Myanmar naval officers view a joint exercise in February 2018. Photo: AFP

As Myanmar’s navy takes possession of its first submarine and its largest surface warship in back-to-back big-ticket acquisitions, the close of 2019 marks a striking watershed in the emergence of the Southeast Asian nation as a seriously engaged player in the strategically shifting currents of the Bay of Bengal.

The Myanmar Navy’s (MN) coming of age as a blue-water force with region-wide reach also underpins a campaign of maritime diplomacy that aims to rehabilitate the image of a military better known internationally for massacre and rape of its own ethnic minorities.

The two year-end acquisitions are significant primarily though as military assets in a maritime domain marked by growing strategic fluidity, as China increasingly asserts its rising naval power in an Indian Ocean region traditionally seen by India as its own sphere of influence.

At the same time, the United States is bidding to add operational substance to the “Indo” portion of its new “Indo-Pacific” vision, even as other regional powers hedge against new strategic realities by extending their naval footprints above and below the Indian Ocean’s surface.

Over the past decade, Myanmar has reacted with a steady but little noticed build-up of naval power that has hinged on a growing fleet of surface combatants, notably frigates and missile corvettes that are mostly the product of an ambitious program of home-grown military ship-building.

The MN already operates five frigates with a further three projected to join the fleet over the coming years.

With an extended coastline of 1,930 kilometers and a vast exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of 520,000 square kilometers that encompasses significant economic assets in the form of oil, gas and fisheries, Myanmar faces an urgent need to improve its off-shore vigilance.

Resource protection demands are flanked by rising non-traditional threats, notably trafficking of narcotics, people and weapons.

An Indian Kilo-class submarine in a file photo. Photo: Twitter

The newly procured submarine — a Russian-built diesel-electric Kilo-class vessel purchased second-hand from the Indian Navy (IN) – will constitute an important and long-awaited boost to the MN’s power projection capabilities.

A proven design that Russia has successfully marketed across the Asian region, the Kilo is a notoriously hard-to-detect attack submarine – nick-named the “Black Hole” by US mariners — suitable for anti-ship and anti-submarine operations in relatively shallow waters.

Following months of crew training in and near the Indian naval base of Visakhapatnam, the IN’s Sindhuvir is due to be formally handed over on December 24, according to military sources in Yangon.

Rumors have circulated in recent years that once in the MN fleet, the boat will be re-named UMS (Union of Myanmar Ship) Aung San, after the nation’s deceased independence hero and father of de facto national leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

With elections due in 2020, and relations with Suu Kyi’s government and the military strained, it remains to be seen whether the naval brass still sees that name advisable.

Operating essentially as a training platform, the newly-inducted submarine will constitute the first leg in the development of a sub-surface fleet.

Likely to consist of a further two Kilos purchased directly from Russia, the submarines will be based on the Andaman Sea coast not far from Dawei port, and close to the northern reaches of the strategically vital Straits of Malacca, according to intelligence sources.

After years of speculation that Myanmar would opt for Russian-built Kilos, the final acquisition will come none too soon in a region where virtually all other navies either already have or will soon have sub-surface capabilities.

That includes Bangladesh, Myanmar’s foremost regional rival. In March 2017, Dhaka commissioned two older Type 035-G Ming-class boats purchased from China. With Chinese assistance, Bangladesh is developing a new submarine base near Cox’s Bazaar, not far from the maritime border.

Map of Bay of Bengal maritime area. Image: Wikipedia

Defense sources in Yangon note the MN is currently scrambling to acquire anti-submarine warfare sonar technology to counter Bangladesh’s new sub-surface capability.

On MN decks, memories of a humiliating climb-down a decade ago in the face of the Bangladesh Navy still rankle.

Natural gas exploration undertaken by a South Korean drilling platform escorted by MN vessels in disputed waters near the two sides’ maritime border triggered first diplomatic protests and then in November 2008 a concentration of superior Bangladeshi naval firepower, which forced the MN to back down and quit the area.

Adjudication of the disputed maritime area by the Hamburg-based International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea finally in 2012 ruled in favor of Dhaka’s claim, rubbing further salt into the wound of the MN’s sea defeat.

Meanwhile, Thailand, Myanmar’s neighbor to the east, has also opted to purchase at least two, and possibly three, Chinese S26T diesel-electric Yuan-class submarines. The first is currently under construction in Wuhan, China and due to be delivered in 2023.

The MN’s second end-of-year gift package consists of an amphibious assault ship built at the South Korean port of Busan by Dae Sun Shipbuilding and Engineering. Named the UMS Moattama, it was launched in July this year with little publicity or fanfare and has recently been undertaking sea trials.

Technically termed a “landing platform dock” (LPD) and displacing 11,300 tons, the 122 meter-long warship is far larger than MN’s current flagship, the UMS Kyan Sittha, an indigenously-built guided-missile frigate that displaces an estimated 3,000 tons.

Similar Makassar-class LPDs designed and built by Daesun are already operated by the navies of Indonesia and the Philippines. With a crew of around 125 and a flight deck that can accommodate two medium Mi-17 transport helicopters, the Moattma is well suited for a range of the MN’s requirements.

Myanmar Navy’s new Mottama battleship docked in Vladivostok, Russia, November 2, 2019.

At one level, it can serve as a platform to safeguard offshore economic assets as well as support humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) missions that are a perennial contingency in the cyclone-prone northern reaches of the Bay of Bengal.

As an assault ship carrying up to 15 armored vehicles and 250 troops, the vessel also offers hard-knuckle war-fighting capabilities to a navy currently engaged in its largest-ever active duty deployment on the multiple waterways of Rakhine state.

As rebels of the Rakhine nationalist Arakan Army (AA) target the MN’s riverine vessels with rockets fired from close range, the assault ship will offer real utility as an offshore platform for helicopter-borne insertions of troops or for casualty evacuation.

The Moattama’s first mission, however, has been diplomatic. From South Korea, the vessel swung north to Vladivostok on the far eastern coast of Russia, a nation now playing a crucial role in arming and modernizing the Myanmar armed forces, or Tatmadaw, and in particular the Myanmar Air Force (MAF).

Whether the Vladivostok port call involved more than hand shakes and vodka toasts to include the installation of additional Russian equipment or weaponry on the vessel is unclear. After leaving Vladivostok, the Moattama docked next at the Vietnamese naval base of Da Nang, where in mid-November international camaraderie was again the order of the day.

In the past two years relations, between the two ASEAN states have warmed notably. As a nation on the frontline of tensions with China over disputes in the South China Sea, Vietnam is another major recipient of Russian military hardware, including a fleet of six new Kilo subs delivered between 2014 and 2017.

In mid-December, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc made a state visit to Myanmar while days later the Vietnamese military rolled out the red carpet for Tatmadaw commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing in Hanoi, where he attended National Defense Day celebrations and discussed “more extensive cooperation” between the two militaries.

Vietnam’s Deputy Defense Minister Senior Lieutenant General Phan Van Giang and Myanmar’s Senior General Min Aung Hlaing at an honor guard ceremony in Hanoi, December 19, 2019. Photo: Handout/Vietnam Government

Interestingly, between the Soviet Far East and Da Nang the Moattama did not berth at any of several Chinese naval bases, where displays of Sino-Myanmar friendship might easily have been staged, not least given the “comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership” signed between the two neighbors in 2011.

Whether the “sail-past” was a specific reflection of souring military-to-military ties is difficult to gauge, but few defense analysts in Yangon doubt that relations are now marked more by irritation and suspicion than trust and amity.

Tatmadaw unhappiness with the quality of procured Chinese hardware, representing the bulk of acquisitions during a period of break-neck military expansion in the 1990s and 2000s, is hardly new and is clearly reflected in its shift to Russian and East European systems.

Under-performing Chinese naval radar systems and land-based unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have been notable but hardly isolated sources of Tatmadaw dissatisfaction.

Indeed, according to one Yangon source involved in Tatmadaw procurement initiatives, today’s rule of thumb mandates purchases come “from anywhere but China.”

Those quality issues have apparently merged into broader and long-standing wariness in the upper echelons of the Tatmadaw over China’s geo-strategic motives and ambitions in Myanmar.

These concerns have been sharpened by aggressive Chinese lobbying for the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) – a crucial leg of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) — and a sense that Suu Kyi’s civilian government is becoming overly susceptible to Beijing’s diplomatic blandishments and promises of economic largesse.

China’s President Xi Jinping (R) and Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi during a Belt and Road Forum in Beijing, May 15, 2017. Photo: AFP/Pool

Beijing’s moral and diplomatic support was seen in the sudden arrival on December 7 of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Naypyidaw, where he met Suu Kyi shortly before she departed for The Hague to defend Myanmar at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) against accusations of genocide.

Observers also noted that Wang’s meeting with Tatmadaw chief Min Aung Hlaing required the Chinese minister to fly north to Mandalay; the general was apparently too busy to return to the capital to meet with one of China’s most senior officials.

According to local media reports, Min Aung Hlaing used the occasion to raise the issue of new Chinese weaponry – including a surface-to-air missile – recently captured from insurgent groups battling the Tatmadaw in northern Shan state.

He had reportedly raised the same concerns at a meeting with China’s special envoy Sun Guoxiang earlier this year, presenting the diplomat with photos of Chinese arms seized in clashes with the AA in Rakhine.

The commander’s frustrations – and their leaking to the Myanmar media – appeared to indicate that Tatmadaw patience over Beijing’s resort to a strategy of plausible deniability over the provenance of Chinese weaponry fueling the insurgencies is now wearing thin.

As China navigates the rapids of advancing CMEC through a war-zone, while struggling to act as an honest broker between stubborn insurgents and an increasingly skeptical military, these strains are likely to persist and may even escalate along with the fighting in the coming dry season months.

For Russian arms manufacturers and shipbuilders, meanwhile, business prospects with Myanmar have seldom looked better.

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