial requirements of Bangladesh. In the end Abe has signed agreements that should keep his counterpart, our PM Sheikh Hasina, as well as the people of Bangladesh happy for the next two years at least. Also investment in Bangladesh will allow Japan to find a low cost destination for its investments abroad and free it from the investments she has been making in China which is becoming more expensive. Bangladesh is appreciative of Japan's gesture, not only for investments by Japanese private sector, but also the Japanese government, in Bangladesh's infrastructure. Japan is surely going to help us to create a true industrial base.
But the visit of Abe to Dhaka after only a few months of Sheikh Hasina's visit to Tokyo is quite interesting. Is there something more that analysts are reading into this visit? What is really happening in the politico strategic sphere that has perhaps prompted Abe to make the quick return trip to Dhaka? Of course, there was the question of the non permanent seat in the UN Security Council for which Japan and Bangladesh were the two candidates from Asia. And Sheikh Hasina gave Abe the good news.
Let us be quite clear. Japan is quite at unease with China and its emerging economic and military strength. Not only is China flexing its muscles over its claim over certain islands close to Japan but Japan is also seeing how the security environment is fast changing in the South China Sea.
Recently, Indian PM Narendra Modi went on a lightening trip to Tokyo and deepened ties with Japan if in case India has to confront China at any time. Abe, according to the Japanese press, 'is following up in his South Asian overdrive to place Japan in Bangladesh –' one of the world's promising emerging markets and investment destinations'. It is aiming to deepen its relationship with Dhaka ahead of China. It wants to expand 'comprehensive partnership' with Dhaka which he signed when Sheikh Hasina was in Tokyo. The visit of Abe to Dhaka is to cement those ties in more concrete form through trade and investments as well as building industrial infrastructure.
But let us go back a little in time and try to understand why the sudden move by Japan to grab the strategic space. It all began when President Obama a few years back called for a gradual withdrawal of its military assets from the Middle East and move them towards Asia. Obama felt that that there are vital interests at stake in Asia, especially China's emerging clash of interests with her neighbours like Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, Philippines and even India. He thought that gradually a coalition of the willing with Japan, Australia and India as well as a few others could straddle Asia and keep China at bay. The US could conveniently stay in the background with its military assets to give these countries the backing they need.
However, in 2013 an important meeting was held of the entire Standing Committee of the Politburo in Beijing where a new policy for relations with its neighbors was formulated. All seven members of the Chinese politburo were present and attended the two day meeting. It approved major changes in China's diplomatic strategy and for the first time, reportedly, characterised China's neighbours as 'friends' and 'enemies'. It decided to forge regional, sub-regional and bilateral 'cooperative' security relationships. Elements of the policy focusing on South Asia were put in place by Chinese leaders. This re-evaluation by China of its relationship with her neighbours has now come to be known as 'peripheral diplomacy'. It meant 'consolidation of friendly relations with neighbours and to make the best use of current strategic opportunities'.
Regional economic cooperation, establishment of a 'silk road economic belt', a 'maritime silk road for the 21st century and an economic corridor through India, Myanmar and Bangladesh (BCIM), were listed as the key objectives. In the past two decades China opted for a neutral stance to avoid conflict and never oppose the US. The new 'peripheral diplomacy' advocates engaging with neighbouring countries so as to align their interests with China's rise. Thus those neighbours of China, who are willing to play a constructive role in China's rise, will find that China would come forward to ensure that greater benefits and gains will flow from China's development. China of course cautioned that those neighbours who will remain hostile to China or oppose it will face sustained periods of sanctions and isolation.
China has realised that the US 'pivot to Asia' has disturbed China's strategy in Asia. China regrets especially Japan PM Abe's visit to Yasukuni shrine and accused him of continuously 'irritating its neighbors' by attempting to downplay its 'fascist' history and revise its pacifist constitution to make overseas deployment of soldiers possible.
It is in juxtaposition to the new Chinese foreign policy towards her neighbours that has urgently pushed the Japanese PM, among other reasons, to make overtures to countries like Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.
The critical test of our diplomacy is to see whether we can keep both our powerful Asian neighbours, China and Japan, equally content. Also how our other giant neighbour India will view this tripwire diplomacy by Bangladesh. Of course we have certain geostrategic advantages which we have to selectively and deftly play with to keep hostilities away. But for the moment let us work with whichever big neighbour comes our way and hold our hands and help us prosper. So PM Abe's Dhaka visit cannot be assessed as a strategic game changer for Japan. It has to wait a bit longer to understand the complex ways in which our diplomacy moves.
The writer is a former Ambassador and a commentator on current affairs. E-Mail : [email protected]