Monday, May 30, 2016

India ‘watching’ Chinese defence minister's Dhaka visit closely

India says it will closely watch the Dhaka visit of Chinese defence minister Chang Wanquan to Dhaka later this month.

The Chinese minister’s visit follows the visit to China by Bangladesh’s Chief of Army Staff, General Abu Belal Muhammad Shafiul Huq, in December last year.

During Belal's visit, both sides took note of developments in Sino-Bangladesh military relations since the two countries established diplomatic ties 40 years ago, and pledged deeper cooperation in the future.

 "We are trying to figure out how much deeper military relations between Dhaka and Beijing will go," said a top official at the Indian Ministry of External Affairs in Delhi.

The official was not willing to be named, however.

China, like the US, had sided with the Yahya Khan-led Pakistani military junta during Bangladesh’s 1971 Liberation War, but subsequently built up a steady relationship with Dhaka when Bangladesh in the times of the military dictators Ziaur Rahman and H M Ershad.

Military relations between the two countries have been bolstered by the fact that China is now Bangladesh’s largest supplier of military equipment.

Since 2010, Beijing has supplied Dhaka with five maritime patrol vessels, two corvettes, 44 tanks, and 16 fighter jets, as well as surface-to-air and anti-ship missiles, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

That is in addition to new Ming-class submarines that Bangladesh ordered from China in 2013. The submarines will perhaps join the Bangladeshi fleet by end of 2016, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has said.

China and Bangladesh have been moved beyond hardware supply to developing a robust training and military exchange programme.

The Chinese People’s Liberation Army sends nearly as many delegations to Bangladesh each year as does India.

Last year, new agreements signed during the Dhaka visit of a high-ranking Chinese military official ensured that China would provide training for Bangladeshi military personnel.

During the Bangladesh army chief’s visit to China, Wang expressed his hope that “the two militaries can keep enhancing high-level exchange of visits, communication between military academies and cooperation in technologies and personnel training.”

Belal said that Bangladesh was keen to increase its cooperation with China on personnel training and peacekeeping. Bangladesh and China are both major contributors of troops to UN peacekeeping missions.

But what appears to worry Delhi is Dhaka's enthusiasm about being an important part of Beijing’s “Belt and Road” vision of an interconnected trading web stretching from China all the way to western Europe.

Bangladesh features in the Belt and Road vision both in its overland plan -- via the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar corridor – and in its maritime version as a port hub for the Maritime Silk Road.

Delhi’s worry over China's plans to develop the Sonadia port had been pronounced. Plans for the port now seem to have fallen through.

Indian military officials are particularly circumspect over Bangladesh’s close military relations with China, particularly the maritime component.

Of particular concern is the plan for Bangladesh to buy two diesel-electric submarines from China, which, military experts say, will necessitate the construction of a submarine base in Bangladesh, a base that might play host to Chinese submarines in the future (as Sri Lanka’s Colombo port did last year).

In fact, Dhaka may have won tangible benefits from courting both China and India. In the past two years, Bangladesh has seen long-standing maritime and land border issues with India resolved in Dhaka’s favour, perhaps because New Delhi is eager to make sure its neighbour doesn’t tilt too far in China’s direction, says 'Diplomat' magazine.



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