Arms Race In The Bay Of Bengal

Comment: By Sazzad Haider

The purchasing of two submarines from Beijing puts Bangladesh in a dilemma over the equilibrium between its mighty neighbours; India and China.  The growing Chinese influence in Bangladesh, economic & military, has become a growing concern for India.  Following an extensive military procurement drive, India is now trying to persuade Bangladesh to sign a defence treaty to regain a geopolitical edge over the Chinese.

On  November 14th 2016, the Bangladeshi Navy officially received delivery of two Ming-class Type 035 G diesel submarines (each worth $203 million) from Dalian, China. The purchasing of submarines was a significant upset for the Indian hierarchy. Immediately after the handing over of the submarines, Indian Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar visited Dhaka and insisted that Bangladesh finalize the defence cooperation agreement which is to be signed when Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina visits India on  April 7th.

India is worried about the Chinese influence in the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean. China has built up economic and military ties with Sri Lanka, the Seychelles and Mauritius. On the western frontier Pakistan (India’s arch-enemy) has a strong alliance with China. As India’s eastern frontier is with Bangladesh, Bangladesh’s goodwill is seen by Beijing as a means of encircling India with Chinese proxies.  

Moreover, since Bangladesh has employed Chinese crews for training and familiarization purposes, India is concerned that submarines might have roamed under the Bay of Bengal close to Indian navy bases with Chinese Naval personnel on board. From the Indian point of view, these Chinese crews might engage in espionage, conduct seismic surveys and be able to gather information at will.

To prevent the presence of Chinese military experts under water, it was learnt that India offered to train Bangladeshi submariners at the Indian submarine academy at Visakhapatnam.

Apart from the Submarines, Bangladesh’s Navy had recently procured two frigates (Type 053H2) from China in 2014. Each frigate is outfitted with 76 mm and 30 mm naval guns, C-802A anti-ship missiles (ASMs) and a FN-3000N surface-to-air missile (SAM) system.

Between 2004 and 2016, Chinese influence over the Bangladesh armed forces has gradually increased as Dhaka has purchased around about 78 percent of its military hardware from China. Now India has shown an interest in selling military hardware to Bangladesh and wants to contest Beijing’s share of this lucrative market..  

Competing with next door neighbour Myanmar, Bangladesh is now modernising its armed forces and procuring weapons from overseas. Since 1977 the relationship between Bangladesh and Myanmar has been problematic due to the Rohingya issue and the maritime boundary.

Following international arbitration between the two countries, Bangladesh was awarded 118,813 square nautical miles in the Bay of Bengal. After this arbitration Bangladesh has introduced measures to upgrade the capability of its naval force.  Myanmar followed suit and a lucrative arms market was created for both China and India.  

In 2012, the Myanmar Navy got two Type 053H1 class frigates from China. This brought the total number of frigates to six.

India wants to be a weapons manufacturer for the global arms market. Delhi has already supplied rocket launchers, mortars, night-vision technology, communications and construction equipment to Myanmar.

The aspiring great power recently produced lightweight torpedoes and signed a deal worth the $37.9 million to sell torpedoes to Myanmar. They also provided submarine sonar suites, directing gear and inertial navigation systems.  

Following consolidation in the Myanmar arms market, India is now looking at the Bangladesh market and wants to supersede Chinese dominance.

Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina visited India on April 7th. During her visit a deal has been signed worth $ 500 million arms procurement from India.

Moreover, in a bid to consolidate its advantage, India insisted Bangladesh to sign a 25-year defence agreement. As  a compromise, Bangladesh agreed to sign a 5-year defence cooperation.

Greater military-to-military cooperation will be built up between both countries. India is to sell and supply military hardware to Bangladesh. Both countries will coordinate operations against perceived threats.   

The arms-race between Bangladesh and Myanmar has been ignited by the emerging arms exporters; China and India. Other arms-producing countries may also join to them to sell their products in this region.

Therefore tension, mistrust, irreverence will exist in the blue waters of the Bay of Bengal. For both Myanmar and Bangladesh, the expenditure for security purposes in the blue economic zone will be higher than what they can extract from the newly arbitrated sea. Moreover, the Bay of Bengal will become an arena for the militaries of India and China to compete. The rapidly growing developing countries, Bangladesh and Myanmar have to contribute willingly or unwillingly to this new ‘Great Game’ at a high cost.

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