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BANGLADESH-CHINA DEFENCE CO-OPERATION AGREEMENT'S STRATEGIC IMPLICATIONS: An Analysis

 

Paper 582                                                      14.01.2003

by Dr. Subhash Kapila

General Background: Bangladesh was the former Eastern province of Pakistan. The Pakistan Army inflicted genocide in 1971 on its Bengali compatriots to nullify their majority win in Pakistan’s general elections and prevent Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s emergence as Prime Minister of Pakistan. The Pakistan Army could not stomach the emergence of a Bengali as Prime Minister of Pakistan.

The civil war in Pakistan that commenced in March 1971 ended in December 1971 and Bangladesh emerged as an independent nation state thereafter.

Bangladesh has a population of over 130 million with an area of 143,998 square kilometers. Bangladesh is bounded West and North by India, East by India and Burma and South by the Bay of Bengal. It shares a long and porous 3901 kilometers border with India. This has enabled more than 20 million Bangladeshi nationals to move into India as illegal immigrants. A predominantly Muslim state, it has about 12% Hindus, whose numbers are dwindling.

Bangladesh in South Asia’s Political Dynamics:  The salient observations that can be made here are:

* Bangladesh’s past history of being part of Pakistan and its predominantly Muslim population, draws it into the political and strategic calculus of Pakistan. Consequently it gets factored in Pakistan’s strategic calculus in the India-Pakistan confrontation.

*  Like Pakistan, Bangladesh’s politics get defined in the context of anti-India stances.

* Like Pakistan. Bangladesh is coming under growing influence of Islamic fundamentalists. In the present government of Begum Khaleda Zia, the Jammat group is part of the ruling coalition.

* Bangladesh offers Pakistan a fertile ground for basing its proxy war apparatus to strategically discomfit India ion its East and North East peripheries. This arises from common religious links and shared heritage of its intelligence and military establishments with those of Pakistan.

* The influence of Pakistan-China strategic nexus in South Asia also logically comes into play in Bangladesh.

* Bangladesh too, consequently, as a smaller nation is not averse to playing off Pakistan and China against India.

With the above as background, the analysis of the strategic significance of the Bangladesh-China Defence Cooperation Agreement would become that much more apparent.

Bangladesh-China Linkages: China was against the liberation and emergence of Bangladesh as an independent nation state during Pakistan’s civil war in 1971. No wonder, that China did not accord diplomatic recognition to Bangladesh  till 1975 i.e. nearly four years after the emergence of Bangladesh as a sovereign state. It can be said that China’s relations with Bangladesh were being determined by Pakistan’s considerations.

However, political and strategic realities soon took over and China made serious attempts to wean over Bangladesh from India’s influence. And as a recent book puts it : “But it is important to note that Bangladesh had also been a major recipient of Chinese arms and the country is on the larger game plan of China to encircle India, together with Pakistan and Myanmar”. (South Asia’s Fractured Frontiers, B Nepram, 2002).

Bangladesh’s Armed Forces today are predominantly equipped with Chinese military hardware. The Bangladesh Army’s tanks and light tanks are of Chinese origin. The Bangladesh Navy’s frigates and patrol crafts are mostly Chinese. The Bangladesh Air Force's combat aircraft are all Chinese. In short China has forged Bangladesh into a military-equipment client state like Pakistan.

Bangladesh-China Defence Co-operation Agreement: The Defence Co-operation Agreement was signed between Bangladesh and China during the visit of Bangladesh Prime Minister, Begum Khaleda Zia ‘s visit to China from December 23 to 27, 2002.

Some observations/statements emanating from Bangladesh officials and media sources explaining the Defence Cooperation Agreement are as follows:

* The purpose of Defence Cooperation Agreement signed with China is to meet present day need of Bangladesh’s defence forces.

* This new agreement was signed to help institutionalize the existing accords in defence sector and also to rationalize the existing piecemeal agreements to enhance cooperation in training, maintenance and some areas in production.

* Bangladesh Foreign Minister, responding to questions, emphasized the following:  

-Bangladesh wanted time-befitting armed forces for the country. China will cooperate with Bangladesh for this purpose.

- “Intention is there to cooperate in defence sector; now the two sides w ill co-operate with each other”

-“This defence umbrella agreement is not directed against any country and would not affect Bangladesh’s relations with India”

All said and done, what emerges from the above, analytically is:

* Bangladesh has plans to expand, upgrade and modernise her armed forces.

* China is willing to under-write Bangladesh’s military plans above.

* The emphasis on “to enhance cooperation in training, maintenance and some areas in defence production” should normally imply ‘induction of more modern military hardware, as these activities would not be applicable to older generation of military hardware.

* Deliberate secrecy and ambiguity has been maintained in terms of the scope of the agreement. This gives leeway for widening the strategic cooperation in the future.

The next question needing analysis is why the sudden need of an “umbrella” Defence Cooperation Agreement”.

Defence Cooperation Agreement-Why Now ? The major significance of the Defence Cooperation Agreement is that it is the first such agreement ever signed by Bangladesh in its history. Defence Cooperation Agreements are normally signed when: (1) Countries perceive enhanced threat perceptions;(2) Countries are amenable to be used in a region for balance of power politics; and (3) Countries fear retaliation in response to their territories being used for proxy war and terrorism by third counties against another country.

The question why now, gets answered by a combination of one or all of the reasons above .

Bangladesh is conscious of the fact that its territory is being used by Pakistan’s ISI, Al Qaeda and other insurgent groups for anti-India activities. India has cautioned Bangladesh on this count. The significance of Indian military escalation in 2002 against Pakistan would not have been lost on Bangladesh.

Bangladesh therefore seems to have taken out an insurance policy from China to cater for increased threat perceptions in the India-specific context.

The Pakistan Factor in Forging Bangladesh-China Defence Cooperation Agreement: Analytically, it would not be too simplistic to suggest that Pakistan has had a role in egging on Bangladesh towards a full strategic embrace with China and also facilitating it. General Musharraf’s  visit to Bangladesh in October 2002, his tentative apology for the 1971 Pakistani genocide of the Bengalis and the mutual discussions centering around Pakistan’s perceptions of India’s military escalation would have helped in Musharraf’s exaggerating Bangladesh’s strategic concerns.

The personal factor of shared cantonment lives between Musharraf and Begum Zia when her husband was with the Pakistan Army prior to independence of Bangladesh would have added to Musharraf’s persuasions.

That Pakistan had a definite game plan was evident from the numerous  Pakistan TV debates especially in their ‘ Newstime’ programme focused on giving a spin to India’s hegemonistic designs on Bangladesh.

Down to bare bones, Pakistan’s strategic designs against India stand served as follows:

* Bangladesh’s enhanced military profile with Chinese aid would divert some of India’s strategic attention from the West to the East, lowering pressure on Pakistan.

* Pakistan could supplant China in terms of training, maintenance and production of latest Chinese military equipment for Bangladesh.

* Rising Islamic fundamentalism in Bangladesh could provide further leverages in using Bangladesh.for intensifying Pakistan’s proxy war on India’s Eastern peripheries.

China’s Strategic Interests Served by Bangladesh-China Defence Cooperation Agreement: China as the most intrusive external power in South Asia would be well served by its Defence Cooperation Agreement with Bangladesh. The scope of this agreement, not spelt out more out of design, would encompass a much wider canvas than just training and maintenance. The agreement could more aptly be termed as “ Bangladesh-China Treaty of Friendship and Strategic Cooperation”.

China’s strategic interests are served in the following manner:

* China gets a strategic toe-hold on India’s Eastern flank in Bangladesh.

* China’s strategic encirclement of India is completed with the above

* Soon one could witness Chinese plans to develop  Chittagong Naval Base on the lines of Gwadur in Pakistan.

* China could get naval bases facility in Bangladesh.

India-The Strategic Implications:  Despite protestations by Bangladesh, that the Defence Cooperation Agreement is not aimed at India, the symbolic value, if not anything else, would dismay India greatly.

India cannot ignore the strategic embrace of Bangladesh by China, whose strategic implications are:

* China's strategic intrusiveness in South Asia gets further reinforced.

* Bangladesh’s enhanced military profile will have to be factored in India's future military plans.

* India will now have to factor in a fourth strategic concern in its operational plans, namely China-Pakistan-Bangladesh military collusion in the context of any Indo-Pak or Sino–Indian conflict.

* China’s naval intrusions are facilitated by Bangladesh into the Bay of Bengal area.

 * India’s North East region's strategic vulnerabilities (especially the lines of communication) become more complicated.

* India’s IRBM deployments in the North East against China will now need more securing.

All the above concerns are realistic and one cannot be dismissive about them as conclusions of an overactive imagination.

United States–The Strategic Implications: Preoccupied with its Iraq fixations, the United States does not appear to have reacted to this development. Till now it appeared that the United States had a good military hold on Bangladesh. The United States had been providing military training assistance to Bangladesh. Bangladesh Armed Forces personnel were participating in US Pacific Command’s training events and the US Marines had carried out familiarization exercises in Bangladesh.  On the economic front, the United States had been more than generous towards Bangladesh.

Logically, therefore, Bangladesh, should have turned to the United States for military Insurance to offset her threat perceptions, basically focused on India. That it did not do so, and turned towards China, carries strategic implications for the United States as follows:

* China had earlier outflanked United States strategic interests in the Gulf region by its strategic nexus with Pakistan.

* China can now outflank United States strategic interests in South East Asia by reinforcing the defence cooperation with Bangladesh into a strategic nexus.

* China adds Bangladesh as an additional pressure point against United States in South Asia in addition to Pakistan.

* China’s containment by the United States at some future date becomes complex with Pakistan and Bangladesh in a strategic nexus with China.

The United States needs to re-evaluate its strategic concerns in South Asia. It should not reach to the conclusions as enshrined in a RAND report (The United States and Asia: Towards a New US Strategy and Force Posture, 2001) that: “finally given the proximity of this region (Bangladesh and Myanmar) to China, these countries would likely to be reluctant to become too closely aligned with the United States, in the event of heightened tensions”.

Conclusions: The Bangladesh-China Defence Cooperation Agreement, presently being termed as only a consolidation of different defence agreements between the two countries, carries in it an inbuilt potential of serious strategic implications, not only for India but also for the United States and  for the South Asia region as a whole.

China does seem to have a grand strategic design in South Asia, basically focused on the strategic encirclement of India and imprison her within South Asia confines. The bitter strategic reality for India is that it has no friends in South Asia. India to break out of the strategic bind imposed by China, needs to lessen the conventional and nuclear weapons gap with China. India’s ICBM and SLBM development programmes need to be put into over-drive.

Coming back to the Bangladesh-China Defence Cooperation Agreement, the policy and decision-makers in Bangladesh need to ponder long and hard whether China can provide the strategic insurance it seeks against India.  China’s record of support to Pakistan in the Indo-Pak wars of 1965 and 1971 are an ample pointer to the efficacy of its military insurance with China. Bangladesh’s inter-dependencies with India far outweigh those with China with which Bangladesh does not even share geographical contiguity. It would be futile politically, economically and militarily for Bangladesh to follow the Pakistan model in terms of off-setting asymmetries with India by playing the China card. 

 

(The author is an International Relations and Strategic Affairs analyst. He is the Consultant, Strategic Affairs with South Asia Analysis Group. Email <drsubhashkapila @yahoo.com>

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