India’s Maritime Cooperation with Bangladesh: Challenges and Opportunities
India and Bangladesh have had a turbulent relationship riddled with highs and lows whether it has been the Teesta river disagreement or the maritime boundary dispute. However presently, China’s relations with Bangladesh have been growing and China has surpassed India as Bangladesh’s largest trading partner in 2005. After the United Nations Permanent Court of Arbitration verdict on the maritime dispute between Bangladesh and India, though, there has been an attempt to increase India’s cooperation with Bangladesh by fostering better relations. This article evaluates these attempts made in the arena of maritime trade and security.
Growing Chinese footprint in Bangladesh
China is Bangladesh’s largest economic partner and majority of this can be owed to defense trade. In 2015-16, China sold shipping designs, technologies, and provided technical support to shipyards, owned by the Bangladesh Navy. Five Padma-class coastal patrol craft and two-Durjoy class anti-submarine semi-stealth large patrol craft have been supplied by China, which have been placed in the Khulna Shipyard.[i]
The biggest sale has been the two Chinese Ming-class Type 035B diesel electric submarines in October 2016, which raised concerns in India, and was followed by then Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar’s visit along with a high profile delegation in forty-five years.[ii]
Mr. Parrikar was supposed to finalize a new defense cooperation framework that was to be signed when Prime Minister Sheikh has in a visited India in December 2016. As seen in 2017April, when she finally visited, only a MoU on the issue was signed instead of a proper framework. In January 2016, two Chinese guided-missile frigates and a supply ship docked at Chittagong port before conducting naval exercises with the Bangladesh Navy. Moreover, in the last five years, Chinese nuclear and conventional submarines have been reported patrolling regularly in the Bay of Bengal region. China is also supervising and providing designs for the submarines being built at Bangladesh’s Kutubdia naval base.[iii]
Bangladesh signed 26 agreements with China in October 2016, one of which was a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) under China’s OBOR initiative, which looks at furthering maritime cooperation.[iv]
There were also talks of extensive potentials for cooperation in maritime affairs between the two countries, and agreed to establish a dialogue mechanism for maritime cooperation. China was willing to assist Bangladesh in developing Blue Economy and strengthening its capacity in relevant areas for which the Bangladesh government expressed great interest. Bangladesh has also openly appreciated China’s maritime silk route project, part of the OBOR, a potential threat to Indian interests in the Indian Ocean, as Chinese operated ports in the Indian Ocean Region would increase.[v]
There has been an active attempt by Delhi to foster better relationships with Dhaka in the wake of the United Nations tribunal verdict. This verdict resolved the dispute between India and Bangladesh related to the demarcation of the maritime boundary and awarded Dhaka 19,467 Sq. km of 25,602 sq. km sea area of the Bay of Bengal.[vi].
In the aftermath of this, India under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has ratified six agreements focused on cooperation in the maritime sphere. These deals include MoUs on passenger and cruise services on protocol routes, development of fairways, cooperation on navigation, and joint patrolling and counter-terrorism exercises. Out of these, perhaps the most important one is the agreement on coastal shipping, which aims to promote and strengthen trade between the two countries through the usage of ports. Moreover, India has shown its commitment to Bangladesh by signing a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) related to the coastal shipping agreement. Another key MoU was signed between these two countries on the Blue Economy.
The Blue economy refers to the attempt by the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) to economically develop the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). This MoU encompasses issues such as tourism, pollution, maritime technology, and emphasizes the specific areas that both countries need to focus on together. This collaboration highlights how even within international organizations, India and Bangladesh are working together.
In terms of maritime agreements India’s focus has not been only on the economy but also its maritime security. In the aftermath of Bangladesh’s acquisition of a pair of Chinese submarines, India has offered training for Bangladesh’s naval crews.[vii]
Moreover, during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visits in June 2015, one of the six agreements was on understanding between both countries’ coast guards aimed at combating piracy and strengthening maritime security in the Bay of Bengal. However, despite this arrangement, there have been no attempts by either country’s navy to collaborate and plan training activities with each other.
But, these attempts have not quite reached full potential, as there is greater scope for improving maritime defense cooperation. The MoU on defense cooperation, already an insipid one, does not include maritime defense in any way. India’s only attempt to surpass Chin has been extending lines of credit. This though has anyways been surpassed by China, as it has signed $24 billion in loans, compared to the $2 billion loan and $4.5 billion line of credit by India.
India has not been able to offer anything more concrete to Bangladesh to further strengthen their joint responsibility of maritime security in the Bay of Bengal. India, thus, in the future will have to decide if its economic promises are enough to compete with China’s growing relations with Bangladesh and if not, what other avenues India can explore with Bangladesh in terms of maritime defense cooperation between the two countries.
India must now challenge itself by successfully implementing and delivering on its promises if it wants to cement itself as a reliable partner to Bangladesh. At the same time, it is prudent for Bangladesh to keep treading the fine line between the two growing powers. Its policy of friendship with all, animosity with none, will work in its favor and further its own prominence in geostrategic and economic terms. Nonetheless, this will get tougher as future relationship between India and China is uncertain and Bangladesh might face a conflict of interest.
[i]Indian defence minister visits Bangladesh”, World Socialist Website, 8th December 2016
[ii]Why China’s Submarine Deal With Bangladesh Matters”, The Diplomat, 20th January 2017
[iii]& 5 “Joint Statement Of The People’s Republic Of China and the People’s Republic of Bangladesh on establishing Strategic Partnership of cooperation” Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Bangladesh, 14th October, 2016
[v]List of Agreements/MoUs exchanged during the State Visit of Prime Minister of Bangladesh to India (April 07-10, 2017)”, Ministry of External Affairs, India, 8th April 2017
[vi] Bangladesh Wins Maritime Dispute with India, The Hindu, July 9th,2014
[vii] Why China’s Submarine Deal with Bangladesh Matters, The Diplomat, January 20th, 2017