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How can Japan strengthen cooperation in the Bay of Bengal under BIG-B?

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With the end of the Cold war, Japan pursued a more active foreign policy to play a larger global role even in the security arena. One of the manifestations of Japan’s new foreign policy is the engagement of Japan in the Bay of Bengal regions.

Gradually, the Bay of Bengal region has become significant for several reasons including security and geo-political ones. Therefore, moving away from its traditional socio-economic diplomacy, Japan sought to play a proactive role in increasing its engagement in the Bay of Bengal. Japan can create cooperation among the Bay of Bengal littorals by enhancing cooperation, creating investments, building infrastructures, and creating connectivity under the rubric of BIG B.

Geopolitics of BIG-B

The BIG-B has emerged as the most crucial cornerstone of Japanese strategy. The aim is to accelerate industrial agglomeration encompassing developing economic infrastructure, improving the investment environment, and fostering connectivity.

The execution of BIG-B will reduce the influence of China’s influence in the Bay and will help India with its Act East policy and multilateral forums like the BIMSTEC and the Mekong-Ganga Cooperation (MGC) initiative.

How Japan can Create Cooperation in the Bay of Bengal

South Asia was regarded as a periphery of Japan’s Asia policy, but gradually South Asia became a geopolitical pivot, especially during the post-cold war period.

Analyzing the history, geopolitics, and foreign relations in South Asia, it is easy to understand that the Bay of Bengal littorals have diverse foreign policy interests and goals which is the biggest challenge to creating cooperation among them. However, Japan can emerge as a vehicle for collective development due to some reasons.

Firstly, Japan has historically maintained a good relationship with BIMSTEC countries like Bangladesh, Myanmar, India, Sri Lanka, etc. through its aid, ODI and FDI. For most of them, Japan is the biggest development partner. Japan, therefore, has the potential to strengthen its presence in this region.

Secondly, The Initiative of the Bay of Bengal Industrial Growth Belt is important for enhancing and strengthening the relations between Bangladesh and Japan; and beyond ensuring enhanced connectivity in the region for greater economic progress. Japan has also been a big infrastructure provider elsewhere in the region, including through a USD 200 billion infrastructure fund. It is funding a new container port in Yangon, Myanmar (USD 200 million) and is also closely working with India, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. 

Thirdly, BIG-B Initiative is important in enhancing the relations and cooperation with Bay of Bengal littorals. Bangladesh is the linchpin in the Indo-pacific region embracing the Bay of Bengal from the sea point of view, and in between south Asia and South East Asia from the land point of view. Japan’s initiative BIG-B has a prospect of connecting BIMSTEC with ASEAN which will create Strong regional connectivity.

Fourth and lastly, the non-traditional security issues including the economy, energy, connectivity, and natural disaster, which are of deep interest to all the littoral states, can drive cooperation. The importance of the blue economy in exploiting the deep-sea resources, Portland development, and more connectivity in the region urge Japan to build basic infrastructures such as reliable power and communications including an optic fibre across the Bay. These strategic elements of the Bay of Bengal suggest strong cohesion of the regional states is the key to mutual prosperity.

Potential challenges that Japan can face

Japan’s presence in the Bay of Bengal region indicates that this region is likely to have a much more complex and multi-polar future. However, the plan comes with many challenges. One of the crucial challenges is diverse foreign policy interests which have intensified across the Bay due to the competition over maritime resources and the presence of extra-regional powers.

Countries like Bangladesh, India and Thailand have to balance their foreign policies to facilitate regional connectivity as well as protect their geopolitical and economic interests. Besides, geopolitical issues such as the Rohingya crisis are hindering the prospects of multilateral cooperation.

Asia’s great power rivalry is also preventing the entire region from reaping the benefits surrounding the Bay of Bengal. The ideas like China’s Belt and Road, Indo-Pacific, QUAD, and AUKUS are creating clashes and a competitive environment in the Bay which is imposing Challenges over BIG B.

Besides, BoB littorals have diverse political systems and cultures. India and Bangladesh are democratic countries whereas Myanmar is now under military rule. Hence, the diverse political culture and their interests are also hindering the prospects of creating multilateral cooperation in the Bay.

As traditional geopolitics is getting morphed into new ones, the Bay is regaining centrality in the wider Indo-Pacific Arena. As a natural corollary, the views of India, Japan, and South East Asia are becoming relatively convergent, and the need is being felt amongst them to engage together more substantively.

The BIG B plan has significant implications for India’s, Bangladesh’s Look East Policy, and Thailand’s look West policy and is also beneficial for multilateral forums like BIMSTEC, ASEAN, and MGC.

Hence, Japan can play a greater role in ensuring cooperation only if the existing challenges can be mitigated by it.

Saume Saptaparna Nath is a research associate at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA), Dhaka.

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