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As Manohar Parrikar goes to Bangladesh, time to ask: Who is afraid of India in the Bay of Bengal?

Does Beijing hold the key to energising India’s inert neighbourhood diplomacy?

The really surprising thing about the visit by Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar to Bangladesh on Wednesday is that this is the first-ever such event in the 45-year history of that country.

Evidently, military-to-military relations between the two countries did not inevitably develop in the downstream of the crucial role that the Indian armed forces played in the creation of Bangladesh.

That was primarily for two reasons. One, we had misgivings about the umbilical cords that tied the Bangladesh Army’s officer corps with the Pakistani Army.

Two, Bangladesh Army too couldn’t quite exorcise its entrenched suspicions regarding Indian intentions towards their country, given the complexity of the bilateral disputes.

By their very nature, it takes time to overcome such psychological barriers. Does Parrikar’s visit signify that the clouds have dispelled?

There are no easy answers. What seems apparent is that the delivery of the first submarine to the Bangladesh Navy by China recently has set alarm bells ringing in New Delhi.

Parrikar is reportedly hoping to finalise a defence pact between the two countries and generally impart verve to the defence cooperation through some arms deals.

A familiar pattern is appearing: Beijing holds the key to energising India’s inert neighbourhood diplomacy.

The Indian policymakers seem to have concluded that the recent transfer of a submarine to Bangladesh is a mala fide act by China. Parrikar, accompanied by the deputy chiefs of the three services, seems to be embarking on a China-centric visit.

At least, this is how Bangladesh media reports characterise the visit, citing Indian analysts. This is unfortunate, because we are only encouraging neighbouring countries to play India against China.

The Indian analysts have concluded that the sale of the submarines is part of a Chinese strategy to encircle India. It is a bizarre explanation, to say the least. Consider the following.

Bangladesh is the buyer here – not a recipient – and, equally, China is the vendor – not donor. Beyond doubt, $406 million is a lot of money for Bangladesh’s economy, while for China this is a lucrative business deal.

If Bangladesh is willing to spend such big money on an arms purchase, it is clearly based on a deliberate, well-considered, forward-looking decision. Also, it must be a decision that carries the approval of the highest level of leadership.

Furthermore, this is reportedly the first-ever procurement of submarines by the Bangladesh Navy.

Interestingly, in 2013 when the deal was negotiated, Russia had offered $1 billion to Bangladesh as export credit to buy weapons from it. Evidently, Bangladesh preferred the Chinese-made submarines.

Therefore, the real issue here needs to be focused: Why should Bangladesh, which is surrounded on three sides territorially by “friendly India”, need submarines at all, which are offensive weapons of sea denial (and in this case, armed with torpedoes and mines that are capable of attacking enemy ships and submarines)?

There must be some logic to the Bangladeshi decision, after all. It cannot be that Bangladesh feels threatened by Myanmar or Thailand. Indeed, Parrikar should probe the real Bangladeshi motivation here.

This is particularly important since the Narendra Modi government claims India’s relations with Bangladesh to be a success story in its regional diplomacy.

Flawed neighbourhood policy

The bottom line here is that often we overlook how our neighbours tend to view us and cocoon ourselves with self-serving beliefs.

In reality, the purchase of the submarine is only the variation of a fundamental theme. Bangladesh thinks that two submarines would be better than nothing to defend itself if a show down becomes necessary with India.

Of course, we may expect that Bangladesh will insist on the “right of navigation” through Bay of Bengal and consider it to be its sovereign prerogative to conduct Freedom of Navigation Operations.

Conceivably, Beijing has not bothered to ask such unnecessary questions as to what the Bangladesh Navy proposed to do with submarines, when Dhaka approached it with the query to buy Chinese submarines – like we once asked the Sri Lankans when they first approached us about Indian help to develop Hambantota Port.

China seriously regards arms exports as a frontier area in its foreign trade, and a $406 million business is a good start with a substantial profit margin.

China must also preserve its pre-eminence in the Bangladesh market. China would know that Russia is keenly eyeing the Bangladeshi market.

Equally, word will spread if Bangladesh is happy with the Chinese vendor and the weaponry sold is performing well, apart from its highly competitive pricing.

For example, at some point, Iranians may approach Bangladesh for a second opinion. They have used Kilo-class Russian submarines but are now seeking China’s help to modernise their Navy.

A recent Policy Analysis by the Washington Institute of Near East Policy disclosed, “Several existing Chinese systems would suit Iran’s need for a flexible navy capable of operating in both littoral and blue water.”

It went on to give a long list of Chinese warships equipped with state-of-the-art missiles which Iran could be interested in procuring – such as Type 052 destroyer, C-28A corvette, Type 054A frigate, Type 057 frigate, the P-18 frigate, missile-armed semi-stealth corvette, Type-022 stealth fast-attack missile catamarans (described as “carrier killers”) and so on.

What does the above tell us? One, China is being taken seriously as an arms vendor by more and more countries in India’s neighbourhood. (By the way, Thailand is also showing interest to procure Chinese submarines.)

Two, there is no need of paranoia whenever a Chinese arms transaction takes place in India’s neighbourhood.

Three, Chinese arms exports are largely commercially oriented and end-users are happy that China also keeps it that way, with no political strings attached.

Finally, it is downright absurd on our part to see the sale of two submarines to the Bangladesh Navy as constituting a smart geo-strategic move by China to “encircle” India.

Indeed, submarines are force multipliers. But the real question to be asked here is why Bangladesh feels the imperative need to spend such big money on an arms build-up.

The on-going modernisation programme to upgrade the Bangladeshi armed forces alone does not provide the complete backdrop. Arms build-up follows whenever, wherever the regional security situation worsens.

Fundamentally, India’s “muscular diplomacy” may be contributing to the heightened insecurities in the region, whether we are willing to acknowledge it or not.

When Modi threatens to stop even a drop of water from Ravi, Beas or Sutlej flowing into Pakistan, he’d have thought such grandstanding over his government’s “muscular diplomacy” made good political strategy at a campaign rally in the upcoming Punjab state election. But his words carry resonance.

The plain truth is that his words laid bare a pitiless heart. It may not be India’s 3,000-year old heart, but when India’s prime minister says it is indeed a stony heart, the region and the world would have no reason to disbelieve.

Conceivably, it did not occur to the prime minister that there is also a potentially explosive unresolved river-water sharing dispute involving India, which Bangladesh agonises over.

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