By Amitava Mukherjee*
In the last week of May 2016, Bangladesh had hosted the Chinese Defence Minister, General Chang Wanguan,in a quiet manner. But, the visit must have raised eyebrows in the corridors of power in New Delhi because it has signaled the possibility of China and Bangladesh serving each other’s strategic and military needs in near future which may go against India’s interests in South Asia.
A subterranean tension between India and Bangladesh over the latter’s foreign policy initiatives exists, but this may get a new dimension after Chang Wanguan’s visit. Welcoming the Chinese Defence Minister, Abdul Hamid, the President of Bangladesh, had said that his country totally supports China so far as the latter’s core interests are concerned including Beijing’s One Belt and One Road (OBOR) initiative and its interests in the South China Sea.
Nothing can be more provocative for India as China considers control over the Indian Ocean a matter of core interest and its increasing forays into the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean have raised the prospect of the region’s militarization. Equally interesting is the attitude of the Bangladesh army which is now showing signs of transgressing into areas which are traditionally reserved for political executives in a parliamentary form of government. During his last visit to Beijing, Abu Belal Mohammed Shafiul Huq, the Bangladesh army chief, had not only expressed his desire for training of Bangladesh army personnel by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China but had also talked about broader and deeper cooperation between the armies of China and Bangladesh.
But this is a logical corollary of the strategic relationship that the two countries have built up over the years. China is now Bangladesh’s largest arms supplier. Beijing now supplies arms to 35 countries, and of them, Bangladesh is the second largest customer. This may look a little bit odd given Bangladesh’s small size. But in recent time, Bangladesh was seen in the international arms market on a buying spree. It has purchased helicopters from France, aircrafts from Germany, light helicopters from Italy and armoured personnel carriers from Russia. But it will be wrong to assume that Dhaka’s source of arms purchase is manifold. Eighty two percent of Bangladesh’s total arms purchase comes from China while the corresponding figure for Pakistan, Beijing’s principal pawn in the South Asian strategic chessboard, is only 54 percent. For an impoverished country like Bangladesh, its total annual expenditure for buying arms in 2015 was a mind boggling figure- more than USD 2 billion.
Hasina Wazed’s growing preference for China instead of India in South Asian scenario perhaps stems from her desire for increased Chinese investments in her country. But, in doing so she has exhibited her political immaturity. While on tour in China in June 2014, she entered into various agreements with Beijing which were militarily uncomfortable for India. But after coming back to Dhaka, Hasina announced that she was prepared to condone China’s role during Bangladesh’s liberation war. (China had supported Pakistan when the latter was committing genocide in Bangladesh.) At a stroke this washed away whatever credibility Hasina Wazed used to enjoy with Bangladeshi freedom fighters.
Something strange is there in Bangladesh’s strategic formulation. In April 2015, Dhaka entered into agreements with Moscow for buying six Russian military Mi- 171SH combat transport helicopters and one Mi-171E medium light transport aircraft in spite of the fact that Bangladesh’s military necessity is very limited. Engaging India in any war is out of question for Dhaka. It has a dispute with Myanmar on the Rohingya issue. But, no country goes to war on so minor a problem. So the only explanation is that Bangladesh is repositioning itself on the South Asian strategic map either to play a bigger role or perform the role of a proxy for any big power.
The second postulate becomes stronger by the fact that Bangladesh has handed over to China the task of development and modernization of the Chittagong port. This will give Beijing an excellent base for spreading its influence in the Bay of Bengal- Indian Ocean region. Secondly till a year ago Dhaka had plans to build a deep sea port at the Sonadia island in the Bay of Bengal off Cox Bazar by Chinese finance,technology and administrative control but was forced to abandon the plan under intense US and Indian pressure.
But between 2008 and 2012, Bangladesh purchased from China tanks, anti-ship missiles and fighter aircrafts. Two Chinese submarines, purchased from Beijing at a cost of $ 203 million are expected to join the Bangladesh navy later this year. In addition, Bangladesh has already commissioned two new Chinese frigates in 2014 and its navy has already tested fired automated missiles.
New Delhi is also not very sure about the future trajectory of its relations with Bangladesh. Therefore, it has decided to build a deep sea port at the Sagar Island in West Bengal which will have an advanced post of the Indian Navy and infrastructures for land to ship and surface to air missile bases.
*Amitava Mukherjee is a senior journalist and commentator. He can be contacted at [email protected].