The Matarbari Port and its strategic importance in the Indo-Pacific
India and Japan are collaborating to develop of the Matarbari port in Bangladesh off the coast of the Bay of Bengal. The deep seaport is a strategically important endeavour for India, Japan, and Bangladesh for a variety of reasons.
A graphic representation of the location of the Matarbari port.
For Bangladesh, this port will be of significant value as it would provide an outlet to international trade for the garment industry of the Cox’s Bazar district. Not only will it provide an export opportunity for Bangladesh, but it will also aid the imports of various goods and critical resources to the country. Over the years, much of maritime trade in Bangladesh had been dependent on the Chittagong port which occupied the status of the primary deep seaport in Bangladesh. With the completion of the Matarbari port project, another outlet gets opened for amplifying maritime trade and hence increasing the influence of Bangladesh in the Indo-pacific cooperation network.
Even though Bangladesh is set to gain a lot with the development of another deep seaport within its territory, it is India and Japan that have played a strategic masterstroke with this deal. Over the past few years, the main goal of both the countries has been two-fold - to enhance their sphere of influence within the region by improving upon bilateral as well as multilateral engagement and also to counter the aggressive inroads made by China through the infamous Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The development of this port seeks to serve both these goals.
First, it brings together two of the most important economies of the Indo-Pacific region. Both economies have become aware of the sway they hold over the strategic stability of this region and hence seek to play a greater role in the multilateral dynamics of the Indo-Pacific. The Japanese Prime Minister’s visit to India recently brought to light the importance of integrating the Northeast region of India to the global supply chains owing to the immense potential the region holds in terms of the abundance of essential resources. To achieve this goal, Japan sanctioned financial assistance towards infrastructural development in the region and to build avenues for greater connectivity. This development would be particularly crucial for India and joining hands with Japan on the establishment of the Matarbari port is another piece of this structure of interconnectedness and stability that these countries are aiming to create. This port will connect the maritime trade route to the Northeast of India through Bangladesh itself and the cordial relations between the two countries serve to create the foundation of a strong trading relationship in the future.
The question remains however, what is in it for Japan? The shipment of oil from the Middle East to Japan takes place through the Bay of Bengal, therefore having a strong influence in the development of the port is in the interest of the Japanese. It is, diplomatically, a friendly endeavour towards Bangladesh and India as well as a strong strategic move to secure its own supply chains through this maritime route. It becomes quite clear that Bangladesh, India and Japan stand to gain significantly from this project, not least because of the Chinese angle to this story.
A victory against China
China’s infamous debt trap strategy and the ‘string of pearls’ approach to isolate India along its maritime sphere of influence has provided a strong impetus for India to counter this strategy by building partnerships across the region. The debt trap approach has allowed China to take control of massive projects conditional upon the default on repayment of loans, just as it did with the Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka. The control of these strategic ports also paves the way for the Chinese military activities that may also threaten national and regional security. However, the deal on the Matarbari Port can be considered a strong step forward against the Chinese approach in this regard.
This is because for Bangladesh as well, China has now failed to make inroads into taking control of infrastructural projects in the country. This was very evident when Bangladesh took the stand against giving the deal for the development of the Sonadia deep sea port project to China. The idea was to break away from the debt trap strategy of China and develop a strong barrier against Chinese naval presence anywhere in the Bay of Bengal. This is also because it is in greater interest of Bangladesh to keep the port within its own influence and to benefit from the strategic position it has regarding maritime trade as opposed to making it a pawn at the hands of the Chinese and allowing the port to become another tool for the exerting the aggressive Chinese stand in the region.
At this point Bangladesh still remains to be an attractive destination for China to keep exerting its influence through direct investments in projects. However, Bangladesh seems to be pivoting away from China’s Belt and Road initiative and towards more secure investment opportunities provided by India and Japan over the past few years. This, in many respects, can be considered to be a multi-fold achievement for India- internally, by integrating the economy of the Northeast to the international supply chain network and externally, by exerting more positive influence through multilateral engagements with key partners like Bangladesh and Japan.