Bangladesh PM seeks defense cooperation on 4-day visit to Japan

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By Kamran Reza Chowdhury on Apr 25, 2023 Benar News

Bangladesh’s prime minister left on a trip on Tuesday to Japan, the U.S. and the U.K. to build defense cooperation with Tokyo and explore new partnerships with the two major Western powers, officials said.

Diplomatic observers said the visit to Japan was significant as Tokyo looks to expand regional partnerships to counter Beijing’s influence in the Indo-Pacific. Meanwhile, the trip to the U.S., they said, was a chance for Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to demonstrate that all is well between Dhaka and Washington despite an impression to the contrary.

Faruk Khan, chairman of the parliamentary standing committee on foreign affairs, told BenarNews that Japan is the “most trusted development partner of Bangladesh.”

“This visit will open up new opportunities for Bangladesh: Japan for the first time offers Bangladesh cooperation in the defense sector,” he said, without elaborating.

Hasina was supposed to visit Japan in November, but Tokyo canceled at the last moment without giving a reason.

The cancellation came soon after Dhaka summoned the then-Japanese ambassador to Bangladesh over his statement to the media about rigging in the South Asian nation’s 2018 general election. That vote returned Hasina’s Awami League to power for a third consecutive term.

On this four-day trip, Hasina is scheduled to meet with the Japanese Emperor Naruhito and Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on Wednesday.

Officials of the two countries are expected to sign eight agreements or memoranda of understanding. The agreements will be on agriculture; the construction of a metro rail; industrial upgradation; ship recycling; customs issues; intellectual property; defense; and information and communication technology and cyber security.

Hasina’s trip to Japan, which was the architect of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific concept, comes a day after Dhaka for the first time made public its own outlook on the region.

Dhaka, too, “envisions a free, open, peaceful, secure and inclusive Indo-Pacific for the shared prosperity for all,” according to a copy of the outlook document obtained by BenarNews.

Dhaka’s outlook also sees as guiding its strategy all United Nations treaties and international conventions, as they are applicable, including the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

“Our policy is we would not align with any military pact against anyone as our foreign policy is friendship to all, malice to none,” Khan said.

Bangladesh is caught in the middle of a geopolitical battle between China and the U.S. as they vie for supremacy in the Indo-Pacific region, analysts said. And Beijing and Washington are seeking influence in the non-aligned South Asian nation.

But Bangladesh needs both nations for its economic development and has to balance its relationships with them.

US trip

PM Hasina is scheduled to fly to Washington from Japan, arriving in the U.S. on April 29. A day later, she is scheduled to attend an event marking 50 years of the Bangladesh-World Bank partnership. She is to meet executives of the U.S.-Bangladesh Business Council a day later.

Khan said Bangladesh expects the U.S. visit would open new opportunities.

“Bangladesh has earned the confidence of the World Bank and the U.S. by constructing the Padma Bridge without the support of the World Bank,” he said.

“We have proven our capability – that we can implement our projects with our own funding. At the same time, we have achieved more than 5% economic growth when most of the countries of the world grew by 3%,” he said.

Bangladesh’s ties with the World Bank had soured over the funding for the bridge project. The World Bank had agreed to provide U.S. $1.2 billion to build the bridge, but ended the commitment alleging corruption related to financing the project.

Bangladesh then pledged to build the bridge itself.

Hasina’s trip also comes amid concern expressed by Washington “about violence against and intimidation of the media and civil society,” ahead of the national election scheduled for December or January 2024.

Earlier this month, the U.S. State Department said “free and fair elections and respect for human rights in Bangladesh are critical as we seek to deepen our bilateral relationship.”

Just a day before these comments, Hasina lambasted Washington in parliament, saying it was working to bring an undemocratic party to power in her country in the upcoming election.

The Bangladesh PM did not name which so-called undemocratic party she believed the United States wanted in power. She also accused Washington of supporting corrupt people in Bangladesh.

Meanwhile, former Foreign Secretary Shamsher Mobin Chowdhury said Hasina’s visits would be significant and important.

“The Japan visit is not only important for bilateral relations but also for Bangladesh’s multilateral relations. [What is] interesting is that Japan for the first time is offering defense cooperation with Bangladesh,” he told BenarNews.

Chowdhury said Japan had announced investing in Bangladesh to tap the huge combined market in Bangladesh and the northeastern states of India.

Japan has been funding the construction of Bangladesh’s first deep sea port in Matarbari in the Bay of Bengal with a view to serve the landlocked northeastern states of India. Tokyo is also the financier of Dhaka’s metro rail and the third terminal of Dhaka airport.

“Japan is a big economic power. … Maybe Japan is investing more in Bangladesh to counter the influence of China in the Bay of Bengal which is a part of the Indian Ocean,” Chowdhury said.

Separately, Munshi Fayaz Ahmad, a former Bangladesh envoy to China, said Hasina’s U.S. and U.K. trips would enhance relations with those countries.

Critical remarks by the U.S. and other western officials about Bangladesh’s elections, human rights and democracy gave an impression among the people that Bangladesh’s relations with the U.S. were “not good,” Ahmad told BenarNews.

“Making critical comments is a strategy in diplomacy. Both the Western countries and Bangladesh follow such a practice. U.S.-Bangladesh relations are very good,” Ahmad said.

“The U.S. needs Bangladesh for its strategic interests and Bangladesh needs the U.S. for her own interests. [But] Bangladesh needs the U.S. more than the U.S. needs Bangladesh.”