ANALYSIS – Bangladesh’s act of balancing Asian giant foes

DHAKA, Bangladesh

Bangladesh is turning into a hotspot of military competition between China and India in the Bay of Bengal region, strategic analysts apprehend in view of recent developments.

With occasional see-saw in Dhaka’s tilt toward Beijing and New Delhi, Bangladesh historically maintains moderation in its foreign policy pursuit.

But, the analysts pointed out, the latest Bangladesh-India deal allowing Delhi’s surveillance along the Bangladeshi coastline may have shattered the balance, irritating one of the rivals — China.

India will install a network of 20 Coastal Surveillance Radar Systems under a memorandum of understanding (MoU) the two countries signed during Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s visit to Delhi, early this month.

It was officially announced that the radar systems would enhance surveillance on Bangladesh’s maritime domain and eventually pave the way for a white shipping agreement, the sharing of advance information regarding identity and movement of non-military commercial vessels between the two countries.

However, this will be useful for containing the growing presence of China in the Bay of Bengal region, Indian media reports suggest.

India has already set up radar stations in littoral countries such as Mauritius, Sri Lanka and the Maldives and is planning one in Myanmar, implementing a project at a cost of around $80 million to strengthen its maritime security system in the Indian Ocean since 2015.

“India is, understandably, not giving them [radar systems] to Bangladesh; its target is to monitor movement of China in the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean,” Humayun Kabir, president of Bangladesh Enterprise Institute, a think tank, told Anadolu Agency. China, he believes, would definitely ask questions from Bangladesh on how the radar systems would be operated and maintained.

Tricky choice

Bangladesh is surrounded on three sides by India, which is a major benefactor in the South Asian country’s liberation from Pakistan in 1971. China, which fought a war against India in 1962, is the major supplier of defense equipment for Bangladesh’s armed forces since the two countries established diplomatic relations in 1977.

Both China and India are the two largest importers to Bangladesh.

But China’s offer for making investment of at least $27 billion in Bangladesh during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Dhaka in 2016 overshadowed India’s line of credit worth less than $3 billion back then. The Indians were watchful about China’s economic muscle shown in Bangladesh.

The Chinese authorities recently expressed frustration at the delay in utilization of their pledged money by the Bangladesh officials, saying that no investment would be made under the government-to-government arrangement until existing investment proposals are commissioned.

Beijing also keeps an eye on “the proposal for joint study on the bilateral Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement between India and Bangladesh,” according to Shahab Enam Khan, a professor of international relations at Jahangirnagar University, Bangladesh.

“While this is important for strengthening the bilateral economic ties, the issue needs to be synchronized with the Beijing-led Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) since Bangladesh formally became a partner of BRI,” he said.

On the military front, the Bangladesh Navy had received two submarines from China in order to intensify surveillance in the Bay of Bengal in 2016. The two are reportedly equipped with torpedoes and mines that are capable of attacking enemy warships and submarines.

“India was very unhappy with Bangladesh’s decision of procuring Chinese submarines. The Indians have expressed their displeasure, assuming that Chinese technicians would be coming to Bangladesh,” Kabir said.

In that context, the Bangladesh prime minister may have played a balancing game, by allowing India to install radar systems. Maybe the decision was taken in view of balancing act,” he added.

Kabir, a former Bangladesh ambassador, observed that there is a gap of information as to who would manage the radars and who would share information with whom. “It’s up to Bangladesh how it will keep equidistance from both China and India.”

In great power rivalry

Bangladesh, with geo-strategic location between South and Southeast Asia, is also struggling with the issue of 1.1 million Rohingya refugees, an issue which involves all major regional and global powers with diverse stakes.

India remains silent about the issue, while China was quietly engaged in the last two abortive attempts to send back the Rohingya Muslims to their homeland in the northern Rakhine state of Myanmar.

However, the U.S., which promotes the Indo-Pacific maritime strategy in the region, is more vocal against gross violation of rights of the Rohingya people.

M Shahiduzzaman, a security analyst, favors use of deterrence by linking Bangladesh with its interest in the northern Bay of Bengal connected to the Indian Ocean.

“Despite the viable and meaningful opportunities to create the contingencies for a long term security partnership with the USA which covers the Arakan (Rakhine) coastline and the northern Bay, this country had either continued to place all the eggs in the Chinese security basket or the Indian view of self-denial,” he said in a paper titled The Deterrent Options and Coalition Culture in Confronting the Burman Rohingya Invasion.

Against this backdrop, Bangladesh’s MoU on the radar systems with India may further complicate the equation in the Indian Ocean region, where the U.S., China and India are seriously active and trying to establish or retain their hegemony.

“The MoU on coastal surveillance radar may raise Beijing’s eyebrows since radars are considered as strategic assets and not just a regular monitoring tool. Perhaps Beijing may see this as India’s purposeful attempt for custodianship over the Bay of Bengal and ability to become the most capable sea-faring state in the region,” Khan noted.

By joining India’s security bandwagon in the Bay, Bangladesh is going to participate in the “larger strategic objective” of New Delhi. “Bangladesh is perhaps focusing on the collaborative side but India will emphasize her competition part with China and other countries,” said Kabir.

He, however, expressed his conviction that Bangladesh has the scope to become a balancer — a bridge builder between Indian objective and Chinese objective in the region. “We can work with both.”

*The writer, a journalist based in Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka, is the winner of the UN Millennium Development Goals Award, Developing Asia Journalism Award, and WFP Award. He has master’s degrees in both journalism and international relations.

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