Written by S. M. Ali, PhD
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who holds the Defence portfolio in the national cabinet, announced in early September 2015 that two submarines, currently under construction overseas, would join the Bangladesh Navy in mid-2016.
She said that base facilities and supporting infrastructure were receiving her administration’s ‘priority’. Commissioning Bangladesh’s first indigenously-built fleet oil tanker and four landing craft, she listed the steps her government had taken to modernize and expand the fleet with US, South Korean, Chinese and indigenous platforms, armaments and related systems... ...
She mentioned two refurbished US Coastguard cutters which had been recently received, and two Chinese-built modern corvettes being readied for commissioning into the fleet. Hasina pledged that further modernization, as envisaged in Force Goal 2030, would be implemented on time.
Given the recently-won certitude of the national maritime boundaries along both the Bay of Bengal’s eastern and western shores secured via international arbitration, Bangladesh appears determined to defend its territorial waters, the resources in its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), and along its putative continental-shelf. The Navy’s fleet, still modest by regional standards, is expected to play a crucial role in that essential endeavor. This is why professional and media commentary by observers in Bangladesh’s closest strategic ally and immediate neighbor, India, must be disconcerting to many Bangladeshis. The naval and other force-modernisation programmes, championed by the Hasina administration, considered the most India-friendly in decades, are essential to protecting and advancing Bangladesh’s core developmental and defensive security goals. And yet, Indian commentary on Dhaka’s maritime efforts has been inexplicably critical.
Shortly after the GoB announced its decision to order two submarines, a senior Indian Naval officer asked the Times of India newspaper, ‘Why would Bangladesh need submarines? This decision by the government there and the ongoing strife in the country is a matter of concern for us.’ The Times of India journalist later wrote, ‘When it became known to India that Bangladesh is on the hunt for two submarines for its navy, there was some consternation. More so when it came to be known that Bangladesh is negotiating with China for the Ming-class submarines. Something that India can do without at the moment is a spurt in military ties between China and Bangladesh.’ The author explained, ‘For years now, India has been attempting to keep the ‘dragon’s presence’ away from Bangladesh and other neighbouring countries. In certain cases, India has even offered products and services at rates that would be convenient for these countries.’
Although such concerns may appear difficult to explain given the close convergence of regional and systemic perceptions shared between the governments of Bangladesh (GoB) and India (GoI), which have forged intimate political-economic collaboration over the past decade, the Chief of Bangladesh’s Naval Staff, Vice Admiral Muhammad Farid Habib, undertook an official visit to New Delhi in November 2015. He met the Indian naval and air force commanders, explained his fleet’s modernization plans and set out collaborative options. The two fraternal navies discussed coordinated patrolling along their International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL), joint surveillance of the respective EEZs, hydrographic cooperation, joint drills, exchange of commercial shipping data, augmenting Bay of Bengal maritime security, shipbuilding cooperation and collaborative development of a ‘blue economy.’ In short, Bangladesh Navy formally stressed its status as a friendly, cooperative fundamentally defensive and benign regional force-multiplier.
This clearly was not enough. Even Indian civilian analysts noted, ‘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.’ It would be difficult to avoid asking, why would efforts by a most non-threatening, and indeed a most dependable and close ally, to secure its own maritime frontiers, sea-space and marine resources trouble New Delhi? Is it because the latter expects Bangladesh to do nothing to defend its own territory because India would provide for Bangladesh’s national defence? Is it because, in New Delhi’s view, Dhaka must seek its permission to build up its very limited and purely defensive capabilities? Or is it because any attempt by Bangladesh to secure itself is seen as a challenge to Indian interests?
Neither Indian naval officers nor security analysts provided answers to these questions. It is, however, possible, based on historical records, to surmise logical inferences. Concerns over Bangladesh’s naval modernization, especially its acquisition of submarines, need to be seen in the context of New Delhi’s regional perspectives and aspirations. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s summer visit to Bangladesh was viewed by Indian and other observers as Delhi’s efforts to win Dhaka over so as to deny China influence in India’s eastern flank. Bangladesh’s military-to-military links to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has not been unusual. Srikanth Kondapalli, an Indian academic considered a ‘China expert’, said ‘The number of PLA visits to Bangladesh is nearly the same as to India.’ However, in explaining prime ministerial diplomacy, he noted Delhi’s strategic intent to pre-empt any possible loss of influence: ‘Modi is trying to counter it (presumed Chinese influence) with his neighbourhood outreach.’ Non-Indian observers, too, identified similar motivations.
Those who view Bangladesh as perhaps ‘dangerously’ close to China militarily ignore the contours of Sino-Bangladeshi relations. The relationship is a variegated collection of diverse strands. Of these, the most significant one is economic, with Chinese help in building infrastructure across Bangladesh perhaps the most visible. At her brief summit meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in New York on the margins of the UN General Assembly session, Hasina expressed concern over trade imbalances with China, and Xi assured her of efforts to reduce the imbalance. According to Prime Minister Hasina’s ruling party, Xi said ‘cooperation between the two countries can be enhanced in the areas of trade, economy, communication and education sectors. He assured importing more jute products from Bangladesh.’ The party organ gave no indication of any intent inimical to India.
Still, if China is indeed the real driver behind Delhi’s Bangladesh policy, then, logically, Dhaka needs to be aware of it in formulating its own diplomatic and national security responses. Assuming that India’s dyadic concerns over Chinese influence in South Asia, rather than any direct Indian concern with Bangladesh itself, are the key shapers of Delhi’s Bangladesh policy, what should Dhaka do to secure, defend and advance its own interests? Using the Operational (or Operations) Research framework of analyses initiated by Charles Babbage in the 19th century and refined by Frederick Lanchester and others in the 20th, a series of inferences can be reached. Some examples:
Force Goal 2030, a broadbrush outline of plans to modernize Bangladesh’s armed forces, paramilitary services and allied production process, as recorded in the annual budget for FY 2012-13 , indicates a recognition of the essence of option 5, although traditionally febrile political dynamics could disrupt implementation. Several sets of relevant information, necessary for ascertaining the vision and purpose behind the scale and scope of modernization, are unavailable in this fiscal-monetary presentation:
Such lacuna notwithstanding, Force Goal 2030 is the first such outline-plan reflecting certain basic objectives in terms of force planning published in a long time. As far as is known, the plan was drawn up by Bangladeshi planners, approved by the elected leaders, and enacted into legislation by parliament. If this sequence is factually accurate, then no friendly neighbor should have grounds for anxiety, dissatisfaction or displeasure. If, however, foreign interests hostile to India drew up this plan to be implemented by their ‘Bangladeshi clients’, New Delhi would feel justified in perceiving questionable motives driving Dhaka’s military modernization efforts. Only GoB can assure its allies within GoI that its Force Goal 2030 was not drafted by a foreign party hostile to Indian interests. Since efforts by the Chief of Bangladesh’s Naval Staff apparently failed to reassure his Indian counterparts, reassurance by higher-level leaders may be necessary. That begs the question: since Bangladesh and India are effective allies, why are there such suspicions in Delhi?
The historical record may offer some indicators. Bangladesh’s armed forces evolved from the guerrilla forces comprising the national liberation formations and organisations. Records of the evolution of these organs are in the public domain. Much of the force, built around a nucleus formed by rebellious Bengali soldiers, sailors, airmen, paramilitary and police personnel from Pakistani units, and manned by students, workers, members of the professions and peasantry, was organised with direct Indian assistance, training and arms. Towards the closing stages of the war of independence, Bangladesh’s government-in-exile had formed three infantry brigade-groups with no armour, little artillery or any other supporting arms and services. This force formed the future national military’s core. After the Pakistani surrender, an estimated 350,000 mostly-Indian weapons of various calibres, as well as large caches of ammunition and explosives, were left in civilian hands. It took years to recover most of these, but these were not fit for military use.
Official Pakistani accounts report that country deployed, apart from a corps headquarters, three infantry division headquarters and three ad hoc divisional headquarters, nine infantry brigades, 34 infantry battalions, one armoured regiment, one independent armoured squadron, six artillery regiments, one anti-aircraft regiment, 13 paramilitary battalions, one fighter squadron, and no listed naval assets in the Bangladesh War against India. Some of the Pakistani materiel equipping these forces was destroyed or damaged in combat. The Pakistani personnel surrendered with the remaining ordnance to General Jagjit Singh Aurora on 16 December 1971. Major MA Jalil, Sector Commander in the Khulna area, challenged the Indian forces’ right to move captured Pakistani ordnance from his Sector to India and under Indian pressure, was briefly jailed. Shortly after his release, he joined the formative radical left-wing Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal, and rose to be its president.
Given the quantum and quality of the materiel surrendered by Pakistani forces, had India transferred these to its Bangladeshi allies, the latter could have immediately organised, armed and equipped at least four-to-five infantry-brigade groups, and stood-up a force capable of assuming post-war national security responsibilities. Instead, General Aurora, presumably on Delhi’s orders, shipped all Pakistani ordnance, and military-owned moveable non-lethal equipment, platforms and assets, to India. In 1976, Bangladesh’s Chief of Naval Staff and Deputy Chief Martial Law Administrator, Rear Admiral MH Khan, told US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, ‘We have nothing. After liberation fifteen ships sailed to India with military equipment.’
At the time of its birth, Bangladesh was very largely dependent on Indian assistance for its security, utterly reliant on Indian diplomatic support in the international arena, and posed no threats whatever to any state, least of all to its only ally. It had a largely negative perception of China since Beijing had supported Islamabad during the war. Still, Delhi decided against handing over captured Pakistani ordnance to the allied Bangladeshi forces which had helped to secure these within their own national territory. Strategic unease over Bangladesh’s then-nascent self-defensive capabilities may have already begun by then.
Given the ethno-cultural and politico-strategic convergence Bangladesh shared with its war-time ally at the time of its independence, that inexplicable but apparently elemental unease may illuminate Delhi’s concerns over the accretive growth of Bangladesh’s purely defensive capabilities. Since the latter could never use these capabilities to threaten Indian interests, and would have no reason whatever to challenge its ally which, in any case, will always enjoy an obviously overwhelming preponderant imbalance, persistent and underlying Indian anxiety over Bangladesh’s modest defensive abilities is not only ironic and subliminally subjective, but should also be of concern to Bangladesh.
Dhaka needs to consider what else it can do to allay its ally’s anxiety. Diplomacy, policy-convergence at the highest levels, and military–to-military links have flourished over the past decade, but have not succeeded in at least this regard. Since India still remains anxious, structural issues may be at play. An analysis of such challenges would merit substantial efforts and is beyond the scope of this paper, but could, in fact, reside in Delhi’s perceptual parameters rather than in any action Dhaka might or might not take.
Bangladesh, like many other developing states in Asia and Africa, has relied on procuring Chinese platforms and systems for almost four decades. A substantial element of its order of battle is equipped with Chinese-built items. Availability, familiarity, cost of purchase and life-cycle servicing and maintenance, ease of integration and training personnel, skill-levels available, risks of supply suspension in crisis-times and other factors go into deciding which systems to procure and which not to. Even very large, war-hardened and sophisticated organisations can find these decisions difficult to make. The Indian Air Force’s efforts to procure 126 MMRCA over the past decade are one instance of such challenges. The national response to these challenges do not indicate a strategic alignment for or against another state, and should not automatically be seen as such.
At the regional geopolitical and strategic level, India has undertaken significant policy reforms. Following its alliance with the Soviet Union, New Delhi has forged dramatically intensive and extensive military, security and intelligence linkages with the USA and Israel over the past 15 years while maintaining reasonably close ties to Russia. The USA, too, having spent the decades of the 1970s and 1980s in close clandestine collaboration with China in a joint global confrontation with the erstwhile Soviet Union and Soviet allies such as India, has turned around, and forged a strategic partnership with India. Similarly, at least since mid-1998, Beijing has sought to fashion a meaningfully benign engagement with New Delhi, especially at the military-to-military, as well as commercial, arena.
In short, in a dynamic milieu, national leaders and their supportive state-organs in these above states have often displayed both strategic agility and intellectual flexibility in pursuit of their respective national interests. If this assessment is correct, then it would be fair to say that national leaders of all states seek to advance their national interests as they perceive these, and then fashion and pursue policies which they believe will bring their states optimal advantage at the minimal necessary cost. As the custodians of their national interest and the fate of future generations, this is an obligation they willingly assume. Bangladesh’s leaders, civilian and military, are no exception.
Dr. Syed Mahmud Ali is an internationally renowned researcher and author on Sino-US strategic relations. He works for the London School of Economics as an East Asia Programme Associate. He has written eight books, six of them on China-US strategies.