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Dhaka Tribune

Taking the next step

Moving ahead with India-Bangladesh defense cooperation

Update : 09 Sep 2022, 07:04 PM

Defense cooperation between India and Bangladesh has remained one of the most sensitive topics that attracts attention of strategic elites of the two countries. While India is keen on advancing cooperation on defense, there appears to be some reluctance on Bangladesh’s side. 

Yet, effort in this regard has remained a work in progress as the landscape of security cooperation of which defense is a part undergone tectonic shift with the change in threat perception and rise of non-traditional security issues. Historically and especially after 1975, Bangladesh has built its armed forces keeping the threat India poses in mind. 

Though many defense analysts in Bangladesh insist that Bangladesh’s posture is a defensive offense to protect its sovereignty against any possible attack and delay it, Indian security analysts are always surprised by Bangladesh’s threat perception as they always take the Liberation War of 1971 as a benchmark of the bilateral relationship. 

It is true that since 2014, India has not featured as the “enemy.” Though the enemy country is not named, it has been very obvious, given Bangladesh’s geographical location surrounded by India on all the three sides. 

It is not surprising that such differences in perception of threat has made defense cooperation a non-starter even though since 2009, the cooperation on larger security issues has made good progress. Threats have a multifaceted manifestation as the countries move to forging cooperation on non-traditional security (NTS) threat rather than confining themselves to conventional military threat. This makes cooperation a matter of compulsion rather than a choice. 

NTS threats are not confined to the territorial limits of a nation state. Porous borders, deeply networked militant groups, and their patrons have made countries rethink their security. A close cooperation between the defense forces is the starting point -- both to repulse threats posed by transnational terrorist groups as well as to jointly fight the natural calamities and operate closely under the larger framework of Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR).

It needs to be underlined that in 2008, General Moeen U Ahmed visited India after a gap of 10 years. Since then, there have been frequent high level visits by the chiefs of three wings of the armed forces -- army, navy and air force -- of the two countries. Such visits at the highest level has led to frequent dialogue and discussion of security challenges confronting the two countries and has opened up avenues for larger defense cooperation. 

As a part of these engagements, the two countries since 2009 have had Sampriti series of joint military training and anti-terror exercises in a simulated environment. This not only enhances interoperability between the two forces, but prepares them for future contingency. 

The year 2017 was significant in many ways; during Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s visit to India, the two countries agreed to have a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on Defense Cooperation Framework, MoU between Defense Services Staff College, Wellington and Defense Services Command and Staff College, Mirpur, and a MoU between the National Defense Colleges of the two countries. 

It was during this visit a defense credit line of $500 million was agreed to and this was formally extended in 2018 to be utilized by 2029. However, understandably, there is visible reluctance on the part of Bangladesh to buy military hardware from India, given its own military strategy and threat perception. To start with, India’s expectation that the defense credit line would boost trade in military hardware has now been scaled down. 

Unlike the views expressed in Bangladesh that India has nothing significant to sell as it is not a known exporter of defense equipment, there are several items that can be purchased from India, including radars and off-shore patrol vehicles that India has provided to the countries in the neighbourhood. 

According to a report in the Hindu, the Bangladesh Army has approved procurement of three items under the LoC -- five Bridge Layer Tanks (BLT-72) at a cost of approximately $10 million; seven portable steel bridges (Bailey) at a cost of around $2.2 million; and 11 Mine Protective Vehicles from the Tata Group at an approximate cost of $2.2 million. There are several other items that are being considered by the armed forces of Bangladesh.

Officers of the two countries also participate in the courses conducted by the NDCs of the two countries. This had almost stopped during the rule of Bangladesh Nationalist Party. Such training programs expose the officers of the two countries to the military challenges and creates a channel of communication. 

Both the countries have also instituted annual Defense Dialogues; the fourth India-Bangladesh Annual Defense Dialogue was held in August this year which only points to the growing synergy. In this meeting, the two sides discussed capability building cooperation and also the utilization of the $500m defense credit line. Second Tri-services Staff Talks (TSST) also took place in August to strengthen the regular talks at the strategic and operational levels between HQ IDS and Bangladesh Armed Forces Division.

Though the full potential of defense cooperation is yet to unfold, the two countries have taken several steps to strengthen security at the border through the comprehensive border patrol mechanism that allows the border guard to determine vulnerable spots on the border for joint patrol. There is also MoU for the Establishment of Collaborative Relationship to Combat Transnational Illegal Activities at Sea and Develop Regional Cooperation between the Indian Coast Guard and Bangladesh Coast Guard. 

Fourth edition of the Indian Navy-Bangladesh Navy Coordinated Patrol (CORPAT) along the International Maritime Boundary Line was also held in May this year. HADR is one of the areas that opens up opportunities for closer cooperation.

The two countries are not confined to a bilateral framework of defense cooperation which includes joint exercises and participation in dialogue and consultation. Bangladesh is an observer in the four-country Colombo Security Conclave led by the National Security Advisers to discuss threats related to maritime safety, terrorism, trafficking, and organised crime. Both the countries are also part of IORA and IONS.

It needs to be reiterated that larger security cooperation, especially in HADR is important. The two countries have an MoU in 2021 that is geared to strengthen areas of preparedness, response, and capacity building in the field of disaster management that covers vast areas of cooperation, including joint exercises. NTS cooperation is always about the security of the common man rather than cooperation on conventional military matters. 

As close neighbours and partners, defense cooperation in the context of larger security cooperation will only give a boost to the excellent bilateral relations they share.

Smruti S Pattanaik, PhD is Research Fellow, Manohar Parrikar Institute for defense Studies & Analyses (MP-IDSA); Member, Editorial Board, Strategic Analysis (Routledge).


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