China has again underlined its strategic influence in what India might once have considered its own backyard, with the announcement of the latest in a string of arms sales to Bangladesh.
Dhaka is procuring 44 Chinese MBT-2000s main battle tanks, Bangladeshi media have reported, for around $162 million. This represents a significant purchase for a country with a 2011 defence budget of $1.6 billion, and it’s the first time that Bangladesh has obtained newly assembled MBTs. The army currently has an inventory of around 200 older Chinese tanks, which have been upgraded with Beijing’s assistance to keep them in service. One of China’s other key regional allies, Pakistan, also operates the MBT-2000.
China isn’t the sole supplier of military equipment to Dhaka, which has also sourced military technology (most of it second hand) from Italy, Russia, South Korea, the UK and the United States in recent years, while announcing the purchase of two new army helicopters from French firm Eurocopter alongside the MBT purchase. But Beijing has established itself as Bangladesh’s go-to ally when it comes to military procurement, and stands to be the main beneficiary as Bangladesh attempts to refurbish its army, navy and air force in spite of budgetary constraints. China has supplied armoured personnel carriers, fighter aircraft and frigates to Bangladesh within the last couple of years.
Dhaka’s limited defence funds mean that arms sales have more strategic than economic value from China’s perspective. Beijing is already bankrolling the construction of a deep-water port at Sonadia, near Cox’s Bazar, where the Bangladeshi government is also constructing an advanced air base to help it protect its offshore interests in the Bay of Bengal. China is working on similar commercial port projects in Burma, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, in what has been widely interpreted as a robust strategic challenge to Indian influence in the South Asian region.
Bangladesh’s growing dependence on Chinese weapon systems could also see the country become the first export customer after Pakistan for the Chinese-built FC-1/JF-17 and FC-20/J-10 fighter aircraft, both of which were built by China with foreign sales in mind. Beijing will be lobbying hard for Dhaka to agree to procure the jets – perhaps even offering loans to make the procurement happen – in order to give its export models some early traction.
The second-hand submarine that Bangladesh is seeking in order to further safeguard its offshore assets is also likely to be sourced from China. Despite an interest in contributing more fully to international peace-keeping missions, the protection of those offshore energy resources in the face of competition from India and Burma is Bangladesh’s prime motivation. Close ties with China will also benefit the country in its local rivalry with Burma, another Chinese ally but one that Beijing regards as more problematic than the Bangladeshis. The protection of its sometimes restive border with Burma – which also operates Chinese tanks, though not the new MBT-2000 – will be one of the main contingencies for Bangladesh’s newly procured armour.