Bangladesh is close to signing an agreement with China aimed at building a permanent base for stationing and servicing the two Chinese submarines it bought for $203 million nearly three years ago.
The proposed base at Pekua, off the coast of Kutubdia Island in southeastern Cox’s Bazaar, will be built with Chinese assistance primarily because “we need something permanent for maintenance and berthing of the two submarines,” said a retired senior naval official who was involved in the negotiations to buy the submarines. They are now being temporarily housed along the coast in Chittagong.
“It was a logical thing to do,” he added, “as China is the country that supplied the submarines and they’ve the technological know-how and expertise to build the base.” He declined to be identified, saying, “It’s a very sensitive matter.” Indeed, the final agreement is being done in such secrecy that it caught even some veteran defense analysts and security experts by surprise.
“I have no knowledge if Bangladesh is constructing a submarine base in Pekua or for that matter anywhere,” retired Air Commodore Ishfaq Ilahi Choudhury, a respected security analyst, told Asia Times. The secrecy, experts say, is apparently intended to avoid the kind of public outcry and negative reaction Bangladesh elicited from the Indian establishment and analysts when it procured the two Chinese submarines in 2016.
Shortly after the news broke and only two weeks after the delivery of the first submarine on October 30, 2016, the then Indian defense minister Manohar Parrikar rushed to Dhaka. Just days later Indian army chief General Bipin Rawat came calling.
The mad rush to Dhaka by such very important Indian officials coupled with angry denunciation by Indian security experts, who called the sale a ploy to increase the Chinese footprint in a friendly neighbor and “part of a strategy meant to encircle India,” deeply concerned the government of Sheikh Hasina, considered very friendly to India.
The Hasina administration went out of its way to allay the Indian fear, insisting that Bangladesh, which is deeply indebted to India for its critical support during the country’s liberation war against Pakistan in 1971, would not do anything that would harm India’s strategic interest.
Sheikh Hasina often called relations between the two countries “extremely cordial and very friendly.” She recently doubled down on this characterization at an international forum in China. “It’s organic. We have shed blood together for our [Bangladesh’s] independence,” she said at a World Economic Forum gathering in Dalian during her official visit there earlier this month.
Certainly the hope was that this kind of bold public statement from the Bangladesh leader on top of the expanded military cooperation memorandum of understanding that Dhaka signed with New Delhi in 2017 would convince India that the neighbor would not harbor any nefarious design against its benefactor.
Refurbished old models
The original Indian outcry over the submarines “was far-fetched and had no basis,” the former senior naval official told Asia Times.
“They were refurbished old models, bought primarily for training purposes, which helped to boost our navy’s morale,” he added. It was also a sort of pride for them that Bangladesh became a member of the elite club of 40 countries that have submarines, with North Korea topping the list (86) and Bangladesh the lowest (2), according to Globalfirepower.com.
In his honest opinion, the former navy official said, big defense purchases anywhere in the world are largely driven by corruption of some vested interest group, mostly aligned with the party in power, rather than by any strategic interest.
He also dismissed as unrealistic a reported Indian offer to provide training for Bangladesh navy personnel at its premier submarine academy in Vishakhapatnam.
“It’s really impractical and doesn’t make any sense for Bangladeshi crews to go to India when they’re using Chinese submarines.”
However, he hastened to add, there was perhaps another motivation to procure the submarines because Myanmar, Bangladesh’s only other neighbor, was also bolstering its navy with Chinese submarines. Given the growing tension with Myanmar over the Rohingya refugee crisis, Bangladesh perhaps felt obliged to go for submarines, he said.
That perhaps explains why the permanent submarine base China is going to build in Bangladesh has not provoked the similar angry reaction from India this time.
Growing Chinese presence
But some analysts still do not see enough justification to build a permanent base. “I do not think it is logistically feasible to construct a submarine base for a couple of submarines, unless one wants to have a whole fleet of those” said Air Commodore Choudhury, the security analyst. “If at all, we might have support facilities in Chittagong itself or may be in Mongla or the upcoming port of Payra in Patuakhali.”
India would not be worried on account of a couple of Bangladeshi submarines as such, he further added, “but what worries them is the increasing Chinese military footprint in the region.”
Take, for instance, the growing Chinese presence in the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean, which India traditionally viewed as her own backwater, he said. The Chinese are in Sittewe, Myanmar; Hambantota, Sri Lanka; Gwadar, Pakistan; Mombasa, Tanzania; Djibouti and Mauritius.
This is what Indian security experts call a “string of pearls,” a noose with which the Chinese are preparing to choke off India’s free access to the maritime world.
“Any Chinese buildup in India’s neighborhood, including Bangladesh, will be viewed with concern in India,” Air Cdr Choudhury added.
‘Act of provocation’
This is precisely what worries some Indian military experts and analysts, who voiced deep concerns when the news of the submarine purchase first broke nearly three years ago. And the permanent base agreement could reignite their concern.
“Given Bangladesh’s economic situation and the fact that it is surrounded on three sides by India, the acquisition of submarines is not only illogical but actually an act of provocation as far as India is concerned,” Arun Prakash, a retired Indian Navy admiral and former service chief, told defensenews.com after the news of the submarine purchase broke in 2016.
“Submarines are offensive weapons of sea denial and their only use would be to pose a threat in being for India and to complicate the latter’s maritime security paradigm. Obviously this transfer is a step further in China’s strategy of encircling India with its client states,” Prakash added.
Some other Indian experts, however, have begged to differ. “No, it is just a good, economical deal Dhaka could not pass up,” Bharat Karnad, a research professor at the India-based think tank Center for Policy Research, told defensenews. “But the Modi government will have to ensure it does not fetch Beijing strategic benefits.”
Some Bangladesh foreign policy analysts, also, discount the Indian fear as highly exaggerated and not based on current reality.
“It’s inconceivable for the Hasina government to do anything that would harm India’s security interest in any way,” Mohiuddin Ahmed, a senior foreign policy analyst and former diplomat, told Asia times.
“Besides the historical ties between the ruling Awami League and the Indian political establishment, Sheikh Hasina owes a deep personal debt to India for coming to her rescue in her most difficult times,” he added.
Indeed, on Aug 15, 1975, Hasina’s father, the then-president Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, was overthrown in a military coup. Mujib and most of his family members were assassinated on that night.
Hasina, her two small children and her other sister, Sheikh Rehana, survived the gruesome murders as they were then living in West Germany.
Suddenly stateless and adrift, she found that India was the only country that came to her rescue. New Delhi provided Hasina and her family sanctuary and looked after them for six years until her return from exile in 1981.
For 21 years (1975 to 1996), Hasina first languished in exile and then battled successive military dictators and hostile governments, known for their rabidly anti-Indian stance, for political comeback.
‘India biggest beneficiary’
During that period, not only did Indian influence wane considerably but, most worryingly, India’s arch-rival Pakistan was openly courted by the successive anti-Indian governments.
It was in 1996, when Hasina came to power, that things began to change for the better for India.
Shortly afterward, in a major strategic move, Hasina ordered dismantling of all the insurgent camps in Chittagong Hill Tracts, from where Indian separatists frequently launched attack inside India’s restive northeast.
It was an open secret that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) trained and funded the Indian insurgents.
“It was a move that Hasina needed to take to show her gratitude to what India did for her personally and to regain confidence of the Indian establishment about Bangladesh’s sincerity in restoring close ties with New Delhi,” Ahmed, the former foreign secretary, said.
More significantly, he added, “it was the biggest strategic benefit that India derived out of Hasina’s return to power” as it no longer required to fight the insurgency in the northeast.
“It would have been a nightmarish scenario for India to see the revival of another East Pakistan as it became from 1975 to 1996 under the garb of Bangladesh.”
Indeed, the entire northeast has become peaceful enough for India to divert its military and financial resources to fight insurgency in Kashmir instead, Ahmed said.