Huge expansion of Navy under way
Bangladesh has just acquired two refurbished diesel-electric Chinese submarines at a reported price of $203 million. The first was delivered on November 14. The delivery of the second will be in a matter of days. They are 035 (Ming-class) subs. The acquisition of Chinese subs by Bangladesh seems to have taken our Government completely unawares and caused consternation. This is natural. India cannot view with equanimity China’s involvement in as sensitive a field in Bangladesh as defence. Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar is being dispatched post haste to Dhaka on a two-day visit by the month end.
The acquisition of the subs is not, however, a one-off event. It is part of the Bangladesh defence establishment’s Forces Goal 2030. As a part of this, the Navy has drawn up an ambitious expansion programme to raise its fleet strength to 150 ships by 2030. In December 2013, the Bangladesh media reported that the Navy was building a submarine base near Kutubdia island, off Cox’s Bazar in Chittagong, keeping in view the future need for a safe haven for its submarine fleet. Bangladesh, it may be recalled, had bought two Ming class submarines earlier in 2014.
The mandarins of the South Block must have been aware of these developments. At present India is building six submarines. All of them are scheduled to join the navy by 2020. Could not have India made a timely offer to Bangladesh to build two subs for its navy and thus kept China out of it?
What is the imperative for Bangladesh to strengthen its navy rapidly? The answer is simple: to protect its vast maritime territory in the Bay of Bengal. Two international awards have settled Bangladesh’s maritime disputes with India and Myanmar in favour of Bangladesh. In its verdict, the International Tribunal for the Law of the Seas (ITLOS) awarded Bangladesh 70,000 sq.kms (30,888 sq. miles) area in the Bay of Bengal. In the second verdict, the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) awarded Bangladesh an area of 19,467 sq. kms (7516 sq. miles), finally settling its maritime boundary dispute with India. This came in July 2014. The two verdicts together give Bangladesh a maritime territory equal to the country’s landmass.
The Bay of Bengal is reported to have rich deposits of oil and natural gas. Geologists believe that Bangladesh’s exclusive economic zone in the Bay of Bengal holds one of the largest oil and gas reserves in the Asia-Pacific region. The exploration of this rich reserve has the potential of transforming Bangladesh into a major global hydro-carbon producer. Bangladesh is now free to invite global tenders for oil and gas exploration in the Bay. Energy-hungry China is likely to be keen in joining hands with Bangladesh in oil and gas exploration in the Bay, bringing the two countries closer together, with all its concomitant implications for next-door neighbour India.
Though China was against the liberation movement of Bangladesh (it was siding with Pakistan at the time), once the hard reality of its emergence as a sovereign independent country could not be wished away, China began to mend fences with Bangladesh. It accorded diplomatic recognition to Bangladesh in October 1975 and went about deepening and diversifying its diplomatic, political, military, and economic relations with it.
In 1991, the then Prime Minister, P. V. Narasismha Rao adopted his famous “Look East Policy” to forge closer economic links with India’s neighbours primarily to shore up its strength as a regional power. There was an unstated objective also: to counter China’s growing influence in the region. A decade later, in 2002, Bangladesh also adopted its Look East Policy to maximise and diversify its economic intercourse with her neighbours, particularly with China.
The year 2005 marked the 30th anniversary of establishing diplomatic relations between the two countries. It was declared the China-Bangladesh Friendship Year. In April that year Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao visited Dhaka and a number of agreements of mutual cooperation and two MOUs were signed. China offered to assist Bangladesh, among other things, in developing nuclear energy. Since then, Sino-Bangla cooperation has extended to many fields – from training of defence personnel to infrastructure development.
Geo-strategically, China has been trying to encircle India with its ‘string of pearls’ policy. Now India is actively pursuing a counter strategy. Beijing’s unilateral claim over the South China Sea has brought it in conflict with its once friend and ally Vietnam, besides Japan, Malaysia, and the Philippines. India has signed an agreement with Vietnam for exploring mineral resources in the South China Sea to which China is dead opposed.
Indo-Vietnam cooperation is increasing, including defence cooperation. India is actually building an informal and unannounced alliance to protect its interests in South and South-East Asia and neutralise the growing Chinese influence. China’s challenge to India is not just military. It is also economic. China is taking active part in the development of many neighbouring countries. Chinese assistance extends to as small a country as Fiji in the far away South Pacific Ocean.
Sino-Bangla relations have to be seen in this wider and complex international background and their implications for India understood. It should be borne in mind that China tried to befriend the Rajapaksa Government in Sri Lanka and succeeded in getting one of its submarines docked in a Sri Lanka port in 2014. The sub was spotted twice. The presence of a Chinese sub in Indian waters alarmed New Delhi. It heaved a sigh of relief when Mahinda Rajapakse was defeated in the 2015 Presidential elections and Maithripala Sirisena succeeded him. Sirisena rectified the pro-China tilt in Sri Lanka’s foreign policy.
Sino-Bangladesh defence cooperation has steadily grown. Today the Bangladesh Army has Chinese tanks, its Air Force has Chinese fighter jets, and its Navy has Chinese frigates and missiles boats. Bangladesh is now a major importer of Chinese arms. This June, the Bangladesh Cabinet cleared the Rooppur nuclear power plant project. It will be built by Russia at an estimated cost of $11.38 billion. The money will be provided by Russia under a line of credit. China was keen on getting the project but eventually Bangladesh gave the contract to Russia. Pakistani media alleged there was gentle Indian nudging behind the change of mind of the Hasina Government.
Bangladesh is exploring all avenues for its speedy development. India will have to extend its hand of cooperation to Bangladesh to the best possible extent to protect its interests as best as it can.
(The views expressed are strictly personal.)