What PM Hasina’s visit to Japan means for both nations
Upon invitation from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina paid a three-day visit to the country from May 28-31. Before I dwell on the visit in question, I will make an attempt to put to context the historical interaction between the two Asian countries.
In modern diplomacy, relations between two states are determined by several factors -- chief among them are political, manifested by the frequency of visits at the highest level, cooperation in the fields of the economy, trade, investment, and people-to-people contact and cooperation in the international arena.
When it comes to the relationship between Bangladesh and Japan, I think it encompasses all the factors mentioned above. Let me enumerate a little more.
Japan was one of the major developed nations which extended immense help and support towards our liberation efforts. Many Japanese people stood before the main railway stations day and night collecting donations for us, which was spearheaded by an important Japanese political leader -- Senator Hayakawa.
Again, Japan was first among its peers to formally recognize Bangladesh soon after our independence.
Japan was also among the first few countries visited by Bangabandhu in 1973, thereby laying a strong foundation in our diplomatic ties with them.
In keeping with the Father of Nation’s original “Look East Policy” -- ie replicating Japan’s emergence from the ashes of war -- all the successive heads of state/government of Bangladesh have visited Japan, some of them several times.
A number of Japanese prime ministers have also visited Bangladesh. Thus, it can be argued that Bangladesh is considered by Japan as a politically important country in its foreign policy strategy and vice versa.
Since our independence, Japan has steadfastly remained our number one single-country development partner, providing nearly $15 billion as development assistance.
Much of the infrastructure development in Bangladesh today -- covering all sectors such as highways, bridges, power and energy, and rural development -- is owed to Japanese assistance.
The country has also provided significant support to the development of our human resources, poverty alleviation, disaster management, and strengthening of democratic institutions.
In terms of trade and investment, Japan ranks somewhere in the 7th or 8th position. However, our export to Japan, which is presently worth nearly $1bn, is slowly picking up pace. This figure is just a dot in the context of Japan’s total import of 6.60tn yen in the year ending April 2019.
Additionally, Japan strictly maintains a zero tolerance policy on the quality of imported items, which is another drawback for increasing our export.
Nevertheless, there does exist the considerable potential for increasing our export to Japan, provided our products meet the very high Japanese standards.
At a recent talk show, I proffered a piece of advice to our manufacturers interested in exporting their goods to Japan: They should hire Japanese quality control supervisors/experts who would be able to guide our factories in producing products that would appeal to Japanese consumers.
It will be an expensive endeavour, but the returns will be comparatively high.
A major importer of Japan gave me a valuable piece of advice: He said that if any Bangladeshi company can export its products to Japan, it will automatically gain an extra dividend by being recognized globally for producing quality products. It means that, if you can meet Japanese quality standards, you can do so anywhere in the world.
With regard to FDI, we have to bear in mind that the FDI flow does not come as a charity: It’s purely business and profit-oriented.
I have served as a diplomat for nearly 35 years, mostly in the major capitals of the world, including Berlin, Rome, London, Singapore, Colombo, Hanoi, Canberra, Wellington, and Tokyo. It was my number one agenda to encourage foreign investors to come to Bangladesh.
What I learned from my innumerable meetings with them is that prospective investors, before going to a new country, would like to be assured of the following:
1. Would I be physically safe in the new place?
2. Would my investment be safe?
3. What would be the cost of doing business?
4. What is the infrastructure like?
5. How fast and easy is communication?
6. What’s the quality of workers, and how costly are they?
7. How conducive is the investment environment, in terms of government rules and regulations?
8. What are the disincentives of investing in the country?
To be fair, I think we have a long way to go before attracting an increased flow of FDI into Bangladesh, especially from Japan.
During his visit to Bangladesh in September 2014, PM Shinzo Abe brought with him nearly 200 chairmen and CEOs of major Japanese companies with a view to encourage them to invest in Bangladesh.
It was no doubt a reflection of PM Abe’s sincere desire to foster stronger economic ties with Bangladesh. We can see a significant leap forward in this direction.
Unfortunately, the terrorist attack in Holey Artisan Bakery in July 2016 -- where seven innocent Japanese nationals were killed -- shocked the entire nation of Japan.
Consequently, potential Japanese investment in Bangladesh suffered a major setback. Of late though, we do notice a gradual reversal of the situation, and the Japanese companies are trickling back to Bangladesh.
Now, let me focus on PM Sheikh Hasina’s latest visit to Japan, which is significant in many ways:
(a) This is her fifth visit to Japan since 2009, a feat no Bangladeshi head of state or government before her can claim.
(b) She is one of the first foreign leaders to visit Japan in the first month of the assumption of throne by a new Japanese emperor.
(c) She shared a prestigious forum with a number of Asian leaders where she received wider international exposure to propound her vision for Asia.
(d) The visit has manifestly demonstrated Bangladesh’s importance to Japan bilaterally, regionally, and internationally.
During her formal talks with PM Shinzo Abe, the two leaders reviewed the two countries’ bilateral relations, and gave their new direction for the enhancement of cooperation.
PM Abe reaffirmed his commitment to stand by Bangladesh at all times -- two separate loan agreements amounting to $2.5bn were signed, which would go to finance the power and energy sector, transport sector, and Foreign Direct Investment development projects.
On the political front, for PM Hasina, the visit has secured an endorsement towards the legality of her new government by a valuable international partner.
For Japan, a politically stable Bangladesh would be conducive for doing business with and investing into the country.
Internationally, Bangladesh’s unequivocal support to Japanese aspiration for a seat in the UN Security Council, as well as towards its North Korea policy, couldn’t be any sweeter to PM Abe’s ear.
PM Hasina’s schedule in Tokyo also included a meeting with a group of top Japanese businessmen. Inviting them to Bangladesh, she assured them of creating favourable conditions for them to do business and invest in the country.
In a separate meeting, she also exhorted non-resident Bangladeshis to invest in Bangladesh, guaranteeing them of facilities equal to that of foreign investors.
The Bangladeshi PM -- who herself lost family members to the bullets of assassins -- met with the close relatives of the victims of the Holey Artisan incident and conveyed her heartfelt sympathy to them. I believe the gesture of her humane sentiments would go a long way in enhancing her image in Japan.
PM Hasina also penned an article titled “Japan-Bangladesh Partnership for Development,” which was published by The Japan Times on May 29. In her write-up, while recalling her childhood fascination with everything Japanese, she also shared her father’s admiration of Japan and his aspiration of building a Bangladesh in the image Japan.
Finally, PM Hasina also attended Nikkei’s “The Future of Asia” conference, along with Malaysia’s PM Mahathir Mohamad, President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, PM Hun Sen of Cambodia, PM Thongloun Sisoulith of Laos, and a host of other Asian leaders from political, economic, finance, and academic backgrounds.
In her address to the conference, the Bangladeshi PM shared her vision of a peaceful and prosperous Asia by way of introducing a set of five concepts.
She also found the forum as the right place to highlight the miseries of the persecuted Rohingya, driven away from their homeland in Myanmar, advocating that she wants a peaceful resolution to the explosive situation and, by doing so, wishes to set an example that regional issues can be solved amicably and peacefully.
In my opinion, the visit has served three specific purposes:
(a) It has strengthened the bilateral relationship between Japan and Bangladesh and has also helped remove the reservation of Japanese investors in investing in the country.
(b) Her authority in ruling the country has been firmly established.
(c) It also afforded an opportunity to share with our vital Asian neighbours Bangladesh’s difficulties in hosting more than a million Rohingya refugees; and the need to repatriate them to their own country sooner than later through peaceful means.
Ashraf ud Doula is a former ambassador to Japan.