The open threat by China to Bangladesh reveals China’s growing insecurity with the Quad. China, which had once dismissed the Quad as just a froth in the ocean, is now intimidating Bangladesh against joining the Quad. It is a matter of concern and worth examining why an Indian Ocean littoral, which is not yet a regional player should, elicit such a strong reaction from China?
Today about 86% military hardware of Bangladesh Armed Forces is of Chinese origin which includes two refurbished submarines inducted in 2017 and naval warships. Defence cooperation between China and Bangladesh has evolved over the years, as Bangladesh was looking at procuring affordable military hardware through soft loans, which China obliged. Apart from the military hardware, China has also entered into various maintenance contracts with Bangladesh to include maintenance for its submarines. China has emerged as a major defence training partner for Bangladesh Armed Forces.
The strategic aim of China is to use Bangladesh for its access into the Bay of Bengal. It is planning to develop a state of art submarine base in Pekua, ostensibly not for the two Bangladesh submarines (which are later to grow in number as per the Forces Goal 2030), but more to cater for berthing and logistic support to the PLAN submarines, especially the nuclear-powered submarines as and when they enhance operations in the IOR. It is a well-known fact that Bangladesh can ill afford such an expensive project, but the Chinese lure of soft loans akin to the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka could have led to such a decision. The CPEC Project in Gwadar, Pakistan and Hambantota should serve as testimonies to how China uses soft loans as a debt trap policy to further its strategic interests.
The recent statement of Bangladesh that it is “not going to choose” between India and China when it expressed its desire to join the “Indo-Pacific relationship”, has rattled China as it could have implications on Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Bangladesh being an important component of the BRI. At this stage, with so much invested in BRI, Bangladesh’s decision to join the Quad will directly impinge on China’s plan for its ambitious BRI, which could suffer setbacks. That is something China can ill afford at this juncture.
Bangladesh is viewed by China as a country where it can replicate its Pakistan model so as to gain access to the Bay of Bengal. Bangladesh is an Islamic country, gradually edging towards a radicalised society with latent anti-India sentiments. This aspect would be exploited by China. In the future, should there be a change in the government, the next dispensation may not have the same bonhomie with India. Under these circumstances, Bangladesh joining the Quad would change the regional dynamics in the IOR to India’s advantage.
In order to negate the growing influence of China in the region, India needs to assure Bangladesh that it will support and fulfil the requirements of Bangladesh Armed Forces. India needs to expand the ongoing Defence cooperation between the two nations. The Joint Venture with Bangladesh for the Dhanush Artillery gun (under development by DRDO to replace the Bofors) is one such example. This model must be replicated for Joint Ventures in shipbuilding, radars, missiles, particularly since the government is committed to Atmanirbhar Bharat. Another area which needs to be progressed is to offer maintenance and services support to Bangladesh Armed Forces particularly for their Russian inventory, where India has developed considerable expertise.
With Tejas, Indian Air Forces’ fighter aircraft due to achieve its Final Operational Capability (FOC), it could be another arena to further defence cooperation. Capacity building to enhance Joint Maritime Domain Awareness is an area that has vast potential in mutual cooperation. It is important for DRDO, OFB and other private players to engage with Bangladesh Training of BD armed force personnel needs to have a focussed approach and there is a need to train more personnel including for United Nations Peacekeeping Operations. When a PLA trained officer of Bangladesh Army rose to become Bangladesh’s Chief of the Army Staff, China utilised the opportunity to showcase him as a success story of PLA training.
Another area where China may make a foray is in engaging Bangladesh to support its nuclear power programme, which presently is being developed under Bangladesh – Russia collaboration. The Russia – India nuclear cooperation should be used to advantage to engage with Bangladesh in this sector.
As brought out earlier, China provides financial support for the development of infrastructure to the BRI countries. To provide incentive and also reduce the strategic hold of China over BRI nations, option of BUILD Act under the US’s Indo – Pacific strategy must be exercised by the Quad countries , with India as a lead , to establish a fund to support infrastructure development in Bangladesh and to negate the BRI.
In conclusion, India has an opportunity to limit the strategic reach of China in the IOR, particularly if Bangladesh is encouraged to join the Quad, whose mandate has progressively evolved from security dialogue to an inclusive security mechanism. This would provide options for Bangladesh to look beyond China for its security needs. The way is to swiftly expand on defence cooperation, Joint Ventures and Research and Development.