In a lecture delivered at Dhaka University, Akihiko Tanaka, the then president of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), had set out the details of the BIG-B initiative not long after the late Prime Minister Abe had first presented the proposal to his counterpart in 2014. This address laid out the nuts and bolts of Japan's plans for and with Bangladesh were set forth in greater detail. To their credit, Bangladesh's great friend Shinzo Abe's successors have continued working broadly in line with that vision, and have gradually grown emboldened to commit to it further, finding Bangladesh to be a reliable and potent partner.

Tanaka mentioned JICA's pride in being able to work together with the people of Bangladesh in their efforts of development, which have resulted in great achievements. He noted the gradual drop in the percentage of Bangladeshis in absolute poverty from 59% in 1990. Average life expectancy increased from 47 years in 1971 to over 70. Child mortality has declined markedly, and children's enrollment in primary school had gone up from 50 percent to nearly universal at 92%. Moreover, thanks to a four-fold increase in agricultural productivity, 100% of the population was food secure, the JICA president noted. And next, Bangladesh appeared to be "entering into a new stage of development fueled by faster economic growth". They have certainly not disappointed in that regard, and the ambassador's willingness to elevate the economic partnership (see interview) is certainly a reflection of that.

Prime Ministers Abe and Hasina acknowledged this new development landscape during their summit held in Tokyo in 2014. They committed to further strengthening bilateral cooperation through the "Japan-Bangladesh Comprehensive Partnership." Just as significantly, they proposed the "Bay of Bengal Industrial Growth Belt" initiative (or BIG-B for short) as a means to guide partnership activities. They were right on target, because BIG-B, a grand design to promote industrial agglomeration along the Dhaka-Chittagong-Cox's Bazar belt area, has a great potential under the currently on-going tectonic changes of the global economy, Tanaka said.

The initiative contained the seeds of what is now broadly known as the Indo-Pacific Strategy for most countries. Tanaka had mentioned, "Now in the first quarter of the 21st century, the world economy is shifting its centre from the Pacific to a much broader area which I call the Indo-Pacific region. The Pacific continues to play an important role, but it is being connected more and more with the emerging economic powers along the Indian Ocean from Southeast Asia to South Asia, and to Africa. And, of course, the Bay of Bengal is centrally located within this tectonic change as it can function as a key junction between the two oceans."

BIG-B, in Tanaka's words, would have three main pillars.

The first pillar is industry and trade. This pillar mainly consists of constructing a long-awaited deep sea port at the Matarbari Island. This will offer Bangladesh an important trade gateway to the rest of Asia and beyond.

The second pillar is energy. Matarbari Island can be developed into a massive supply base of primary energy (such as coal, LNG, and oil). The electricity produced from those sources can support a quantum leap in industry and trade, not only within the area covered by BIG-B but also all over Bangladesh. Recognizing the promise this holds, Power Division and the Bangladesh Power Development Board have already embarked on developing electricity infrastructure throughout the entire area to facilitate greater diversification of the country's energy mix.

Transportation is the third pillar of BIG-B. To enable greater industry, trade, and energy production, the Dhaka-Chittagong-Cox's Bazar transport artery needs to be strengthened and even extended to neighbouring countries. More and better national highways and railways are an absolute must to accelerate the movement of goods and people that is essential for highly vibrant industrial agglomeration. The Roads and Highways Division and the Ministry of Railways have shown a strong commitment to address this urgent need.

A new triumvirate emerges

More recently, giving vent to the regional potential of the BIG-B framework, Japan has proposed developing an industrial hub in Bangladesh with supply chains to the landlocked northeastern states of India, and to Nepal and Bhutan beyond by developing a port and transport infrastructure in the region, Reuters reported earlier this month.

It came after Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida's visit to India last month in which he touted the idea of a new industrial hub for the Bay of Bengal and northeast India that could bolster development in the impoverished region of 300 million people.

After Kishida's visit, his government approved $1.27 billion in funding to Bangladesh for three infrastructure projects - including a new commercial port in the Matarbari area with links to adjacent landlocked Indian states, including Tripura, and wider international markets.

"It can be a win-win plan for India and Bangladesh," Hiroshi Suzuki, Japan's ambassador to India was quoted as saying, citing the industrial hub proposal at a meeting of Indian, Bangladeshi and Japanese officials in Agartala, the Tripura state capital.

He said the deep seaport was likely to become operational by 2027 and would be a key to building an industrial hub connecting the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka to landlocked areas of India. G Kishan Reddy, India's federal minister for its northeast region welcomed the Japanese initiative at the meeting.

Representing Bangladesh in Tripura for what was touted as a tri-nation "connectivity meet" was Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Shahriar Alam, who said the port would boost Indian-Bangladeshi trade and help bring in Japanese and other foreign investment.

It was actually the 'Third India-Japan Intellectual Conclave', held at Agartala, the Tripura capital, jointly organized by Assam-based influential think tank Asian Confluence, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, the Embassy of Japan in India, and this year for the first time, the Bangladesh Mission in Agartala.

A recent study conducted by Asian Confluence recommended scaling up multi-modal connectivity between Northeast India and Bangladesh to enhance competitiveness and narrow the development gaps in the region.

It also suggested working together to establish express corridors for the transit of goods from the Northeast Region to the Chattogram Port and bringing synergy in trade facilitation.The study further recommended creating industrial value chains to benefit all stakeholders in India and Bangladesh, including Japanese companies in the region.

It suggested establishing a Japan-Northeast India Chamber of Commerce to promote Japanese investment in Northeast India and a Northeast India-Bangladesh-Japan CEO Forum to provide the necessary business leadership.

The more these three can stay engaged, the less chance there would be for others like China - strategic rival to both India and Japan- to gain a foothold in Bangladesh. Under the new geopolitical realities of the day, that is as important a reason as any to make this partnership work.

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