As the Bangladesh Navy inches towards its goal of becoming a three-dimensional force capable of operating above, on, and under water, based on its envisaged “Force Goal 2030,” the possible rise of a regional naval power in the Bay of Bengal is sure to ruffle a few feathers in New Delhi. India is seeking to be more engaged in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) to counter an ever increasing number of Chinese naval deployments. Does Bangladesh see itself as a serious regional naval power in the years to come? Is it facing legitimate threats that warrant such a build up? What implications could this have for the security architecture in the Bay of Bengal?
Having won its maritime disputes against Myanmar and India under a UN tribunal over the last two years, Bangladesh is now keen to be able to safeguard its right to explore and potentially exploit energy and mineral resources in the area. It also suffers from a very high incidence of piracy along its coast, which highlights the need to build the capacity of the Bangladeshi Navy and other costal forces to mitigate the problem. In fact, the Bangladeshi Navy has a number of vessels and aircraft on order which will give it the capability to conduct more anti-piracy and resource protection patrols. These range from old U.S. Coast Guard cutters and indigenously built patrol vessels, to Chinese built/refurbished corvettes and a budding new aviation wing comprising a handful of helicopters and fixed wing aircraft. The Navy also has two Chinese Ming-class submarines on order, due to be delivered by 2019 which will give the force some serious offensive firepower.
It is this order for Chinese submarines that is beginning to challenge the overt narrative of “capacity building” for local constabulary actions to tackle piracy and guard resource assets. The only two nations that border Bangladesh on land and in the Bay of Bengal are India and Myanmar. Both countries have accepted the UN’s verdict on Bangladesh’s rights to the previously contested Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The addition of offensive vessels like submarines, however, suggests that Dhaka still views India and Myanmar’s interest in the region as a threat or that it wants to harness capabilities that will help it to be taken a serious regional player. That is clearly a Bangladeshi aspiration, given that it has been dispatching aid through its navy to local natural disaster zones as well as participating in joint exercises with dominant naval forces in the region.
The acquisition of two outdated diesel submarines will not pose a significant threat to India. They could be of some military value, however, if tensions with Myanmar were to re-emerge. What is ruffling feathers in New Delhi is the idea that the Chinese are beginning to make further inroads into South Asia, gaining influence through the supply of cheap military hardware and investing in infrastructure projects such as ports and airports. While Dhaka has not yet granted the Chinese any rights or privileges on its bases or territory, the recent docking of a Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) nuclear submarine at a privately built Chinese port in Sri Lanka will stoke fear of further such incidences.
Over the years New Delhi has suffered from a foreign policy paralysis that has resulted in it trying to play catch up with China. It is only recently that inroads have been made in Indo-Bangladesh relations with both countries engaging each other actively to resolve territorial and power/water disputes. Dhaka is supposed to have approached India to help provide it with two submarines sometime in 2013. The Indian Navy, itself down to historically low submarine numbers, was in no position to meet the request. The Indian recommendation was to approach Russia, but China was willing and able to step in and meet the demand.
Bangladesh has been seeking to diversify its defense equipment suppliers over the years. These efforts have been stymied by factors of affordability, given its weak economy. While woefully behind in its ability to supply Bangladesh with military hardware, India can leverage historical, cultural ties, and military-to-military engagements in the form of joint exercises and training of personnel.
When the Bangladesh Navy eventually does acquire the capability to operate in the air, surface and under water it will be of paramount importance for India to engage and develop ties to not only better gauge Bangladesh’s intent but also to create a regional ally instead of a competitor. Any other outcome has the potential to produce a naval competition in the Bay of Bengal that Bangladesh can ill afford and India certainly does not need.
Pushan Das is a researcher at Wikistrat.