India's Proposed Defence Pact: Dhaka uneasy

PM goes to Delhi April 7
Sheikh Hasina
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Star file photo

Leaving aside several bilateral issues, including the unresolved Teesta water-sharing deal, India has proposed a long-term comprehensive defence pact with Bangladesh that encompasses training, sale of military hardware and wide range of military to military cooperation.

Highly placed official sources said though discussions are still going on, India is expecting to sign a comprehensive, 25-year framework agreement on bilateral defence cooperation during Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's upcoming state visit to India on April 7-10.

According to sources, India in its proposed agreement also wants coordinated operations against mutually perceived threats.

Prime Minister of Bangladesh will be visiting India on an invitation extended by Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi, according to a joint announcement made yesterday simultaneously in Dhaka and New Delhi.

Along with the military cooperation agreement, India has also offered a $500 million line of credit to Bangladesh for the purchase of military hardware, including purchasing of fast patrol craft for the coastguards, radar, and other items for air defence.

Bangladesh, however, is still reluctant to sign such an agreement in the area of defence which India is pushing for. Dhaka is reluctant about such a long-term framework agreement, sources say. Instead it prefers to sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), which would be less formal and would have no time frame.

“The proposed defence agreement has not yet taken final shape…it is still under discussion at different level of the government, but it is progressing,” said a highly placed official source in Dhaka.

Bangladesh is heavily dependent on China for its defence, but the government amid Indian push has taken the view that a traditionally close defence relationship with China needs to be balanced by strengthening defence cooperation with India and Russia too, according to experts and sources.

Bangladesh and China has umbrella agreement on defence cooperation signed in December 2002 during then Prime Minister Khaleda Zia's visit but Bangladesh does not have such a comprehensive agreement with India.

Under the Bangladesh-China military cooperation agreement of 2002, Bangladesh is buying supplies of arms, equipments, tanks, frigates, fighter jets and of late, the two submarines from China.

There is also counterargument among the defence experts who think it would be unwise for Bangladesh to build its defence with Indian cooperation. 

Meanwhile, some political and security analysts said, though Bangladesh depends on China for conventional military weapons but time has come to move away from single source supply of defense equipment and include other countries in the list.

Political, diplomatic and security experts in Dhaka see India's insistence on this deal as a move to counter Bangladesh Armed Forces' growing dependence on China. They recognise China has emerged as a major supplier of arms to the Bangladesh Army and that makes India uncomfortable.

The recent addition of two Chinese submarines to the Bangladesh Navy has been a reason of major concern for New Delhi. Leading think tanks, media, and strategists in India have questioned Bangladesh's need for submarines at this time when it has already settled its maritime disputes with Myanmar and India through international arbitration in 2012 and 2014 respectively.

New Delhi was reported to be unhappy with Dhaka when Bangladesh on November 14 last year took delivery of the first of the two submarines purchased from China at a cost of $203 million. The Type 035G diesel-electric submarines are armed with torpedoes and mines.

Sources said India is also apprehensive over China's plans to develop seaports with base for submarines in Bangladesh which may hold Chinese submarines in future.

The Modi administration also felt uncomfortable when China, during Chinese President Xi Jinping's Dhaka visit on October 14-15 last year, elevated the bilateral ties from a comprehensive partnership of cooperation to a strategic partnership of cooperation, inking at least 27 deals worth about $25 billion.

Soon after, New Delhi presented the idea of comprehensive defence agreement with Bangladesh when its defence minister, Manohar Parikkar, visited Dhaka on November 30-December 1, 2016.

India further pushed for signing the defence deal during Indian Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar's visit to Dhaka on February 23 when he had over an hour of one-to-one meeting with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

In response to New Delhi's push for the defence deal, highly placed sources said, government high-ups and policymakers are favouring signing an MoU first. Government policymakers think that would strike the right balance without upsetting either India or China.

Explaining building defence cooperation with India, strategic and security analyst Maj Gen Abdur Rashid (Retd) said: “Chinese footprint in Indian Ocean littoral states has always been a concern of other potential partners of Bangladesh. Unitary presence of a single country may generate suspicion among others. Enhancement of defense capacity of Bangladesh also adds strength to collective regional capacity.”

Another defence expert said dependency on single source of supply of defence equipment also creates vulnerability and suggested a safer approach by creating multiple sources of defence equipment.

However, another expert, who wanted not to be named, said that Bangladesh has long been using Chinese weapons and it would be difficult for armed forces to adjust with new type of arms imported from new source.

Bangladesh has already inked its biggest arms contract worth $1 billion with Russia in January 2013 and is also planning to procure eight multi-role combat aircraft from Russia for the Bangladesh Air Force.

Bangladesh has previously bought MI-8 helicopters, Mig-29 fighter jets and MI-171 helicopters from Russia. The then Soviet Union had gifted eight MiG-21 aircrafts in 1972 to Bangladesh that kicked off the military-to-military ties between the two countries.

Meanwhile, the Foreign Ministry in its announcement said, “The upcoming visit is expected to further expand the cordial and cooperative relationship between India and Bangladesh and build on the strong ties of friendship and trust between the two leaders.

In preparation for the visit, official sources said, Dhaka and New Delhi have already finalised more than two dozen agreements, MoUs and documents for signing at the summit level meeting between Hasina and Modi on April 8 in New Delhi. “A couple of dozen or even more deals will be signed,” added a high government official in Dhaka.

The MoUs are likely to be project-based, similar to those inked with China in October during Chinese President Xi Jinping's Dhaka visit, they said.

Diplomatic sources in the two capitals said the Bangladesh Prime Minister's visit is taking place without the Teesta Agreement whereas the two countries are going to sign agreements for use of Chittagong and Mongla seaports as part of greater connectivity under which India will get the transit-transshipment facilities for transportation of goods through Bangladesh.