Bangladesh may be the new locus of Asian geo-strategy
Geographically, Bay of Bengal is the topographical centre of the Indo-Pacific region. Strategically, the Bay -- borne by Bangladesh -- is the intersection of strategic interest of China, Japan, India, the US, and even Australia for their conflicting expansions.
Now considering India as one of the fastest growing economies and China the slowing dragon with economic downfall and industrial slack, everyone is looking at the possibility of a transitional shift from another angle. China’s critical position in the South China Sea has already poised severe diplomatic tension in that region, causing its dwindling influence in ASEAN, not to mention repeating throwbacks with the US.
This tussle may overwhelm the potential of neighbouring states of India, considering India can utilize China’s lost ground for more power consumption. But, in the long term, it cannot deny the importance of neighboring countries, both from maritime and strategic points of view.
In the immediate line, the land-locked countries can be ignored. The countries with adjoining borders may bring in favorable economic policy and open up maritime trade within the countries. Considering India’s largest bilateral trading partner in South Asia, Bangladesh can harness all of these. This becomes even sweeter considering Bangladesh’s recent victory of the demarcated Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the Bay of Bengal.
The big picture
From China’s economic and strategic point of view, Bangladesh may be of less importance. But it cannot ignore the Bay of Bengal as its economic and commercial passage.
To prove that, China proposed to sponsor the Sonadia Island deep-water port project in the Bay of Bengal until it backed off in 2015 when rival Japan entered the game by offering the Matarbari deep sea port. Once occupied, China could use the water route for trading goods and imposing geopolitical dominance.
From the maritime vantage point, China is focusing on shelling seabed oil and gas from the Myanmar deep-sea blocks. China’s intention to occupy the region rises from two distinct points:
1) The “string of pearls” theory that demands harnessing maximum military and commercial advantage through several maritime choke points such as Strait of Malacca, Strait of Hormuz, Lombok Strait, and countries such as Bangladesh, Pakistan, and the Maldives.
2) The 21st Century Maritime Silk Route that connects the Silk Road Economic Belt of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) with a common objective of connecting China’s landlocked southern provinces to the Indian Ocean. By building the “pearl,” China could gain access to the Bay of Bengal by feeding more breathing space for its submarines and military points. This would ultimately complement the existing naval observatory in the northern Indian Ocean at Coco Island which could severely restrain the regional power of the Indian Navy. The Maritime Silk Route, as opposed to military power, could provide significant ground for economic and trading facility under the Belt and Road Initiative.
In terms of multi-modal transport development, the China-Myanmar-Bangladesh tri-national highway stretches from Cox’s Bazar Balukhali-Gundhum border road to Kunming in China. The missing link of Asian Highway and Bangladesh, China, India, and Myanmar (BCIM) can shape economic activities within these three countries -- ultimately leaving behind India’s spurring economic ambition.
Realizing the littoral growth, intelligences from multiple countries including China and the US rove in and under the Bay of Bengal. Joint naval patrols, bilateral exercises, or symbolic exercises are excuses for military scouting in the area. Inadvertently, China’s presence paved invitation for US military presence. To fight these non-regional military presences, NSA India has signaled of forming a maritime security grouping in the Bay, Bangladesh as one of the two considered partners.
How ready is Bangladesh?
Realizing the significance of the bay and potential feud in the region, Bangladesh has planned to introduce some serious offensive firepower in her repertoire. Some of them are coast guard cutters, Chinese refurbished corvettes, and attack/reconnaissance submarine. Factually, the Forces Goal 2030 of Bangladesh Armed Forces Division (AFD) envisions of introducing 27 projected attack crafts.
Ten of these crafts will be Chinese built/imported/refurbished. In this case, China is the only foreign defense contractor. Initially, Bangladesh contracted India to provide the subs. India, historically short on the submarine arm, forwarded the recommendation to Russia. But the Russian proposal to provide lightweight submarines opted AFD to go for Chinese avant-grade subs.
Bangladesh Navy introduced two Chinese Ming-class Submarines in 2017. This add-up was not an issue for India until Research and Analytical Wing (RAW) assessed that the subs will station less than 1,000km of Visakhapatnam at Balasore, directly opposing Indian advanced hydro powers. The same destination and distance are the exact dialectic pearl that China later proposed through the deep port in Cox’s Bazaar in 2014.
From an intimidating muscle pull, Bangladesh may defend anything thrown at her physically. But if any bay-centered regional or superpower clash arises, Bangladesh should have a well-crafted diplomatic policy and solid talk with the contesting powers. Dhaka should be ready to harness all the regional excitements, clearly when it is going to be an important regional player in the coming days.
The Bay of Bengal is one of the geo-political epicentres of the Indo-Pacific regions. It offers some of the most important trading routes, and military & tactical vantage points. Being the host of the Bay of Bengal, Bangladesh is in the most advantageous position to harness the jostling and manoeuvre to its economic and strategic gain. Whether Dhaka wants to be in the cockpit is up to her.
Riasat Noor is an energy policy expert and heads national and international power and energy projects, with work in energy value chain, sustainability reporting, and investment in the energy sector of South and Southeast Asia. He can be reached at [email protected]