China making a play at Bangladesh?

Beijing’s recent efforts at improving strategic ties with Delhi may soon experience a hiccup. In an attempt to strengthen Dhaka’s military might, China has agreed to sell submarines to Bangladesh’s Navy sometime. Last month, the two countries sealed a $203 million deal that offers Bangladesh two Ming Class submarines. The move was scorned by India which could not help hide its dismay at the rising tide of Sino-Bangladeshi defense cooperation. Indeed a senior official recently took Beijing to task questioning the “necessity” of pact with Bangladesh. Delhi’s main concern is that these submarines may intrude into Indian waters. These events seem to raise alarm in India as the Indian Navy now plans to boost its presence in the Bay of Bengal.

China Navy
Bangladeshi navy soldiers see off Chinese navy hospital ship Peace Ark in Chittagong, Bangladesh, Nov. 15, 2010. Chinese navy hospital ship Peace Ark concluded its visit to Bangladesh as well as the “Mission Harmony-2010” on Monday and departed for China. (Xinhua/Zha Chunming)

Indian wariness is understandable since enhanced Chinese presence nearby continues to cause strategic anxiety in Delhi. Indeed, the Indian response is largely tailored at the more strategic concern on China rather than the diminutive effect with Bangladesh. As Paul J. Smith, Professor of National Security Affairs at the U.S. Naval War College, explained: “I don’t think the issue is the possession of submarines per se; it is China’s increasing influence in Bangladesh (including possibilities that China may be able to transform Chittagong into ‘Gwadar East’)”. This is what military planners in India are really worried about.” Gwadar is a strategic Pakistani port-affording access to the Arabian Sea and the Persian Gulf. The port, which is especially strategic for its importance in the global shipping trade, has come under fire in India as a result of Pakistan’s welcoming of significant Chinese investment and operational control.

With regard to Bangladesh’s naval revamp, India must gauge Dhaka’s real intentions. For example, there has been no indication from Bangladesh that it will permit China

with unfettered access to the Bay. And clearly Bangladesh understands that it cannot achieve the capabilities to overpower or match India in a sea battle. Rather Bangladesh’s focus could be to deter Myanmar since it was engaged in a feud with Naypyidaw a maritime territorial dispute. In 2008, tensions grew exponentially when Bangladesh dispatched a British-made warship to ward off Myanmar’s petroleum exploration vessel which was accompanied by a naval flotilla. Bangladesh deferred the issue to the United Nations International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) for a resolution. Long before the final ITLOS verdict came in the favor of Dhaka in 2012, the Bangladesh Navy has already started to implement its long-term strategic plans. For instance, the Bangladesh Navy began test firing automated missiles for the first time. Also, it commissioned a number of small ships, notably the decommissioned USCG Cutter Jarvis- a Hamilton class ship which happens to be the largest vessel in Bangladesh Navy. Interestingly it has been named Somudra Joy, meaning ocean victory, indicating Bangladesh’s triumph over Myanmar’s claim on the disputed waters. Apparently, Bangladesh feels more threatened by Myanmar on its Eastern flank rather than drummed up concern regarding India.

As Smith indicates though, while Dhaka’s intentions are more benign in nature, the implications of the deal are still significant in broader geostrategic terms: “I do not believe these submarines will pose a threat to India. But this misses the larger game that is being played. The Indian Ocean is the strategic arena of the 21st Century. China views the Indian Ocean as key to its geopolitical rise, particularly as the region’s sea lines connect the Chinese economy to critical sources of energy in the Middle-East and Africa.” And this greater strategic game is more problematic in the long-term. Smith puts forth that “the only arms race that matters in South Asia is the one between China and India. Pakistan, and to an increasing extent, Bangladesh serve as Beijing’s proxies in the region. This makes India very nervous when these two neighbors acquire new military capabilities.”

Geography denies China access to the Bay of Bengal. But this has not stopped Beijing from trying to extend its naval power projection beyond its national ports. Bangladesh is simply another element of China’s strategy to dramatically enhance its global naval posture. As Professor Smith aptly concludes, “This is the real strategic significance of selling submarines to Bangladesh. Imagine you are an Indian military planner. You have China on your western border (through its Pakistan proxy) and increasingly you have China on the Eastern border (increasingly close relations with Bangladesh). China also is making diplomatic and military inroads in Sri Lanka, Seychelles, and Mauritius among others. This is the new ‘great game’ in the Indian Ocean region; just as the United States ‘pivoted’ to the Asia-Pacific; China has ‘pivoted’ to the Indian Ocean. Again, the Bangladesh submarine story is part of this larger strategic game. ”

 – By Arafat Kabir and J. Berkshire Miller, Forbes.


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