China-Bangladesh Relations and Potential for Regional Tensions

Publication: China Brief Volume: 9 Issue: 15
July 23, 2009 02:58 PM Age: 5 yrs
Category: China Brief, Military/Security, Foreign Policy, China and the Asia-Pacific, Home Page, Featured

Bangladesh Ambassador Munshi Faiz Ahmad (L) and Chinese President Hu Jintao (R)

The geographic area encompassing South Asia and its contiguous maritime spaces are of growing strategic importance to China, as reflected in China’s web of partnerships and coalitions with states in the region. The dynamics of these relationships appear on the surface to be based on interdependence, but are actually driven by long-term political, economic and strategic interests. Among the South Asian states, Bangladesh is an important player in Beijing's political-military calculus and provides China with added leverage to check Indian forces. This is evident from the regular political exchanges and enhanced military cooperation between the two countries. According to Munshi Faiz Ahmad, Bangladesh's ambassador to China, Bangladesh and China have enjoyed a "time-tested, all-weather friendship" (China Daily, March 26).

During their meeting on the sidelines of the U.N. Conference on the World Financial and Economic crisis in June 2009, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi assured his Bangladeshi counterpart Dipu Moni that it was China’s policy to "strengthen and develop the relations of friendship and cooperation with Bangladesh." For her part, Moni said that "Bangladesh sees China as its close friend and cooperation partner" (Xinhua News Agency, June 26).

China and Bangladesh established diplomatic relations in 1975, although Beijing initially did not recognize Bangladesh as a separate state in 1971. Since then, the friendship between the two countries has grown to cover a wide spectrum of bilateral relations. At the onset of official relations, the Chinese leadership has consistently advised Bangladesh to pursue an independent foreign policy and encouraged it to move away from India’s sphere of influence. According to discussions (March 2009) that this author had with some retired Indian army officers, they believe that Chinese leaders may have even given Bangladesh security assurances that Beijing would stand by Dhaka and help it defend its national sovereignty and territorial integrity should it be threatened by India.

Bangladesh maintains a very close relationship with China for its economic and military needs (Daily Star [Dhaka], February 19, 2006). Over the years, the two sides have signed a plethora of bilateral agreements that range from economic engagements, soft loans, social contacts, cultural exchanges, academic interactions, infrastructure development and military sales at "friendship" prices. Top-level state visits, both by the ruling party and the opposition leaders to China have increased markedly [1]. Bangladesh sees China not only as its close friend, but also as a counter-weight when dealing with India. This is notwithstanding the fact that China and Bangladesh have not established a strategic partnership, and according to Bangladeshi analysts, have kept their relationship "unarticulated, flexible and ambiguous" thus allowing Dhaka "to reap the benefits of a strategic partnership with a nuclear power without involving itself in any formal defense arrangement" (Daily Star [Dhaka], February 19, 2006).

Arming the Military

China has emerged as a major supplier of arms to the Bangladeshi armed forces. In 2006, China supplied 65 artillery guns and 114 missiles and related systems (The Assam Tribune, October 9, 2007).  Most of the tanks (T-59, T-62, T-69, and T-79), a large number of armoured personnel carriers (APCs), artillery pieces and small arms and personal weapons in the Bangladesh Army are of Chinese origin [2]. There are plans to acquire 155mm PLZ-45/Type-88 (including transfer of technology) and 122mm Type-96 as well MBRLs from China by 2011 (defence.pk/forum, March 19, 2009.

Admiral Zhang Lianzhong, the erstwhile Commander of the PLA Navy, had reportedly assured his Bangladeshi counterpart of cooperation in the sophisticated management of the navy [3]. The Bangladeshi Navy is largely made up of Chinese-origin platforms. These include the 053-H1 Jianghu I class frigates with 4 x HY2 missiles, Huang Feng class missile boats, Type-024 missile boats, Huchuan and P 4 class torpedo boats, Hainan class sub chasers, Shanghai class gun boats and Yuchin class LCUs [4]. The BNS Khalid Bin Walid has been retrofitted with HQ-7 SAM from China. (FM-90 Surface-to-Air Missile System, bdmilitary.com). In 2008, BNS Osman successfully test fired a C-802 ASM in the presence of the Chinese Defense Attaché Senior Colonel Ju Dewu (The Daily Star, May 13, 2008).

China began supplying fighter aircraft to the Bangladesh Air Force in 1977 and, over the years, has delivered F7 and Q5 fighter aircraft and PT 6 Trainers [5]. In 2005, 16 F-7BG were ordered and the deliveries began in 2006 (Bangladesh Biman Bahini, scramble.nl, July 5, 2009).

Although Dhaka has argued that its relations with Beijing are based on mutual understanding and political and economic interests, New Delhi is anxious about Bangladesh’s growing military contacts on several fronts. First, concern arises from India's vulnerability in the Siliguri corridor, often referred to as the ‘chicken neck’. This 200 kilometers (km) long and 40 km wide corridor links mainland India by rail, road and air with its Northeast region, a part of which (90,000 sq km in Arunachal Pradesh) is claimed by China and is a significant source of tension for bilateral relations. At present, there is significant PLA deployment along the borders. To its north is Bhutan, and in the south is Bangladesh. The Siliguri corridor figures prominently in the Sino-Bangladesh friendship and the two sides, according to Indian military experts, have a sophisticated strategy to sever India from the Northeast region. It is also noted that ‘China wants to get Tawang [an administrative district in the state of Arunachal Pradesh] to come closer to the Siliguri corridor’ so that it can link up with Bangladesh from the north (Why Assam Bleeds, sify.com, November 10, 2008).

The corridor also contains elements that can destabilize the region. Illegal migrants from Bangladesh and Indian insurgent groups such as the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), who have safe heavens in Bangladesh, crisscross through porous borders that can act as catalysts for social disorder, unrest and insurgency.  According to one analyst, the ULFA leadership has shifted its base to China, and the investigations relating to the March 2004 offloading of a weapons consignment from China at Chittagong seaport revealed the complicity of government agencies (India, Bangladesh: Joint Task Force for Countering Militancy, sspconline.org, May 27, 2009) In that context, then-Bangladeshi Foreign Minister Morshed Khan's warning in 2005 that if India surrounds Bangladesh, Bangladesh also surrounds India, has many implications.

Snooping and Spying

Firstly, there are fears among the Indian military establishment that Dhaka may grant military basing rights to China, thus complicating India’s security in the Northeast. This could result in the monitoring of Indian military movements, particularly of the Indian Army that is deployed in the region. There are several strategic Indian Air Force bases such as Bagdogra (with MiG-21 fighter jet deployed), Hashimara (with MiG-27 fighter jet deployed), and Tezpur (with Su-30 fighter jet deployed). These bases and military aircraft could easily come under a Bangladesh-China electronic and radar surveillance network during a crisis or impending hostilities.  

Second, there are concerns that Bangladesh may offer Chittagong port for development to China, ostensibly for commercial purposes, but which could also be used for staging Chinese naval assets. This is to be expected and can be reasonably tied to the Chinese development of Gwadar port in Pakistan and Hambantota port in Sri Lanka. Third, China will be able to monitor Indian missile testing conducted at Chandipur-at-sea near Balasore, Orissa, and also naval activity in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal.

China’s Bay of Bengal Energy Triangle

At another level, China has cultivated its relations with Bangladesh and has emerged as a mediator in the latter’s international disputes. In November 2008, Bangladesh and Myanmar (Burma) deployed their navies in a standoff in the Bay of Bengal over Myanmar’s decision to issue licenses to oil companies to undertake survey activity in disputed waters. Among the several oil companies engaged in offshore exploration in Myanmar’s waters, China National Petroleum Corp (CNPC) was awarded a block that falls into those belonging to Bangladesh. Dhaka requested Beijing, their common friend, to mediate, and after his meeting with Zheng Qingdian, the Chinese ambassador in Dhaka, Bangladesh’s foreign minister, Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury, noted “I have explained our peaceful intentions to our Chinese friends and hope that Myanmar stops activities on the disputed waters” (Reuters, November 5, 2008). The standoff ended after Bangladesh and Myanmar agreed to resolve the issue through negotiations.  

Both Bangladesh, which has a reserve of 15.51 trillion cubic feet (tcf) and Myanmar, which has a reserve of 81.03 tcf, have the potential to satisfy the increasing energy requirements of Asia—particularly, China and India [6]. Chinese oil and gas companies are aggressively engaged in the Bay of Bengal in exploration and production activities to push the gas through pipelines linking offshore platforms in Myanmar to Kunming in China and also to feed the new refinery in Chongqing municipality. According to the China Securities Journal, work on two new pipelines will commence in September 2009 (Reuters, June 17). The 2,806 km long natural gas pipeline with a capacity of 12 billion cubic meters annually to Kunming will be ready by 2012. The second 1,100 km pipeline for oil with a capacity of 400,000 barrels per day (bpd) would run between Kyaukphyu in Myanmar to Kunming and would be extended to Guizhou and Chongqing municipality.

Likewise, China is also interested in a Malaysian pipeline and refinery project estimated to cost about $14.3 billion. This 320 km west-east pipeline has the capacity to transfer 800,000 (bpd) and the refinery’s capacity to process 200,000 bpd would help China overcome the oft-mentioned Malacca Dilemma.

Besides the oil and gas pipelines, China and Bangladesh, along with Myanmar, have decided to build the 900 km Kunming Highway linking Chittagong with Kunming through Myanmar to facilitate greater trade [7]. This would not only overcome the long sea passage from the east coast of China through Singapore (for trans-shipment) to Bangladesh, but would also lower transport costs and add to the economy of Yunnan  province. This also fits well in their joint initiative of improving Chittagong port infrastructure that can now be put to dual use for merchant vessels and also for the navies of the two countries.  

Challenging India

The Chinese approach of systematically nurturing and promoting diplomatic linkages with Bangladesh provides it with a number of strategic advantages against India. Likewise, there are also several related strategic fallouts for Bangladesh. As far as China is concerned, it will be in a position to link its electronic listening systems at Coco Island in Myanmar and the staging/listening systems in Bangladesh and monitor Indian naval and missile activity. Given the wide disparities in the India-Bangladesh naval order of battle, Bangladesh would be under pressure to open its facilities to the PLA Navy as a countervailing force against the Indian Navy. The prospect of Chinese ships and submarines operating in the North Andaman Sea would have serious repercussions for India's projection capabilities. This is sure to result in some aggressive counter-maneuvering by the Indian Navy, and the Indian naval response would be to execute a blockade and entanglement of Chinese naval assets in Chittagong.  

China’s quest to establish a regional power profile is based on sustained and dedicated engagements with India’s neighbors for access and basing. It has adeptly reinforced its alliances with these countries through political-military support and challenging India in its backyard. China-Bangladesh military cooperation has the potential to exacerbate regional tensions along the Himalayas and result in high-intensity competition. The Chinese are quite clear that they have a peer competitor and a rival who they must contend with to enhance their influence in South Asia.

Notes

1. Sreeradha Datta, “Bangladesh’s Relations with China and India: A Comparative Study”, Strategic Analysis, Volume 32, No.5, September 2008, p.761.
2. The Military Balance 2007, International Institute of Strategic Studies, London.
3. R. Chakrabarti, “China and Bangladesh”, China Report, Volume 30, No. 2, 1994, p.155.
4. Jane’s Fighting Ships 2008-09, pp.46-55.
5. All the World’s Aircraft 2008-09, pp.94-95.
6. Sudhir T. Devare, (ed), A New Energy Frontier: The Bay of Bengal, (Singapore: ISEAS,2008).
7. Sharif M. Hossain and Ishtiaque Selim, “Sino – Bangladesh Economic Relations: Prospects and Challenges”, BIISS Journal, Volume 27, No 4, October 2006, pp.354-355.


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