The Bangladesh Navy has been trying to acquire submarines over the past decade. It negotiated with Italy and Germany for refurbished submarines however the negotiations did not yield any positive results for Dhaka. Bangladesh knew it would face a lot of pressure from neighbouring India over the planned submarine procurement so they expected India’s government to act desperately to thwart their plans and tactfully asked the Indians if they could provide any submarines knowing the Indian Navy would be unable to do so. The Indians in return suggested the Bangladesh Navy purchase submarines from Russia. This left New Delhi red faced and increasingly worried about the direction the Bangladesh Navy would take realising of course Dhaka never intended to purchase submarines from India or needed any approval from New Delhi on where to obtain its military hardware from. India was further perplexed by the announcement of a strategic partnership between Bangladesh and China during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Bangladesh in October 2016.
India’s desperation became fully apparent after the Bangladesh Navy received its first two submarines from China purchased for only $203 million November last year. The refurbished submarines incurred a mega shockwave of tsunami proportions in New Delhi, which has always been vocal against neighbouring countries who are trying to improve the capabilities of their respective armed forces. Indian Defence and strategic analysts who appear to be linked to the Indian government aired their disapproval through Indian television based talk shows questioning the Bangladesh Navy’s need for submarines. They view the submarines as a vehicle from which China will gain further influence in South Asia and monitor Indian Navy movements in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea.
After the submarines arrived in Dhaka late last year India despatched its Defence Minister Manohar Gopalkrishna Prabhu Parrikar on a two day state level visit on 30, November 2016 to pressurise Dhaka in to signing a 25-year long term defence agreement with India. The Bangladesh Armed Forces did not find such an agreement acceptable to the country’s sovereignty and national security. They declined to approve such a comprehensive and unnecessary defence agreement with India. Later the two countries chalked out a plan to sign a non-binding, ambiguous defence deal covering training, technical cooperation and a $500 million Letter of Credit by India to the Bangladesh Armed Forces for purchasing military equipment.
On 31 March 2017 the newly appointed Chief of Staff of the Indian Army General Bipin Rawat was rushed to Dhaka to emphasise India’s apparent desperation to sign the deal. The Indian General was greeted upon arrival by Major General Ataul Karim, Logistics Area Commander of the Bangladesh Army in sharp contrast to the earlier visit of the China’s Defence Minister General Chang Wanquan who was received and seen off at the airport by the Bangladesh Army’s Chief of Staff General Abu Belal Muhammad Shafiul Huq during May 2016. The Indian Army Chief briefly met with the Armed Forces Chiefs of Bangladesh in meetings that lasted only 15 to 20 minutes each. In comparison even the Nepal Army Chief of Staff General Rajendra Chhetri was accorded with a dinner at the Bangladesh Army Chief’s residence in November 2016 highlighting the closeness of the two armies.
The defence deal was harshly criticised in Bangladeshi society, media and political establishments as an anti-Bangladesh pact however it has now emerged that the defence deal between Bangladesh and India are quite minor in nature. They were piled on by New Delhi’s Hindu-right wing government led BJP for domestic consumption than any meaningful advantage for India’s hegemonic strategy in the region. Whilst the Indian media and online communities harped on about the possibility of Bangladesh purchasing defence hardware from India the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced on 8 April 2017 that the Indian credit for Bangladesh’s Armed Forces would be “guided by Bangladesh’s needs and priorities” during a joint press conference with Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina who is on a 5-day state visit to India. Modi’s statement rubbished all claims that the Bangladesh armed forces would be purchasing substandard Indian made military hardware at exorbitant prices going against the interests of the country. Bangladesh’s Foreign Secretary Shahidul Haque confirmed that Bangladesh was not bound to buy any military hardware exclusively from India under the deal. This itself highlights India’s desperation to make a defence deal with Bangladesh as very few other country’s in the world would agree to allow their finance package to be used for purchasing foreign-made equipment. It is an admittance and realisation by the Indian government that their indigenously made defence equipment are of such inferior quality that they are not to be offered as exports under credit packages to country’s maintaining competent armed forces such as Bangladesh.
The gist of the three other MoU’s signed on defence cooperation covered training, raising capabilities and cooperation. They are not anything particularly new or affect Bangladesh’s sovereignty in truth. Bangladesh maintains similar defence agreements with Belarus, Brazil, China, France, Kuwait, Singapore, South Korea, Turkey, Russia, United Kingdom and United States. Besides it is signing similar defence cooperation deals with the Bahrain, Canada, Czech Republic, Italy, Qatar, Malaysia, Palestine, the Philippines and Serbia. It signed its first defence cooperation deal with Turkey in 1982.
The defence cooperation deal will give the Indian government some propaganda value in the short run ahead of India’s national elections in 2019 as they will be eager to claim that they have some sort of stake in Bangladesh’s defence to showcase it as a major foreign policy achievement in the Modi-led BJP government’s apparent successes whilst ruling India. Overzealous pro-Modi elements in the Indian media have already started fabricating stories about how India’s paltry $500 million will help fund the purchase of 8+4 MRCA’s for the Bangladesh Air Force. They added that the Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MRCA) would be the MiG-35. They concluded this even before the tender opened by the Directorate General Defence Purchase (DGDP), which handles matters of defence acquisition under the Ministry of Defence (Bangladesh). However the fact could not be further from the truth. The Bangladesh Air Force’s Multi-Role Combat Aircraft procurement is being fully funded by Bangladeshi tax payers. India has no stake in this process. Moreover it is illogical to even think that a sovereign nation will rely upon the mercy of its biggest neighbour and potential military threat to purchase any major military hardware. These fantastic things simply do not occur in South Asia or possibly anywhere in the world.
The Bangladesh government is likely to utilise the $500 million to purchase patrol vessels for the Bangladesh Coast Guard as well as helicopters and other types of necessary equipment for the paramilitary forces. In Bangladesh the paramilitary forces work under the auspices of the Ministry of Home Affairs, rather than the Ministry of Defence or Armed Forces Division that includes the Army, Navy and Air Force.
Bangladesh’s economy has been growing at a steady pace of over 5% over the past decade. Its strong economic outlook was confirmed by auditor PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PwC) who project the country to be one of the largest economies in the world 2050 with an economy of over $3 trillion (PPP). Between 2012 and 2016 Bangladesh’s defence procurement increased by 681%, none of it was funded by Indian tax payers.
A country with an upcoming economy of such a size would certainly not require any tiny loans from a neighbouring country to realise its military procurement however it seems for the moment that is the kind of theory revolving amongst Indians who are trying to portray a superpower image of India amongst themselves and the world these days and belittle even their closest friends in the process.
To put things in to perspective Bangladesh has regularly been provided with defence credit packages by both China and Russia, which are larger. The two countries will now respond with a larger defence credit package to Bangladesh to ensure they continue to maintain their defence business interests in Bangladesh.
Sources familiar with China’s Defence Attaché in Dhaka informed BDMilitary.com that the Chinese government appeared at unease with Dhaka signing the defence pact with New Delhi. They wanted to know the particulars of the deal (like most Bangladeshis) and were fearful of any drastic change in Dhaka’s position and its impact on China’s regional influence. China is Bangladesh’s strategic partner, whilst India is a mere security partner. This has not changed regardless of which political party assumes power in Bangladesh.
Bangladesh’s policy makers clearly seem adept at handling the geo-political situation of the region. They have assured New Delhi that they will continue to maintain the security cooperation, particularly in terms of counter-terrorism, training and research without acceding to India’s attempts at turning Bangladesh in to a satellite state.
Now Dhaka is in the best strategic position since the independence of Bangladesh enjoying the attention and rivalry of global and regional powers trying to woo its support.
China may send a high powered defence delegation to Dhaka to offer the largest military equipment package to the Bangladesh Armed Forces eclipsing that of Russia signed in 2013. The deal would include air defence systems, warships, submarines, combat aircraft, missile systems, military technologies and munitions.
Bangladesh appears close to finalising a deal to purchase more guided missile frigates from China. It is also working with CSOC for building 3,000-ton frigates indigenously for the first time in addition to low-altitude air defence systems that are to be made at the Bangladesh Ordnance Factories (BOF). Such measures are beyond the technical capacity of India, which relies heavily on foreign defence equipment purchases due to poor quality of locally built military equipment.
To conclude, the doomsday scenario that was projected by some Bangladeshi’s did not occur nor will predictions the Indian media fabricated to raise India’s prestige. The Bangladesh Government nor the Armed Forces of Bangladesh would commit to anything that poses any inherent danger to the country’s sovereignty and national interests.
The Bangladesh Government must remain alert to thwart many more future attempts by India to rope in Bangladesh in to their hegemonic designs. With all the cooperation provided by the Bangladesh Government to India it received very little in return. Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League will be under increased pressure now that it failed to gain any settlement on the Land Border Agreement (LBA) in relation to Muhirir Char and the Teesta water sharing agreement during her 4-day state visit to India from April 7. Their commendable manoeuvring on the defence agreement with India might become a distant memory if they fail to resolve these pending issues.
Indo-Bangla defence deal in summary:
- India shall provide a $500 million line of credit package (LoC) for the Bangladesh Armed Forces at 1% interest with 20 year repayment period.
- Military cooperation between the armed forces of two countries in relation to training, exercises, information exchange, coordinated visits, sports events.
- Defence industry cooperation.
- Defence, nuclear energy & space research cooperation.
- Directorate-General of Medical Services (DGMS), Bangladesh Armed Forces, and Tata Medical Centre, Kolkata, India.
- Defence Institute of Advanced Technology (DIAT), India and Military Institute of Science and Technology (MIST) for enhancing cooperation in the field of education and research.
- Defence Service Staff College (DSSC), India, and Defence Services Command and Staff College (DSCSC) for enhancing cooperation in the field of national security and strategic studies.
- National Defence College, Bangladesh and the National Defence College, India on enhancing cooperation in the field of national security and strategic studies.
- Dockyard and Engineering Works Limited, Narayanganj, Bangladesh and Bharat Electronics Limited, India.
- Garden Reach Shipbuilders and Engineers Limited, India and Khulna Shipyard Limited, Bangladesh.
- Khulna Shipyard Limited, Bangladesh and Bharat Electronics Limited, India.
- Chittagong Dry Dock Limited, Bangladesh and Bharat Electronics Limited, India.