The tangled avenues of metropolitan Chittagong reveal an abundance of contradictions. On the eastern edge of Bangladesh’s economic capital, rickshaw-laden streets and the dense slum districts, such as Moti Jharna, give way to hulking, maize-colored cranes and endless rows of shipping containers. These massive hoists process hundreds of tons of grain, cement, and sugar at the Chittagong port each day, responsible for 80 percent of the country’s trade. Beyond them the, Bangladeshi navy’s prized frigate, BNS Bangabandhu, stands at the ready in the Karnaphuli River estuary. Named for founding father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the ship is not only a symbol of Bangladesh’s rapid naval modernization, but also of the increasing militarization of the surrounding Bay of Bengal.
“As a poor developing country, Bangladesh is likely to face many ongoing political and economic challenges in fulfilling its naval modernization agenda,” Sergei DeSilva-Ranasinghe, a visiting fellow at the University of Canberra told The Diplomat in an interview. Bengalis are among the world’s poorest citizens. GDP per capita stands at $848, and 31.5 percent of Bangladesh’s 153 million inhabitants live below the poverty line, according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Eight million Bengalis survive on less than a dollar a day, and rapid urbanization has caused massive overcrowding. The country’s six largest cities housed 9,048 slums in 2005. That number continues to rise.
Still, for Bangladesh, modernizing the fledgling navy to defend its 700-kilometer coastline is a matter of economic survival. With 90 percent of Bangladeshi trade dependent on sea lines of communication (SLOCs), and vulnerable to maritime threats from India and Myanmar, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina embarked upon an expensive revamp of the navy in 2010. India successfully blockaded the Bay of Bengal during the Indo-Pakistani war of 1971, just before Bangladesh won its independence, and, if it chose to, New Delhi could inflict grave economic damage again with another such barrier.
The Bay of Bengal hardly comes up on the Asia-Pacific’s long register of political-military flashpoints, but with major oil discoveries in the region, “tensions over mining rights located along the shared maritime boundaries have escalated the stakes,” DeSilva notes. The oft-ignored region has garnered a flood of foreign direct investment: Thai investors have underwritten Myanmar’s Dawei project to the tune of $8.5 billion. China eyes Cox’s Bazar, just to the south of Chittagong at Bangladesh’s southernmost tip, as a future foothold in the bay, investing $200 million to build an airport there.
But Bangladesh’s attempts at naval modernization long predate the infusion of foreign money by over a decade. The country began an impressive buildup in 2001, commissioning Korean-made frigate BNS Bangabandhu (once BNS Khalid Bin Walid), before ordering seven new warships, three British manufactured offshore patrol vessels, two Korean fast attack craft in 2004, and upgrading two frigates with anti-ship surface-to-surface missiles (SSM) in 2006.
Hasina’s focus on maritime access has meant heavy investment in patrol craft and smaller warships, including the acquisition of re-commissioned British surveying vessel HMS Roebuck, along with a hydrographic vessel and two ex-Royal Navy Castle-class corvettes later in 2010. Hasina also provided funding for the Bengali Naval Academy and the Navy’s Special Warfare and Diving Salvage (SWADS) unit. The ruling Bangladesh Awami League (BAL) capped off the spending spree in 2012 by purchasing two Chinese built Type 053 “Jiangwei II” Class guided-missile frigates for $200 million each, and hopes to acquire three more.
The navy is stronger than ever: its five frigates headline a force comprising 85 warships, 19,000 personnel, and three regional commands – well equipped to handle piracy, trafficking, and maritime crime incursions that threaten Bengali commerce. But for Hasina and the BAL, all those goals are for naught without a credible submarine threat. “The Bangladesh navy’s attempt to create a submarine arm constitutes the apex of its naval modernization program,” DeSilva notes.
The government has set specific targets for the program, hoping to complete submarine base facilities by 2019 and build a “three-dimensional” deterrent force by 2021, adding an underwater fleet to compliment surface and naval air components. Additionally, two diesel-electric subs could be on the way from China shortly. Still, although the acquisition of a submarine would represent the “most significant deterrent to both India and Myanmar,” as DeSilva suggests, it is “perhaps the most likely project to be affected should budget constraints prevail.”
Bangladesh may never be able to match rival India’s naval might tit-for-tat. The world’s largest democracy maintains an economy nearly sixteen times the size of Dhaka’s, and New Delhi has made investment in the Indian navy, the seventh largest in the world, a priority. The service boasts 55,000 personnel, 14 frigates, and 15 attack submarines, one of which, the nuclear-powered INS Chakra (S71) is on loan from Russia until 2022.
Before the loan expires, however, India will complete six more French Scorpéne-class attack subs between 2016 and 2019 at Mazagon Dock in Mumbai, and plans to build seven upgraded Shivalik-class stealth frigates, the successor to the staple Talwar-class. Myanmar, which is having its $120 million Sittwe deep water port project underwritten by Indian investors, has three of its own frigates, including two ex-PLA Navy Type 53H1s, stationed in the Bay
But Hasina is resorting to other measures to defend her turf. “Bangladesh is not playing a zero-sum game with India or Myanmar, but it is nonetheless seriously asserting its agenda,” DeSilva points out. Unable to command military supremacy in the bay, Dhaka has sought to defend its 700-kilometer coastline by seeking international arbitration on territorial claims: it won rights to a 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) from Myanmar at the UN’s International Tribunal on the Laws of the Sea (ITLOS) last year. Bengali accusations that India is falsely laying claim to 19,000km2 of its maritime domain, a hydrocarbon-rich slice of real estate, are pending a final decision from an international arbiter next year.
That is a piecemeal strategy, and may not be enough to defend Bangladesh’s interests. But Hasina and her admirals should not hope to match New Delhi’s dynamic naval force structure. So far, the strategy has proven a success in many ways. “Bangladesh is increasing its capacity to resist potential foreign naval aggression, should it arise,” DeSilva notes. Indeed, a deterrent force is not meant to overpower the Indian fleet, but to prove that Bangladesh can inflict enough damage to make conflict a losing proposition. To sustain that force for the long haul, Hasina must begin to resolve Bangladesh’s economic contradictions in earnest. With slum dwellings continuing to populate Chittagong’s hillsides, that will be an increasingly difficult task.
Andrew Detsch is an Editorial Assistant at The Diplomat.