​​​​​​​Japan wants to make Bangladesh more attractive for business; boost its stature globally

Japanese Ambassador to Bangladesh Naoki Ito has identified five challenges ahead that Bangladesh and Japan need to address together to elevate the solid partnership to a higher level with multifaceted greater cooperation as the two countries are set to celebrate 50 years of diplomatic relations in a big way next year.

The five challenges that he believes must be overcome in order for the bilateral relationship to fully thrive in the years ahead are: to develop Bangladesh-Japan strategic partnership, make Bangladesh more attractive for business, expand people-to-people exchange, enhance cooperation with Bangladesh as a partner to realize Free and Open Indo-Pacific and strengthen efforts to increase Bangladesh's stature in the region and beyond.

"We need to move forward. I think our relations will naturally deepen in each of those agendas but we shouldn't take it for granted," Ambassador Ito said while delivering the keynote speech at a virtual dialogue that premiered on July 25.

Cosmos Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the Cosmos Group, hosted the dialogue between the two important partners in growth, development, and increasingly trade titled "Bangladesh-Japan Relations: Prognosis for the Future" as a part of its ongoing Ambassador's Lecture Series.

The opening remarks were delivered by the Cosmos Foundation Chairman Enayetullah Khan. The session was chaired by Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury, renowned scholar-diplomat and former Advisor on Foreign Affairs of Bangladesh Caretaker Government.

Md Abul Kalam Azad, Special Envoy, Climate Vulnerable Forum; Hayakawa Yuho, Chief Representative, JICA Bangladesh Office; Dr Salehuddin Ahmed, former Governor, Bangladesh Bank; Prof Masaaki Ohashi, Professor, University of the Sacred Heart, Tokyo; Manzurul Huq, columnist, writer and academic; Prof Takahara Akio, Dean, Graduate School of Public Policy, the University of Tokyo and Ambassador (Retd) Tariq A Karim, Honorary Advisor Emeritus, Cosmos Foundation comprised the panel of discussants.

Ambassador Ito said the two countries should make "conscious and constant efforts" to continue to enjoy the current state of relationship and develop it even further. "We shouldn't be complacent about ourselves."

He said the year 2022 will provide an excellent opportunity to elevate the partnership even to a higher level and wished that the two countries could call the partnership "truly strategic partners".

Ambassador Ito who already spent 20 months in Bangladesh said the development of quality infrastructures and the strengthening of connectivity under the Bay of Bengal Industrial Growth (BIG-B Initiative) will be beneficial not only to the development of Bangladesh but also to regional peace and stability.

"Our leaders are really conscious that this BIG-B is important - not only for the development of Bangladesh but also for the stability of the entire Bay of Bengal region, beyond Bangladesh itself," he said.

Enayetullah Khan said even as Japan's geo-strategic role and position grows in great strides, Japan has remained faithful in its commitments to Bangladesh that significantly contributed to Bangladesh's current emergence as a development success story.

"To me, it seems Bangladesh-Japan friendship is a function of not just mutual benefits, but mainly of pure fellow-feeling. From whichever perspective you view Bangladesh-Japan friendship, it'll stand out in all weathers and seasons as does in 36 views of Mount Fuji in the famous paintings of HOKUSAI," he said.

Khan said Japan has always enjoyed a place of deep affection in Bengali hearts and the foundation of this relationship gained it a deep-rooted footing right in the days of Bangladesh's struggle for independence.

He said Bangladesh and Japan, despite being located in different regions of the Asian continent, have a number of striking similarities - the flags being just a visible symbol, similarities run much beyond that graspable display.

Khan said the prospects are by and large brighter as long as they play their cards right. He also said both sides can look forward to benefiting from the relationship in the days ahead, especially in the economic sphere and people-to-people contact where there is a scope for greater prosperity.

Dr Iftekhar hoped that the two countries could keep their win-win bilateral relations dealing with the uncertainty of the power-play by the major global state actors.

"This is also the aspiration I believe that many of the people have in the region that we live in," he said, highlighting the Japanese people's strength to rise against the wind with a pragmatic set of tension reduction responses in place.

The foreign affairs expert noted that Japan has always stood by Bangladesh. "We remain deeply beholden."

Bangladesh, Dr Iftekhar said, as one of the fastest growing economies of the world also in many ways provides Japan an excellent trading partner and a very useful investment destination.

"As for bilateral relations, I can say unequivocally that a major reason for Bangladesh having reached where it is now is because Japan has always held our hands," he said.

Now, apart from bilateral relations, he said, Japan has also always facilitated funding from the Asian Development Bank.

Azad said the PPED (Public-Private Economic Dialogue) that started in 2014, is the foundation of a new era in the development of Bangladesh with cooperation from Japan.

In 2009, only about 80 Japanese companies were in Bangladesh and now there are more than 340 Japanese companies that are investing in Bangladesh, he said, noting that this achievement came following the PPED.

"I believe, the flags which we are carrying, similar flags of Japan and Bangladesh, the journey will be speedier," Azad said.

Sharing a very clear dream trajectory of Bangladesh, he said they always believe that a very close friend like Japan will always be with Bangladesh which will enhance the speed of the journey towards development in Bangladesh.

"So, join hands together for this cooperation. We expect in 2022 another glorious event will happen while celebrating 50 years of diplomatic relations between Bangladesh and Japan," he said.

Hayakawa Yuho said JICA will provide effective cooperation to the development of Bangladesh in order to strengthen the ties between the two countries.

"I'm confident that JICA will continue to be a special partner, which Bangladesh can always trust most for the coming brighter future," he said, adding that in the future, Japan will have more and more things to learn from Bangladesh.

The JICA representative said JICA will continue to be able to play a significant role in promoting PPPs and supporting public investment projects in Bangladesh.

He said JICA has been working with many other middle-income countries in areas such as environmental improvement, higher education, preparing for an aging society, support for the disabled, industrial diversification, and mobilization of private investment.

Yuho said there is also a growing trend to utilize digital transformation in our cooperation. "We also have to tackle climate change. I believe that the need for support in these new areas will increase in Bangladesh as well."

"I believe that the bilateral bonds will become even stronger and the role JICA can play in Bangladesh will become even greater," he said.

Former Bangladesh Bank Governor Dr Salehuddin Ahmed said he is impressed with Japan because it has always been a friend to Bangladesh and the country is really sincere about developing Bangladesh's physical infrastructures as well as the capacity of the people.

He said Japan has been playing an outstanding role in developing not only the hardware or the infrastructures like bridges but also the software side or skill development in Bangladesh.

The former central bank governor said Japan has emphasised building the capacity of the people of Bangladesh by sharing its knowledge and experience alongside giving funds.

"Especially in the agricultural field, I must say, Japan has contributed a lot through Cumilla Academy and many other ways, and it's very substantial assistance and you can't measure these contributions in terms of monetary value," he observed.

About financial assistance, Salehuddin said Japan does an excellent job as it converts all the loans to grant. "Japan's such stance on converting the loans to grants is helping us come out of the trap of the World Bank and other organisations. It's not only helping us build bridges and infrastructures but also enhancing our status."

Stating that the Bay of Bengal has now become an important geographical area, he said Bangladesh must look into ensuring its economic security through a new style of diplomacy so that the country's business improves.

The economist also said Bangladesh must remove its tariff and nontariff barriers, and rationalise the customs duty for creating a proper business environment not only with Japan but also with other countries.

"The interactions between Japan and Bangladesh both on the technical and social development sides should be enhanced," he said.

Mentioning that health management in Bangladesh is still at a crawling stage, Dr Salehuddin said it should be decentralised and improved. "Japan can help us in this regard because I saw their hospitals and capacity and their health management system."

Prof Ohashi said more NGOs may work with private companies to support their supply-chain management following "UN's Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights" and SDGs.

He said they may expect various NGO/people level cooperation and exchanges between Bangladesh and Japan from previous one-direction flow to mutual ones.

Prof Ohashi mentioned that some Japanese NGOs working in Asia may start caring Asian workers in Japan whose human rights are not appropriately appreciated.

He said appropriate civil society space in respective countries should be guaranteed to ensure global civil society as one of universal human rights.

Manzurul Huq said Japan's relationship with Bangladesh is unique in the sense that the bondage has never been constrained by any disputed historical perception, nor has it been based on the narrow understanding of winning friends for the sake of ideological or economic gain.

History does not stand as a barrier to the process of cementing ties as it has been seen in countries across South East Asia, he said.

Huq said the relationship between the two countries got a new dimension following the visit of Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in 1973. "We're facing many problems but we're still moving forward joining hands with Japan."

Prof Takahara Akio hoped that Japan and Bangladesh would collaborate and create even more attractive stars in the region.

He said he firmly believes that it is possible, and that a dialogue like this will further the mutual understanding and contribute greatly to establishing an intellectual basis that they need for our good cooperation.

Prof Akio said he personally would be most happy to engage in exchanging their experiences in dealing with China, which no doubt is needed in both countries.

Tariq Karim said now they have so many controversies going on in the region about being for or against one narrative of the other.

"We're very similarly placed. Japan is between a rock and a hard place between the United States and China. We're between a rock and a hard place between more than two countries - India and China and now between two narratives: Indo Pacific and BRI," he said.

The former diplomat said he personally does not see any contradiction in having good relations with both and having active interactions with both.

He said they need to basically focus on and look at the next 10 years or 25 years and identify where complementarities are and how they can strengthen and build on these complementarities.

He said they will have different political approaches to different issues but they can always cooperate in economic and economic development aspects which are mutual to all of the countries.

"You've excellent relations with all the ASEAN countries in the Bay of Bengal area. Help us develop and build these bridges. Because only then we can graduate to a Bay of Bengal economic cooperation community or at least the idea of it which will help us lessen the problems within a safety net which will prevent those problems from endangering us," said the former diplomat.

Japan eyes 3 SEZs

Japan eyes three special economic zones (SEZs), including the one at Araihajar, Narayanjanj, to give a big boost to Japanese investment in Bangladesh but things depend on the success of the first one, says Ambassador Ito.

"This (Araihajar EZ) should provide the best possible environment and the best possible incentives for the investors," he said, adding that a special economic zone is a very important key to invite an increasing number of Japanese companies to invest in Bangladesh.

Ambassador Ito said he has been advocating that Araihajar should be the best possible economic zone in Asia, beating its rivals in countries like Vietnam, Myanmar and the Philippines.

The envoy said they will look into opportunities at Mirsarai under Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Shilpa Nagar, being developed on a contiguous land of 30,000 acres, and a possible economic zone in Maheshkhali-Matarbari area if Araihajar becomes successful.

Ambassador Ito said the Economic Zone at Araihajar will be ready for its operation by the end of the next year.

Due to the Covid-19 situation, he said, he cannot exactly say how many companies are coming to make investments but it is really crucial to see successful and continuous business partnership between Bangladesh and Japan.

"I'm sure down the line it'll attract more investments from Japan," he said, adding that they might be able to see 100 companies making investments.

The Japanese envoy said Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) is now doing a feasibility study on the Mirsharai economic zone and then will explore the third possible economic zone at Matarbari-Maheshkhali area which is being developed as an energy hub and industrial zone.

"I'm sure we'll have the opportunity to develop Japanese economic zone in Matarbari-Maheshkhali area as well," he said.

Hayakawa Yuho said huge projects in BIG-B such as the three MRT lines in Dhaka, the integrated development of the Matarbari-Moheshkhali area and the deep-sea port there, Dhaka airport terminal-3, the Bangabandhu Jamuna railway bridge, EZ in Araihazar are under construction.

Azad said work on Arihajar economic zone started very vigorously and basic works have been done, and hoped that respective companies will be able to start their construction there very soon.

Responding to a question from Dr Iftekhar, Azad said the Mirsarai economic zone is a big area of 30,000 acres and this land has been naturally reclaimed from the sea mostly.

"A huge amount of work is going on by different stakeholders from home and abroad," he said, adding that they will have an independent power plant there and also an opportunity for the port facility.

Azad said the Mirsarai economic zone is basically one part of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Shilpa Nagar and it is a great opportunity for investors to work there.

Dr Salehuddin said Arihajar is a very good place while Mirsarai may be too crowded. He suggested concentrating on Araihajar and it can become very successful. "Matarbari may be there but I'm little bit skeptical about Mirsarai."

Talking about Public Private Economic Dialogue (PPED), Ambassador Ito said this has been a major vehicle of economic partnership and the two countries have resolved many issues related to business climate through this mechanism.

"Unless and until you resolve those issues and challenges, the existing Japanese companies will not come as fast as you might be hoping for," he said, adding that there are still some issues that need to be addressed.

The envoy said there are three main challenges in the eyes of Japanese companies. Most of the Japanese companies are not happy about issues like customs clearance, which takes time and requires them to go through cumbersome procedures.

Next comes trade financing, in particular the slow processing of letter of credit, and restrictions on telegraphic transfer, he said.

In only two countries of Asia, a telegraphic transfer is not used as the primary method of settling import transactions, Ambassador Ito said, adding that Bangladesh and Pakistan maintain similar restrictions.

As for the investment climate, he said, there have been a lot of improvements despite Covid-19 pandemic. "I fully appreciate efforts made by the government of Bangladesh."

Regional Stability

Ambassador Ito has said Japan will seize the opportunity to find a "long-term and lasting solution" to the Rohingya crisis with the Myanmar side, noting that the issue is very relevant to the future stability of the entire region.

"What we can say right now is Japan will seize the opportunity to raise this very, very important issue with the Myanmar side and its military now whenever appropriate," he said.

The Japanese envoy, while responding to a question, said his country will do its best to create an enabling environment for the early repatriation of Rohingyas and will continue to raise the issue with the Myanmar side whenever appropriate.

Ambassador Ito said humanitarian assistance and humanitarian crises are very much part of their vision when they talk about stability and peace of the region.

He said it is very difficult to predict what is going to happen in Myanmar right now in light of the current situation in that country since the February 1 military coup with a complete standoff.

"There's no clear picture in which direction Myanmar is moving right now. Now nobody can have a really clear-cut prospect for the situation," he said, emphasizing the need for having a very "comprehensive and inclusive" platform to deal with the situation.

Point of Implosion

Tariq Karim said Japan, a candidate for a non-permanent seat on the Security Council at the elections to be held in 2022, will hopefully be playing a very important role within the UN Security Council.

The former diplomat felt for a sort of UN mechanism saying it will probably need a peacekeeping force under blue helmets or a regional peacekeeping force again under the same blue helmets.

"Once you can pacify the turmoil that's taking place in Myanmar, a solution will probably start emerging from within Myanmar. That's something I would urge all our friends, particularly Japan, to ensure that their part of Asia remains thankful, and doesn't slide into a form of chaos," he said, seeking ways to avoid any chaos.

Former Ambassador Tariq said Myanmar is on the "point of implosion" and implosion will result in an explosion.

He said Japan should assist Bangladesh to have the necessary stability to allow its dreams to go forward together. "We cannot afford to have the instability disturbing our dreams together forward."

The Japanese Ambassador said it is also important to keep the international community engaged both in Cox's Bazar and Bhasan Char relocation plan.

"We should take a comprehensive approach both for Bhasan Char and Cox's Bazar Rohingya camps. Japan expects the UN's operational engagement on the island soon since that is crucial to move forward," said Ambassador Ito.

He said the Bhasan Char project has got to be successful from a long-term viewpoint to find a durable solution. "Otherwise, the whole process may be delayed. It's clear now that repatriation takes a much longer time."

Bangladesh is hosting over 1.1 million Rohingyas in Cox's Bazar district and Bhasan Char.

Japan's Rohingya-related humanitarian assistance in Bangladesh amounts to US$ 159 million which supports the Rohingya people and host communities through international organizations and NGOs.

Japanese Foreign Minister MotegiToshimitsu and UN Special Envoy on Myanmar Christine SchranerBurgener discussed the situation in Myanmar in May 2021.

Ambassador Ito said finding a lasting solution of the Rohingya crisis is conducive to their "pursuit of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific".

Earlier, Japan, US and Australia Missions declared continuing support for host communities and the Rohingya people during a visit to the Rohingya camp in Cox's Bazar in March 2021.

Wrapping up the roundtable discussion, Dr Iftekhar Chowdhury remarked that Bangladeshis remain "deeply beholden" to Japan for having always stood by them: "As one of the fastest growing developing economies, Bangladesh also provides for Japan an excellent trading partner, and a very useful investment destination."

The event was a part of the resumption by the Cosmos Foundation of its very popular "Ambassadors Lecture Series" that used to be held in Dhaka earlier, the deliberations now being held on-line due to the situation of the Pandemic. In recent months, apart from this discussion on Bangladesh-Japan cooperation, such roundtables have been held on Bangladesh's relations with the United States, India, and China.

The Cosmos Foundation has stated that it intends to hold more such webinars to enlighten the public on important aspects of Bangladesh's foreign relations and generate constructive discussions focused on important issues.

With inputs from AR Jahangir, Muhammed Syfullah and Md. Ishtiak Hossain.

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