INTERVIEW | Ambassador Shahabuddin Ahmed on Japan’s part in Bangladesh’s progress
Fifty years ago, on March 26, Bangladesh gained independence from Pakistan. Since then, the country has grown from one of the poorest countries in the world to one of the brightest developing countries and a key bilateral trading partner for Japan.
To mark this golden anniversary, JAPAN Forward spoke with Bangladeshi Ambassador to Japan Shahabuddin Ahmed to discuss his country’s 50 years of growth and development and his high expectations for continued cooperation with Japan.
As Japanese industry continues its pivot away from China, the warm bilateral relationship between Tokyo and Dhaka has generated economic benefits for both countries. We asked the Ambassador for his perspective on contemporary relations between Japan and Bangladesh.
Bangladesh and Japan are said to share close friendships. What makes the two countries so close?
Our friendship has evolved over the centuries, before present-day Bangladesh. Our two peoples share a similar history and traditions deeply rooted in the values of individuals, family, society and culture. The flags of our two countries are also similar in design and unique on the world stage.
Likewise, the people of Bangladesh have immense goodwill and immense respect for Japan, especially as a model of development. Japan recognized Bangladesh as independent on February 10, 1972, and was therefore one of the first countries to establish diplomatic relations.
The visit of the father of our nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, to Japan in October 1973 laid a solid foundation for our lasting bilateral relations. We were then honored by the visit of Their Majesties, then Crown Prince Akihito and Crown Princess Michiko (now Emperor Emeritus and Empress Emeritus of Japan) to Bangladesh in February 1975, which again gave important impetus to our friendship and our spirit of cooperation. .
In recent times, we have continued to see frequent high-level visits exchanged between the two countries. On one of these exchanges between the Prime Minister [Sheikh] Hasina and former Prime Minister [Shinzo] Abe in 2014, our relationship was elevated to a “global partnership”.
In 2014, the Japanese government committed JPY 600 billion (USD 5.7 billion) to aid and infrastructure projects in Bangladesh, implemented over the next four to five years. What effect did it have?
Japan is the main bilateral partner in our development efforts. Since [our] Independence, Japan has provided financial support of over USD 24.72 billion in the form of project aid, food aid and commodity aid in the form of loans, grants and technical assistance (TA) .
On the occasion of our Golden Jubilee of Independence, Bangladesh’s GDP now stands at $ 330.2 billion. Our export revenues have passed the $ 40 billion mark, while foreign exchange reserves stand at $ 44.03 billion.
We are currently the 35th largest economy in the world in nominal terms and the 30th in purchasing power parity. Bangladesh is now self-sufficient in food production and is doing well in fisheries, livestock and poultry, fruit and vegetable production.
Likewise, the poverty rate and the extreme poverty rate have dropped significantly – to 20.5% and 10.5% respectively in 2019.
Bangladesh will always fondly remember the contribution of Japan and the support of the Japanese people in our journey towards development and progress.
An additional JPY 338.24 billion (USD 3.1 billion) was provided in loans in 2020. How does this financial support contribute to the goal of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” ?
The 2020 loan was the highest ever. In addition, JICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency) granted Bangladesh a loan of 35 billion yen to support emergency response to COVID-19.
Japan has also provided continued support for the development of Bangladesh in various important sectors. These sectors include energy, health care, education, agriculture, human resource development, urban and rural development, etc.
One of the many important examples of the comprehensive Japan-Bangladesh partnership is Japan’s support for the development of regional connectivity. Under the Bay of Bengal Industrial Growth Belt (BIG-B) initiative, Japan and Bangladesh will continue to collaborate on connectivity in southern Bangladesh, improving the lives of millions of people.
In addition, the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is taking pragmatic steps to ensure that the development of our nation will not only contribute to the prosperity of the people of Bangladesh, but the entire region and beyond.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina spoke of plans to develop special economic zones in the country, including one for Japanese investors. How will the zones work?
There are now 100 special economic zones developing across the country. The main objective is to attract foreign investment, protect arable and forest land and create jobs. These objectives will be achieved through a planned industrialization program that will meet local demand, stimulate exports and strike a balance between economic development and food security for the populations.
As part of the current trend of global outsourcing, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina called on all relevant agencies to take immediate action to formulate a comprehensive strategy and future action plan that will attract investors to Bangladesh.
Japanese investments in Bangladesh soared 160% year-on-year to reach US $ 72.9 million in 2019. As the Japanese business community continues to pay increased attention to Bangladesh as the next investment destination, the Bangladesh government and JICA signed an agreement to create a specific Japanese economic zone (JEZ).
As a joint venture project, the JEZ is being built in Narayanganj, near the capital, Dhaka. Once implemented, the JEZ spanning more than 1,000 acres is expected to generate an investment of US $ 20 billion, with industries such as agribusiness, light engineering, chemicals, automotive assembly, clothing and pharmaceuticals are all expected to see a considerable increase in Japanese investment.
Which sectors of the economy see the most interaction between Japanese and Bangladeshi businesses?
We are seeing increased interest and enthusiasm from Japanese entrepreneurs regarding business and investment opportunities in Bangladesh. Currently, more than 300 Japanese companies operate in the country, an increase of more than 10 times over the past decade.
The two key investment sectors are energy and infrastructure development. However, there are also many potential sectors in which Bangladesh is seeking investment from Japanese companies. These include clothing and textiles, leather and leather goods, electricity, plastics, ICT, light engineering, ceramics, medical equipment, shipbuilding and automobile construction.
Bangladesh’s middle income group is also growing at a steady pace. Japanese investments that will meet this growing domestic demand and facilitate the reconfigurations of the supply chain which hold immense potential for growth.
With the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Bangladesh and Japan in 2022, what are your hopes for future relations between the two countries?
We plan to celebrate this historic milestone in a proper way through various events held in Bangladesh and Japan. The exchange of cultural troupes, film festivals, art exhibitions, diplomatic exchanges, the unveiling of commemorative postage stamps and coins are just some of the ways we hope to mark the occasion.
We believe that such activities demonstrate the strong bilateral relationship between the two countries and will further strengthen our partnership in the years to come.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government is committed to making Bangladesh a modern, developed and knowledge-based country by 2041. Each of our development partners supports us in this endeavor.
The partnership with Japan has been very important in this regard. A large number of Japanese-funded projects – ranging from social development to energy, power generation, communications infrastructure and investments in special economic zones – continue to advance at high speed. These allow us not only to improve our national and regional connectivity, but also to ensure our overall socio-economic development.
Many of these projects are expected to be completed between 2022 and 2025. In addition, Japan’s cooperation has been sought in sectors such as agriculture, ICT and other high-tech industries, the blue economy and health and human resource development. Such collaboration of course broadens the scope and dimension of future relations.
Finally, the two countries maintain close cooperation on regional and international issues of mutual interest, including the promotion of peace and stability and the achievement of the United Nations sustainable development goals.
At this important point in our relationship, we look forward to further strengthening our existing bonds and continuing to develop our friendships for the future.
HE Mr. Shahabuddin Ahmed became Ambassador of Bangladesh to Japan in September 2020.
Bangladesh gained its independence from Pakistan on March 26, 1971. A country of 163 million inhabitants, Bangladesh is located on the border between South and Southeast Asia. The country has the fastest real GDP growth rate in Asia and is one of the fastest growing economies in the world. Next year, 2022, will mark 50 years of diplomatic relations between Bangladesh and Japan.
Interview by: JAPAN Forward