Three months ago, the Indian Ocean welcomed its newest submarine force: Bangladesh took delivery of a pair of Chinese Ming-class Type 035B diesel electric submarines, joining a prestigious club of Asian maritime powers.
With India and China engaged in an intensifying Great Game along the Indian Ocean rim, key battleground states like Nepal and Sri Lanka have to date attracted the most attention. But the submarine sale serves as a reminder that their far bigger and more powerful neighbor to the east is embroiled in the Great Game too.
Bangladesh acquired the Chinese submarines in a 2013 deal valued at $203 million. Unable to afford more advanced Chinese Yuan– and Russian Kilo-class vessels, Dhaka opted for the Type 035Bs at a discount. The 1970s-era submarines were primarily used by China as training vessels in the 1990s and “were considered not to be successful,” though they’ve subsequently been outfitted with more advanced torpedoes and sonar.
On the surface the deal wasn’t particularly novel. Unlike India’s better-sheltered neighbors, Bangladesh has enjoyed strong ties with Beijing for decades. In 2005, China overtook India as the country’s top trading partner while Bangladesh accounted for 96 percent of the more than $1 billion in remittances China received from South Asia in 2014. A 2015 Pew survey showed 77 percent of Bangladeshis polled with a favorable view of China.
Arguably the most robust area of cooperation has been defense trade. Between 2011 and 2015 Bangladesh was the second-largest recipient of Chinese arms in the world (following Pakistan), with Beijing supplying over 80 percent of its arms imports over the past decade. In late 2015, Bangladesh took delivery of two Durjoy-class large patrol craft, scaled-down versions of China’s Type 056 corvette. Two more are under construction in China, which has pledged to help build up an additional four in Bangladesh.
Yet, there are two reasons the submarine sale stands out. First, after decades of operating as a localized force largely limited to the Western Pacific, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has begun spreading its wings in the Indian Ocean. In January 2016, a Bangladesh official told Reuters “Bangladesh has never hosted a naval ship from China and has no plans to.” Weeks later, two Chinese guided-missile frigates and a supply ship docked at Chittagong before conducting drills with the Bangladesh Navy.
In just the past five years, Chinese nuclear and conventional submarines began their first regular patrols of the Indian Ocean. Their relevance to the PLAN’s rotating anti-piracy deployment in Indian Ocean, begun in 2008, has been questioned by Delhi, as has their peculiar schedule of port calls.
More to the point, Chinese personnel will be involved in “supervising the construction and providing the designs” of the submarines being built at Bangladesh’s Kutubdia naval base. And, as Saurav Jha notes, Bangladesh’s new submarines “will have Chinese crews attached to them for training and familiarization purposes while plying in waters near India’s upcoming ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) bastions” at INS Varsha, a new Indian naval base currently under development. “Bangladesh’s submarine pool,” he concludes, “will allow China to extend its sensor net into the [Bay of Bengal], besides enabling it to gather information that would prove useful for its own submarine operations.”
Second, with China outmaneuvering India in several regional capitals in recent years, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is attempting to retake the initiative in India’s backyard, as evidenced by his signature “Neighborhood First” policy. Amid reports Beijing has offered to train Bangladesh submarine crews at its base on Hainan Island, last week we learned Delhi is trying to persuade Dhaka to instead send them to its premier submarine academy at Visakhapatnam.
In a sign of the growing importance Delhi attaches to bilateral relations, Prime Minister Modi, Home Minister Rajnath Singh, and Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar traveled to Bangladesh in 2015 and 2016. The exchanges were required to keep pace with Beijing, which welcomed Bangladesh’s prime minister and president in 2015. More significantly, in October 2016 President Xi Jinping became the first Chinese leader in 30 years to visit Bangladesh.
Hamstrung by domestic political opposition, Mr. Modi’s efforts to reach a landmark water-sharing deal with Dhaka have floundered. However, he has registered a pair of substantive diplomatic achievements. In August 2015, Delhi and Dhaka reached terms on a contentious land and population exchange. In a “centuries old territorial anomaly,” some 162 “enclaves” on both sides of the border had been housing 15,000 Bangladeshis in India and 38,000 Indians in Bangladesh. As Hosna Shewly notes:
A number of enclaves also hosted counterenclaves within their boundaries—in essence, a pocket of Indian land, surrounded by Bangladeshi territory, situated within India proper. There was even one case of an Indian counter-counterenclave.
A year earlier, Delhi and Dhaka put another longstanding dispute to rest when a UN Tribunal issued a decision delimiting their disputed maritime boundary. The Tribunal awarded Bangladesh roughly 19,500 of 25,500 square kilometers under dispute. India quietly accepted the ruling, a sharp contrast to China’s acerbic rejection of a July 2016 UNCLOS Tribunal decision in favor of the Philippines.
The Modi government has remained mum on the submarine transfer itself. Meanwhile, Indian analysts have been less sanguine. Probal Ghosh of the Observer Research Foundation warns that the transfer “greatly enhances the mistrust between Delhi and Dhaka,” and advocates steps to “prevent Bangladesh from playing the China card repeatedly.” The sale’s strategic importance, he says, “cannot be understated in any way.”