Tokyo, Dhaka should enhance security co-op
Japan is the largest bilateral development partner of Bangladesh. It has provided about $27 billion in grants and loans to Bangladesh since 1971. Japan is currently implementing some of the major infrastructure projects. The two countries are willing to elevate the relations to a strategic level during Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's visit to Japan. Japanese Ambassador to Bangladesh, Ito Naoki, shared his views with Porimol Palma of The Daily Star.
TDS: The prime minister's visit to Japan scheduled for November 29-December 2 has been postponed. Why?
Naoki: We are working on the visit because it will be immensely beneficial for us to deepen our friendship. We still have a lot of room for developing our partnership and cooperation for peace and stability of the Indo-Pacific region. I hope the visit will take place sooner rather than later and elevate our partnership.
TDS: You have recently talked about the 2018 election's ballot box stuffing and become the talk of the town.
Naoki: It is not only me. All the like minded countries' missions here hope that there will be free, fair and participatory elections. I have been talking to all the interlocutors of mine during my assignment here. I expect in light of the efforts by the Election Commission and others concerned, the next elections will be better.
TDS: What does it mean to take the relations to a strategic level?
Naoki: In 2014, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and the then Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe launched a comprehensive partnership. Since then, the friendship has developed and Japanese overseas development assistance to Bangladesh has exceeded the $3 billion mark. It is 10 times higher compared to the amount 10 years ago. So, our partnership needs to reflect the development. Also, Bangladesh's stature has been enhanced in the region. In the twin celebrations last year -- the birth centenary of Bangabandhu and golden jubilee of Bangladesh -- it [Bangladesh] took initiatives of regional connectivity, free trade, and offered assistance to Sri Lanka for economic management. Clearly, Bangladesh is playing a bigger role. Also, in the changing strategic landscape, we need to step up our cooperation on security. I think that will be something new in our relationship.
TDS: Can you elaborate on the security cooperation?
Naoki: We need to expand the exchange of officers, co-training, port calls by the self-defence naval ships. In January this year, two Japanese self defence ships paid port calls to Chattogram. That was the curtain raiser of the golden jubilee celebrations and they need a goodwill exercise with the Bangladesh Navy. Also, Bangladesh Air Force is showing strong interest in procuring mobile radar systems from a Japanese company. And, you also need to diversify the source of procurement of defence equipment. Already, the basis of cooperation is there for security and defence areas. So, once we can elevate our partnership to a new height, we can have this new type of cooperation between the two countries. Also, cyber security and ICT security are areas where Japan and Bangladesh should explore the possibility of collaboration.
TDS: Japan is advancing the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) strategy. How will you engage Bangladesh in it and what is Dhaka's response?
Naoki: We regard Bangladesh as Japan's partner in FOIP. Under this vision, we have three pillars: shared values, pursuit of economic prosperity and cooperation on peace and stability. Shared values are democracy, market economy, respect for rules-based systems, free and open navigation. These are the values both Bangladesh and Japan respect and try to promote. And, as the landscape of security is changing and the situation is becoming even more challenging now, there is a good reason for us to cooperate and collaborate. In all of those pillars, we share our ideas so that we can promote pragmatic cooperation and pursue the FOIP.
TDS: What does practical cooperation include?
Naoki: Practical cooperation includes quality infrastructure building, regional connectivity, disaster management and prevention, maritime safety, capacity building of law enforcement officials, humanitarian assistance and climate change. For example, we are providing support to the development of Matarbari Deep Sea Port, metro rail, third terminal of Dhaka airport, an economic zone in Araihazar etc. I would stress that FOIP is an inclusive vision, not intended to contain or exclude any country.
TDS: What are the challenges facing the policy?
Naoki: If any country tries to challenge the international law, rules-based international order, we need to raise our concern and oppose the act. I think that will be the challenge for us. I don't see any difficulty for Bangladesh to pursue this same vision. Recently, Bangladesh spoke about a free, open, inclusive, peaceful and prosperous Indo-Pacific on the basis of international law. We share that idea. On that basis, we are so pleased to extend our practical cooperation to Bangladesh.
TDS: How do you advance FOIP when Myanmar's military regime and Rohingya crisis persist?
Naoki: Since February last year, Myanmar's situation has worsened. We sent messages to the Myanmar junta that they need to stop violence and release those detained and restore democratic processes. Those are essential factors to improve the situation. On the other hand, Rohingya have been in Bangladesh for more than five years. We applaud Bangladesh for sheltering them. Unfortunately, the situation has not improved and it may remain for even a longer period. So, the first thing is to create an enabling environment in Myanmar for repatriation. The way we sent messages to Myanmar will hopefully be instrumental towards this end.
TDS: Amid the global crises, funding for the Rohingya is declining. How to go about it?
Naoki: As long as the Rohingya stay here, we want their situation to improve. They need to be resilient and prepared for returning to Myanmar when the time is right. They need education, skills development and livelihood opportunities. The UN and international aid agencies and Bangladesh need to continue to work together. I assure that Japan will do its best to provide assistance for the Rohingyas and hope others will do the same.
TDS: In the wake of the Russia-Ukraine war, like many other countries, Bangladesh is also facing a crisis. How can Japan provide support?
Naoki: Every country is affected by the war. A peace process needs to be in place sooner rather than later. Bangladesh has already negotiated with the IMF for a loan. I hope it will be effective. Bangladesh requested Japan to provide $750 million for budget support. Japan provided such support in 2020 and last year. So, this year, since you requested, we are actively considering, but have yet to decide.