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Bangladesh’s naval quest for power

Even a couple of years ago, Bangladesh had nothing but a few patrol boats by way of its navy.

Not any more. Now that Bangladesh is set to join India and Myanmar to explore and  make commercial use of its gas and  hydrocarbon resources in the Bay of Bengal, its navy is set to acquire more teeth. During the past decade the strategic importance of the Bay of Bengal in the South Asia region has increased greatly. Its energy-rich, often turbulent, waters have of late attracted major attention from the USA, Russia, Japan and China, among others. Evidence of this is the recent visits to Bangladesh made by leaders of China, Russia, the US and India.

It is no surprise that Bangladesh has just ordered 2 corvettes and two frigates to upgrade its navy. From Germany, it is purchasing 2 sophisticated navigatory helicopters, while the US is committed to supplying a number of inflatable, rigid hull boats to aid more intensive patrolling.

Bangladesh is the last country in the South Asia region to shore up its naval defence. The move follows a disagreement some time ago with India and Myanmar, over the maritime limits legally enjoyed by each country over the bay waters. Bangladesh protested against the movement Indian and Burmese vessels into what it regarded as part of its own maritime zone, which normally extends totally up to 12 miles from the shore, ranging up to 200 miles. Both India and Myanmar have been carrying out drilling and exploration efforts in the area for some years to exploit commercially the rich hydrocarbon reserves.

Bangladesh took its case to the international courts. By the Laws of the Sea as defined by the United Nations, it won the right in an International tribunal to exercise its maritime right over 111,000 square miles, which is roughly the size of the country itself! Clearly it needed much more than patrol boats to watch over such a big area.

The verdict also helped the country's own offshore exploration efforts. The US-based Conoco-Philips company had started preliminary survey and other work in six energy-rich blocks from 2008, but had to halt its operations because of confusion over maritime control.  Now these efforts will resume in full swing, according to Dhaka-based media.

This also indicates Bangladesh's clear preference to US companies when it comes to awarding gas exploration and related work. On land, the American Chevron company has been operating out of Sylhet district for some time. However, the country's experience with a Canadian company in another area has been very negative, with targets not being fulfilled and involving litigation.

During her recent visit to Dhaka, US Secretary of State Mrs Hillary Clinton is learnt to have assured Bangladesh of her country's help in developing its energy resources. Along with West Bengal in India, the US also proposed a partnership status for Bangladesh.

Observers perceive in such moves a clear American objective to ensure that Bangladesh and neighbouring Indian states developed economically through closer integration and co-operation. Along with faster economic growth for this highly populous, energy rich region, the US would also like to help Bangladesh and India weed out the threat of Islamic terrorism. Welcoming the ruling Awami league's zero tolerance of religious extremists and the banning of several organisations, the US as part of its anti-terror worldwide campaign would like to ensure that no country or state allowed terrorists any shelter or transit facilities. This was precisely one major objective the outgoing BNP-regime headed by Khaleda Zia had not done anything to help achieve.

A stronger navy again, it has been suggested would also strengthen investors' confidence in their projects in Bangladesh.
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