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China Delivers Submarines to Bangladesh: Imperatives, Intentions, and Implications

The following article was originally featured by the National Maritime Foundation and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here.

By Gurpreet S. Khurana

On 14 November 2016, the Bangladesh Navy (BN) took delivery of two old refurbished Chinese Type 035G Ming-class diesel-electric submarines. As part of the US$ 203 million contract signed in 2013, the submarines were handed over to the BN crew during a ceremony at the Liao Nan Shipyard in China’s Dalian city. The submarines are slated to be commissioned as Bangladesh Naval Ships (BNS) Nabajatra and Joyjatra and are expected to arrive in early 2017 at the new Bangladeshi submarine base being constructed near Kutubdia Island.

This may be a rather seminal development with strong ramifications not only for the littoral countries of the Bay of Bengal, but also for the wider Indo-Pacific region. This essay seeks to undertake an assessment of this development in the context of the likely imperatives of Bangladesh, the intentions of China, and its implications with specific reference to the Indian context.  

Imperatives for Bangladesh

For any navy, the surface warships and their integral aircraft are capable of being used across the entire spectrum of conflict including for ‘constabulary’ and ‘benign’ missions ranging from counter-piracy to maritime search and rescue (M-SAR). In contrast, submarine forces – due to their inherent stealth characteristics – are optimized for sea-denial during war. Even in peacetime, these underwater platforms are used to undertake highly specialized missions against a military adversary like clandestine surveillance, intelligence-gathering, and Special Forces operations. Hence, it is difficult to fathom why Bangladesh – which does not encounter any conventional maritime-military threat – has inducted submarines into its navy. The maritime disputes between Bangladesh and two of its only maritime neighbors – Myanmar and India – were resolved through international arbitration in 2012 and 2014 respectively. Neither Naypyidaw nor New Delhi have indicated any reservations to the verdict of the international tribunals, nor have any other major outstanding contention with Dhaka.

It is nonetheless well known that the BN has since long aspired for a three-dimensional navy through inclusion of underwater warfare platforms. After Dhaka succeeded in settling its maritime boundary through the highly favorable decisions of the international tribunals, the apex political leadership showered much attention upon the BN as the guardian of the country’s newfound maritime interests. Notably, Bangladesh is seeking an increasing dependence upon sea-based resources for economic prosperity of its rather high density of population. The political nod to acquire submarines may therefore be seen as an incentive for the BN. Besides, it is a low-cost deal to reinforce strategic ties with China, including by taking forward Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s support to President Xi Jinping for its ‘One Belt One Road’ (OBOR) initiative. Hence, the development seems to have been driven by symbolism for Bangladesh, rather than being a result of the navy’s appreciation-based force-planning based on an objective assessment of the projected security environment.   

China’s Intentions

As in case of other defense hardware exports, Beijing’s overarching intent behind the sale of submarines would be to go beyond strengthening political ties with Dhaka, to bring about its ‘strategic dependence’ upon China. The long-term submarine training and maintenance needs of the BN would also enable China’s military presence in the Bay of Bengal, and enable it to collate sensitive data for PLA Navy submarine operations in the future. This area is becoming increasingly important as the transit route for China’s strategic crude-oil and gas imports, and bears the origin of China’s oil pipeline across Myanmar. Strategic presence in the area is also critically necessary for Beijing to supplement the strategic and geopolitical dimension of its Maritime Silk Road (MSR) plans.

Further, by selling the two old (though upgraded) Ming-class submarines – which were commissioned in early 1990s and presently at the end of their service life with the PLA Navy – Beijing has assiduously generated useful revenue out of hardware, which would have only ‘scrap value’ in a few years. As per an established practice in China, a significant proportion of the revenue would go to PLA Navy since the submarines were sourced from its inventory.

Implications

The sale of Chinese submarines to Bangladesh bears significant ramifications for the Indo-Pacific region. Lately, apprehensions are being increasingly expressed over the rapidly increasing number of submarines being operated by regional countries. An addition of a submarine-operating country would not only multiply the complexity of water-space management – particularly due to the confidentiality associated with the deployments of such stealth platforms – but could also lead other countries to follow suit. The development also strengthens the imperative for Indian Ocean navies to institute a mechanism for de-conflicting unintended naval encounters at sea through the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS), which ironically, is presently being chaired by Bangladesh.

The submarine sale to Bangladesh has come at a rather inopportune time for the countries of the Bay of Bengal. With the two major maritime disputes having been resolved, the sub-region was looking forward to enhanced maritime cooperation in various sectors like trade connectivity, blue economy, and maritime safety and security, including through the revitalisation of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC). The BN’s acquisition of submarines could lead to littoral countries reassessing their maritime security strategies and adopting a cautious approach to maritime cooperation. 

In the Indian context, New Delhi has little reason to be threatened by Dhaka’s newly-acquired sea-denial capability. Nonetheless, Beijing’s likely intent needs to be factored in its national security calculus, particularly considering the imminence of China’s military-strategic presence in close proximity to India’s naval bases, including its nuclear submarine bastion. Evidently, India’s foreign policy vis-á-vis Bangladesh needs to be recalibrated. At the national-strategic level, India possesses insufficient financial and defence-industrial wherewithal to offset China’s overwhelming influence upon Bangladesh, but there is no dearth of other leverages. In such circumstances, New Delhi may need to graduate from its long-standing policy of ‘appeasing’ Dhaka to a ‘carrot and stick’ policy.

Captain   Gurpreet S Khurana, PhD, is Executive   Director at National   Maritime Foundation (NMF), New Delhi. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the NMF, the Indian Navy, or the Government of India. He can be reached at gurpreet.bulbul@gmail.com.

Featured Image: Handover ceremony of two ex-PLA Navy Type 035 submarines to the Bangladesh Navy. (banglanews24.com)

Bangladesh and Asia’s Maritime Balance

By Paul Pryce

Most discussions of South Asian maritime security are dominated by the balance of power between the Indian Navy and its Chinese counterpart, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). On the one hand, India makes waves with its ongoing work on the Vikrant-class aircraft carrier, the introduction of the Arihant-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine, and other efforts toward fleet expansion and modernization. On the other hand, PLAN vessels patrol the Indian Ocean region, which India regards as part of its sphere of influence, ostensibly to ‘combat piracy’. Prior to the 2012 establishment of INS Baaz – an Indian naval airbase in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, viewed by both the Chinese and the Indians as a chokepoint in the Strait of Malacca, the focus in South Asia was on the seemingly interminable Indo-Pakistani rivalry. But the maritime capabilities of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, a country that occupies a geopolitically interesting location between South Asia and Southeast Asia, merits some attention.

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Facing the Bay of Bengal that separates India from Burma and encompassing the Ganges-Brahmaputra delta, Bangladesh certainly has need for a robust maritime force. As an emerging economy listed by Goldman Sachs among the Next Eleven (the list also includes Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, South Korea, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, Turkey, and Vietnam), Bangladesh has the potential for considerable growth if Bangladeshi authorities begin investing wisely. With several procurement projects for the Bangladesh Navy close to maturity, they certainly seem to be moving in the right direction.
In 2016, Bangladesh expects to receive two Ming III-class diesel-electric submarines from China. These are heavily improved redesigns of the Romeo-class submarines introduced by the Soviet Union in 1957, each with a

Two Ming-class submarines (pictured) will join the Bangladeshi fleet in 2016
Two Ming III-class submarines (pictured) will join the Bangladeshi fleet in 2016

submerged displacement of approximately 2,110 tonnes. These will be employed principally as training vessels; Bangladesh has not previously boasted a submarine fleet of its own. The apparent intent is to subsequently acquire more advanced diesel-electric submarines from either Russia or South Korea. A likely contender, given the capabilities and size of the Ming III-class, is the Chang Bogo-class submarine, which South Korea-based Daewoo Industries is exporting for use by the Indonesian Navy.

Bangladesh is also expected to take delivery of two Jiangdao-class corvettes, each with a displacement of approximately 1,500 tonnes, from China by the end of 2015. An order has already been placed for an additional two vessels of this class. This makes Bangladesh only the second foreign buyer, after the Nigerian Navy, to acquire the Jiangdao-class. The delivery of these vessels will do much to modernize Bangladeshi capabilities at sea, as most of the other surface combatants currently operated are aging. BNS Bangabandhu, the Bangladesh Navy flagship, is currently the nation’s most modern vessel, having begun operational life as an Ulsan-class guided missile frigate built by South Korea’s Daewoo Industries in 2001. Others include two Jianghui III-class frigates and one Jianghui II-class frigate built by China in the 1980s, a retired Salisbury-class frigate built for the Royal Navy in the 1976 and sold to Bangladesh after its original retirement, and two retired Hamilton-class cutters from the 1970s that were subsequently donated to Bangladesh by the United States Coast Guard under the Excess Defense Articles program. A third Hamilton-class cutter may be donated to Bangladesh for conversion into a frigate in 2016.

Evidently, Bangladesh has been highly dependent on transfers of decommissioned military equipment but has recently become ambitious about acquiring off-the-shelf technology from China, South Korea, and to a lesser extent Russia. Of note, however, is the opportunity for the South Asian country to develop its own shipbuilding industry under the ‘Forces Goal 2030’ program. This initiative, introduced by the Bangladesh Armed Forces in 2012, envisions the country’s emergence as a regional power with dominance over the Bay of Bengal, but also includes more attainable goals like the development of a ‘blue economy’ by tapping into natural gas fields off the Bangladeshi coastline as well as the aforementioned development of the Bangladesh Navy’s Khulna Shipyard, not only to satisfy domestic demand but also potentially as an exporter of finished vessels.

Some of the fruits of that investment in Khulna Shipyard can already be seen. Rounding out the surface combatants available to the Bangladesh Navy, two Durjoy-class ‘large patrol craft’ (LPC) were completed in

The Durjoy-class LPC
The Durjoy-class LPC

2013. Based on the design of China’s Jiangdao-class corvettes, these LPC were homebuilt and are expected to be the first of a total complement of eight such vessels. The Maldives has already expressed interest in acquiring patrol craft from Khulna for its Coast Guard. The prospect of supplying foreign buyers represents a significant shift for both Bangladeshi military and industry; previously, the closest approximation to ‘shipbuilding’ was BNS Shah Jalal, a Thai fishing trawler seized in Bangladeshi waters in 1987 and put into service as a patrol craft before being converted into a diving salvage vessel in 1996, in which role it continues to serve as of this writing.

As it undergoes such rapid change, there is some question as to how organizational culture will cope. Bangladesh is notably avoiding the pitfalls of rushing into the purchase of new submarines, ensuring it first has adequately trained personnel to operate such vessels. But it is also worth noting that Forces Goal 2030 does not include any procurement projects for the Bangladesh Coast Guard, whose newest vessels are re-commissioned Minerva-class corvettes from Italy. One can surmise from this that Bangladesh intends to employ its Coast Guard for riverine patrols, but that most of that responsibilities fulfilled by this branch offshore will gradually transfer to the Bangladesh Navy. Without a shift in organizational culture and necessary changes to naval training to account for this expanded role, the Bangladesh Navy could inadvertently contribute to increased tensions with other countries that share the Bay of Bengal, namely India and Burma. Claims of ‘dominion’ over those waters, coupled with a few heavy-handed confrontations, could be sufficient to jeopardize relations between Bangladesh and India at a time when the latter loans the former an average of almost $1 billion a year for infrastructure projects.

No matter the route Bangladesh takes with regard to the division of labour between its maritime forces, it is clear that this country does not receive sufficient attention in analyses of South Asian security. An emergent Bangladesh is unlikely to challenge India for supremacy in the Bay of Bengal, but it could tip the balance of power one way or the other in the struggle between China and India. Accordingly, other powers with a stake in Asia should keep an eye on Bangladesh’s fleet expansion and modernization.

Paul Pryce is the Senior Research Fellow for the Atlantic Council of Canada’s Maritime Nation Program and serves as Political Advisor to the Consul General of Japan in Calgary. He is a long-time member of the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC).

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