Thirty years of Bangladesh-Japan diplomatic relationship

Mar 05, 2002 01:00 AM

by Harun ur Rashid

There is every reason to believe that the existing relations between Bangladesh and Japan will grow from strength to strength to the benefit of peoples of both nations. Bangladesh and Japan have fulfilled their formal diplomatic relationship for 30 years. The ties of relationship between the two nations appear to be strong and friendly and exist independently of governments and their policies. It would indeed be faint-hearted not to recognise the achievements made in bilateral relationship between the two nations during the last thirty years.

There are a few similarities and stark differences between the two nations. Both are Asian nations whose millions of people are squeezed into a small territory. Japan has about 126 mm people while Bangladesh over 130 mm. Both have high density of population per square mile. Both have to import food. Both are nuclear free nations and are parties to the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).
On the other hand,the difference could not be more obvious than the difference of income between the two nations -- Japan is the second largest economy in the world (although it is now technically in a recession) while Bangladesh is a Least Developed Country. Japan's per capital income is more than $ 20,000.00 while that of Bangladesh's is $ 386.00 (1999-2000). Japan is one of the technology-advanced countries while Bangladesh is grappling to meet its national shortfall of energy. Japan has surplus of foreign currency and invests in other countries while Bangladesh needs direct foreign investment for its economic growth.

The formal diplomatic relationship between Bangladesh and Japan was established on 10th February in 1972 and the Japanese Embassy was opened in Dhaka in March 1972. The last five decades saw increased cooperation and consolidation of relations in all its aspects including trade, investment, development assistance, cultural and educational fields. People to people contact has increased dramatically.
The frequent visits at the political level between the two countries are a testimony to the existing excellent bilateral ties between the two nations. Each head of the government from Bangladesh paid a visit to Japan starting from Prime Minister Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman who visited Japan in October 1973. It is reported that Prime Minister Khaleda Zia is likely to visit Japan in the near future while she travels to the Far East. Japan is no stranger to Bangladesh's Foreign Minister Morshed Khan who is able to speak Japanese with ease and fluency.

Even prior to independence in 1971, many businessmen from this part of the world established close relationships with Japanese businesses. Japan's presence was strongly felt in the territory, then known as "East Pakistan".
The Japanese Consular Mission in Shantinagar in Dhaka was a great local landmark for the Dhaka peoples. The Mission had been engaged in promoting trade and contact between people of the two countries. Often there were exhibitions in Dhaka of Japanese decorative art of flower arrangement known as "Ikebana" and people from all backgrounds used to visit and love the show.
In Dhaka in the 60s, the restaurant "Sakura" (near Sheraton Hotel) became well known to Dhaka patrons for Japanese cuisine (sushi and tempura). So also were the "Toyota" cars on the roads in Dhaka and major cities. Soon after recognition of Bangladesh, Japan sent its special envoy Takashi Hayakawa to assess the needs of the new nation. Japanese experts were the first to submit a feasibility study of the Jamuna Bridge project in May 1973. In early 1974, a 50-member Japanese Economic Mission visited Bangladesh and many joint ventures were discussed.

Bangladesh's relations with Japan took a favourable turn in 1977. A hijacked Japanese airliner landed in Dhaka airport (old Tejgaon airport) in October creating a crisis in Japan. Bangladesh handled the delicate situation very efficiently and Japanese government and its people were visibly impressed by the skilful handlingof the situation by Bangladesh.
When President Zia visited Japan in 1978, the passengers of the hijacked plane came to meet the President and thanked Bangladeshi officials and people for safety of their lives. It was an emotional meeting for many of the passengers. The amount of trade between the two countries varies between $ 500-700 mm $ annually and the balance is in favour of Japan.
During 1996-97 trade figures show that Bangladesh's export to Japan was $ 114 mm as against import of $ 420 mm from Japan. Bangladesh imports from Japan mostly raw materials for industrial use, equipment under development projects and manufactured items while Bangladesh's exports include shrimps, leather, foot-wear, jute products and ready-made garments. Bangladesh tea has lately made inroads into the Japanese market under a new brand name "The Star of Bengal".

About 20 Japanese companies have invested in Bangladesh and many Japanese companies have indicated their interest to the Board of Investment in Bangladesh. Japanese companies are reportedly keen to invest in setting up gas-based integrated power and fertiliser plant, power plants, and exploration of oil and gas. Japanese interests will put into practice once reforms in labour market, port infrastructure, road and telecommunications and bureaucratic delay in Bangladesh are introduced with tangible effects.
The Japanese Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC) is a key player in channelling development assistance to Bangladesh mainly in three components -- grant aid, technical cooperation and loans. The total assistance under the three components reportedly stood around $ 2 bn during the period of 1992-97, of which one quarter in agriculture and fisheries, one quarter in social welfare and the rest in education and health care. Meghna bridge was built at the cost of $ 7.9 bn with Japanese assistance.
This appears to be the single largest project with Japanese assistance anywhere in the world. Japanese assistance helped to establish the Institute of Cardio-Vascular Diseases and the Rheumatic Diseases Hospital in Dhaka. Japan provides grants to many Non-Government Organisations (NGOs) in Bangladesh since 1989 and it is reported that as many as 65 NGOs in Bangladesh received financial assistance amounting to millions of dollars from Japan in projects for alleviation of poverty in the country.

Bangladeshi workers in thousands are being employed in Japan. Japan provides grants and scholarships to Bangladeshi students for higher studies in Japan. Many Bangladeshis are keen to work and study in Japan. Japanese martial art is getting popular in Bangladesh and a few Bangladeshis participated in international competition in martial arts in Japan with some measure of success.
Japan is a major donor country and one stark characteristic is that Japan never interferes in the internal affairs of Bangladesh. Japan is sensitive to the sentiments of Bangladeshi people and hardly shows off its "arrogance of economic power" to the people and government of Bangladesh.
There is every reason to believe that the existing relations between Bangladesh and Japan will grow from strength to strength to the benefit of peoples of both nations. However one overriding consideration is the existence of political stability in Bangladesh. Only then Bangladesh's wonderful potential can be fully exploited. I have represented Bangladesh in five countries and at the UN. I did so with pride but nevertheless was aware that there were many areas in which Bangladesh should have done-- or should do -- better.

Barrister Harun ur Rashid is a former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva.

Source: Harun ur Rashid
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