• Sunday, April 20, 2014

Bangladesh and the evolving balance of power in the Indian Ocean

Sarwar Jahan Chowdhury

Notwithstanding the end of Cold War, naval power still tends to be a reckonable factor in the maritime geo-strategic domain. Naval power renders two vital advantages, an edge on warfare or exercise of power - at the least, the threat to use it and the domination of crucial Sea Line of Communication (SLOC). The complexity in shoreline due to geographic accidents has created quite a few controversies in demarcation of maritime boundary and EEZ of neighbouring littoral states.  There are claims and counter-claims and naval power also seem to have some muted sway in these cases.
'Smart Power' is being talked about nowadays in western strategic fraternity for achieving key interest targets internationally that encompasses both 'Hard Power' and 'Soft Power'. This could even be useful for a developing yet geo-strategically significant country like Bangladesh. For maintaining justified maritime interests, diplomacy may, in many occasions, need some reckonable hard power support for actual crisis and also for the act of posturing to achieve a synergy of effort.
Maritime utilities like Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and SLOC are two precious natural gifts to the sea shore states of the world. EEZ allows access and use of a variety of marine resource and mineral/ energy extraction. But conflicting claims, often stubborn, has left many maritime sphere as disputed and unexplored. Muscle flexing also comes in randomly when inter-state relations heats up on these issues. East and South China seas are two such examples. Bangladeshi EEZ is vastly unexplored and potentially holds a good reserve of fortune in terms of oil and natural gas for poor Bangladesh.
SLOC is critically important to most littoral states in the world. These are the lucky states to get readymade access to sea and ocean; the most useful channel of communication on the globe, which the land locked hinterland countries can't readily access unless having treaties with the former category of states. This is a big natural advantage in regards to international trade, communication and geo-strategic significance. While coastal navy of smaller littoral states focuses on defending the coastline, especially from hostile amphibious operations, blue water navy of stronger nations, is meant to have oceanic outreach. A superior blue water navy can create naval blockade against a littoral nation with weak naval power and effectively stop any key external supplies and trade.

Naval power including naval air power is the key factor that decides domination of the sea and ocean. The US, the only global naval super power, dominates most oceanic waters of the world including the Asia-Pacific blue waters and Indian Ocean and its associated seas, gulf and straits. Growing Asian powers like China and India have recently joined the race to build increased blue water naval capacity and have their sway in their essential Sea Lines of Communications, (SLOC) some of which are very much in their geographical proximity.
Carrier Battle Group (CBG) is the key component that makes formidable blue water navy that is a huge departure from the smaller territorial navy. It composition revolves around an aircraft carrier with a fleet of bomber and interceptor aircrafts and associated couple of  Guided Missile Cruisers, similar number of Anti-Aircraft Warships, and 1 or 2 Anti-Submarine Destroyers or Frigates. The composition of CBG varies a bit from country to country though. CBGs allow a military power to operate much away from its shoreline and for a long period depending on the logistic arrangement. The concept developed just prior to and during the 2nd world war. Pearl Harbour aerial strikes back in 1944 against US naval assets thousands of miles away from Japan were conducted from four Japanese CBGs, not from mainland Japan. Later, in the battle between Japanese and US CBGs in the decisive pacific naval encounter called the Battle of Midway, largest naval battle in the history of mankind, swung the pendulum in US favor in Asia-Pacific theatre of the Great War. In the recent Gulf wars against Saddam's Iraq by the US led allies, CBGs played important role in terms of air and missile strikes. These CBGs also enforced complete maritime blockade against Iraq.
American military strategists have divided the entire globe into few regions under the responsibility of their corresponding unified commands. A unified command has all types of military components e.g. army, navy, air force and marine. The Indian Ocean region falls under two such commands; the eastern part under US Pacific Command (US PACOM) the headquarter of which is in Hawaii and the western part under US Central Command ( US CENTCOM), the forward headquarter of which is in Qatar.
In Nov 16 this year India commissioned a Kiev Class aircraft carrier named INS Vikramaditya bought from and refurbished by Russia, a relatively modern carrier. After the decommissioning old aircraft carrier INS Vikrant recently this addition brings Indian Navy to its erstwhile status of having two CBGs. But by 2016 Indian Navy will surely add another indigenously build aircraft carrier, first of the two such planned. Information has surfaced that in the long term, Indian Navy would like to have six operational CBGs.
Even the existing two CBGs and another forthcoming would also have profound strategic significance. India and China are the only continental powers to have CBGs. The Chinese have better figures than India but won't have much leeway in the crucial Indian Ocean after fulfilling their immediate priorities in east and south China seas and in western Pacific. Moreover India's increasing strategic intimacy with the US allows them further freedom of action in the Indian Ocean. It was noted by naval strategist that in 2004 Indian CBG took over the security of Straits of Malacca to relieve the US CBG for supporting the later parts of Operation Enduring Freedom  i.e. the US and allies war against Al Qaida and Taliban in Afghanistan. Indian navy is part of the exclusive few to participate in the US initiated joint yearly naval rehearsal called Exercise Malabar.
Bangladesh has made commendable achievements in the long outstanding maritime boundary issue with Myanmar in 2013 through international arbitration. The one with India is in due process. The timely steps by the concerned maritime legal experts and officials of the foreign ministry have brought us gains through diplomatic means. We have to wait and see the final outcome of these arbitrations. But we also need to have some proportionate capacity in terms of sea power so as to able to act as counterbalancing force along with others in case of a South China Sea-like situation in the Bay of Bengal. Addition of the American made frigate Samudra Joy with one more relatively modern one ordered from China and purchase plan of two diesel-electric sub-marines would add some sting to our maritime strategic tools. These two, once added to the existing fleet would make some notable difference. The recently established wing of the navy would also be of some limited use. Bangladesh navy needed to go three dimensional. This would allow us to attract other counteracting force with some common interest. Alliance aimed at stable power balance or status quo can be formed as and when necessary for whatever duration.
In the post-communist world order there isn't, any more, very clear and solid alliances, yet the strategic intimacy patterns can be noticed. For smaller littoral nations like Bangladesh the only option for blue water strategy is to fall in line e.g. some tacit understanding with the non-regional power for a worst case situation, or else we would fall by the wayside. The US is the ultimate resort for the smalls in this strategic age. In a probable dire scenario in future, China may also offer some choice. Having some naval bite would allow us the strategic leverage to complement a possible alliance even as junior partner of some value. Too little capacity would mean too little relevance in the military strategic equation. Various alliance probabilities have to be in our mind for credible maritime defence and deterrent.
But there is no need to foolishly jump into a belligerent situation. The stages in between should also be properly cultivated if there is an escalation at all. Overreaction always poses new problems. Diplomacy will definitely be at work first. A lot of geo-strategic realities might change in longer term in Asia-Pacific domain though. Bangladeshi strategist's community, if there is any at all, must remain updated and advise the strategic and diplomatic decision makers on right steps at the right time, because, isolation or turning a blind eye is not an option in an era of evolving geo-strategy.

The writer is an Associate Research Fellow in BIPSS.

Published: 12:00 am Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Last modified: 9:36 pm Wednesday, January 01, 2014

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