He said the year 2022 will provide an excellent opportunity to elevate the partnership to a higher level
Japanese Ambassador to Bangladesh Ito Naoki 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, he said, 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 Sunday evening.
Cosmos Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the Cosmos Group, hosted the dialogue 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.
Special Envoy of the Climate Vulnerable Forum Md Abul Kalam Azad, Chief Representative of JICA Bangladesh Office Hayakawa Yuho, former governor of Bangladesh Bank Dr Salehuddin Ahmed, Professor at University of the Sacred Heart, Tokyo, Masaaki Ohashi, Columnist, writer and academic Manzurul Huq, Dean of Graduate School of Public Policy, the University of Tokyo Prof Takahara Akio, and Honorary Advisor Emeritus of Cosmos Foundation Ambassador (retd) Tariq A Karim 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 as “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.
Cosmos Foundation Chairman 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.
“Too 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 benefitting 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 Ahmed Chowdhury
Renowned scholar-diplomat and former advisor on Foreign Affairs of Bangladesh Caretaker Government Dr Iftekhar hoped that the two countries can 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.
Abul Kalam Azad
Special Envoy of the Climate Vulnerable Forum Abul Kalam 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.
Chief Representative of JICA Bangladesh Office 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.
Dr Salehuddin Ahmed
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 non-tariff barriers, and rationalize 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 decentralized and improved. “Japan can help us in this regard because I saw their hospitals and capacity and their health management system.”
Prof Masaaki Ohashi
Professor at University of the Sacred Heart in Tokyo Masaaki 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.
Columnist, writer and academic 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
Dean of Graduate School of Public Policy, the University of Tokyo, 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 A Karim
Ambassador (Retd) Tariq A Karim, honorary advisor emeritus of Cosmos Foundation, 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.
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.