The Indian Ocean Region
Bangladesh-China Defence Co-Operation Agreement's
Strategic Implications: An Analysis
Dr. Subhash Kapila
SAAG Paper, 14 January 2003
Bangladesh was the former Eastern province of Pakistan. The
Pakistan Army inflicted genocide in 1971 on its Bengali compatriots to nullify
their majority win in Pakistan's general elections and prevent Sheikh Mujibur
Rahman's emergence as Prime Minister of Pakistan. The Pakistan Army could not
stomach the emergence of a Bengali as Prime Minister of Pakistan.
The civil war in Pakistan that commenced in March 1971 ended in December 1971
and Bangladesh emerged as an independent nation state thereafter.
Bangladesh has a population of over 130 million with an area of 143,998 square
kilometers. Bangladesh is bounded West and North by India, East by India and
Burma and South by the Bay of Bengal. It shares a long and porous 3901
kilometers border with India. This has enabled more than 20 million Bangladeshi
nationals to move into India as illegal immigrants. A predominantly Muslim
state, it has about 12% Hindus, whose numbers are dwindling.
Bangladesh in South Asia's Political Dynamics: The salient observations that can
be made here are:
* Bangladesh's past history of being part of Pakistan and its predominantly
Muslim population, draws it into the political and strategic calculus of
Pakistan. Consequently it gets factored in Pakistan's strategic calculus in the
* Like Pakistan, Bangladesh's politics get defined in the context of anti-India
* Like Pakistan. Bangladesh is coming under growing influence of Islamic
fundamentalists. In the present government of Begum Khaleda Zia, the Jammat
group is part of the ruling coalition.
* Bangladesh offers Pakistan a fertile ground for basing its proxy war apparatus
to strategically discomfit India ion its East and North East peripheries. This
arises from common religious links and shared heritage of its intelligence and
military establishments with those of Pakistan.
* The influence of Pakistan-China strategic nexus in South Asia also logically
comes into play in Bangladesh.
* Bangladesh too, consequently, as a smaller nation is not averse to playing off
Pakistan and China against India.
With the above as background, the analysis of the strategic significance of the
Bangladesh-China Defence Cooperation Agreement would become that much more
Bangladesh-China Linkages: China was against the liberation and emergence of
Bangladesh as an independent nation state during Pakistan's civil war in 1971.
No wonder, that China did not accord diplomatic recognition to Bangladesh till
1975 i.e. nearly four years after the emergence of Bangladesh as a sovereign
state. It can be said that China's relations with Bangladesh were being
determined by Pakistan's considerations.
However, political and strategic realities soon took over and China made serious
attempts to wean over Bangladesh from India's influence. And as a recent book
puts it : 'But it is important to note that Bangladesh had also been a major
recipient of Chinese arms and the country is on the larger game plan of China to
encircle India, together with Pakistan and Myanmar'. (South Asia's Fractured
Frontiers, B Nepram, 2002).
Bangladesh's Armed Forces today are predominantly equipped with Chinese military
hardware. The Bangladesh Army's tanks and light tanks are of Chinese origin. The
Bangladesh Navy's frigates and patrol crafts are mostly Chinese. The Bangladesh
Air Force's combat aircraft are all Chinese. In short China has forged
Bangladesh into a military-equipment client state like Pakistan.
Bangladesh-China Defence Co-operation Agreement: The Defence Co-operation
Agreement was signed between Bangladesh and China during the visit of Bangladesh
Prime Minister, Begum Khaleda Zia 's visit to China from December 23 to 27,
Some observations/statements emanating from Bangladesh officials and media
sources explaining the Defence Cooperation Agreement are as follows:
* The purpose of Defence Cooperation Agreement signed with China is to meet
present day need of Bangladesh's defence forces.
* This new agreement was signed to help institutionalize the existing accords in
defence sector and also to rationalize the existing piecemeal agreements to
enhance cooperation in training, maintenance and some areas in production.
* Bangladesh Foreign Minister, responding to questions, emphasized the
-Bangladesh wanted time-befitting armed forces for the country. China will
cooperate with Bangladesh for this purpose.
- 'Intention is there to cooperate in defence sector; now the two sides w ill
co-operate with each other'
-'This defence umbrella agreement is not directed against any country and would
not affect Bangladesh's relations with India'
All said and done, what emerges from the above, analytically is:
* Bangladesh has plans to expand, upgrade and modernise her armed forces.
* China is willing to under-write Bangladesh's military plans above.
* The emphasis on 'to enhance cooperation in training, maintenance and some
areas in defence production' should normally imply 'induction of more modern
military hardware, as these activities would not be applicable to older
generation of military hardware.
* Deliberate secrecy and ambiguity has been maintained in terms of the scope of
the agreement. This gives leeway for widening the strategic cooperation in the
The next question needing analysis is why the sudden need of an 'umbrella'
Defence Cooperation Agreement'.
Defence Cooperation Agreement-Why Now ? The major significance of the Defence
Cooperation Agreement is that it is the first such agreement ever signed by
Bangladesh in its history. Defence Cooperation Agreements are normally signed
when: (1) Countries perceive enhanced threat perceptions;(2) Countries are
amenable to be used in a region for balance of power politics; and (3) Countries
fear retaliation in response to their territories being used for proxy war and
terrorism by third counties against another country.
The question why now, gets answered by a combination of one or all of the
reasons above .
Bangladesh is conscious of the fact that its territory is being used by
Pakistan's ISI, Al Qaeda and other insurgent groups for anti-India activities.
India has cautioned Bangladesh on this count. The significance of Indian
military escalation in 2002 against Pakistan would not have been lost on
Bangladesh therefore seems to have taken out an insurance policy from China to
cater for increased threat perceptions in the India-specific context.
The Pakistan Factor in Forging Bangladesh-China Defence Cooperation Agreement:
Analytically, it would not be too simplistic to suggest that Pakistan has had a
role in egging on Bangladesh towards a full strategic embrace with China and
also facilitating it. General Musharraf's visit to Bangladesh in October 2002,
his tentative apology for the 1971 Pakistani genocide of the Bengalis and the
mutual discussions centering around Pakistan's perceptions of India's military
escalation would have helped in Musharraf's exaggerating Bangladesh's strategic
The personal factor of shared cantonment lives between Musharraf and Begum Zia
when her husband was with the Pakistan Army prior to independence of Bangladesh
would have added to Musharraf's persuasions.
That Pakistan had a definite game plan was evident from the numerous Pakistan TV
debates especially in their ' Newstime' programme focused on giving a spin to
India's hegemonistic designs on Bangladesh.
Down to bare bones, Pakistan's strategic designs against India stand served as
* Bangladesh's enhanced military profile with Chinese aid would divert some of
India's strategic attention from the West to the East, lowering pressure on
* Pakistan could supplant China in terms of training, maintenance and production
of latest Chinese military equipment for Bangladesh.
* Rising Islamic fundamentalism in Bangladesh could provide further leverages in
using Bangladesh.for intensifying Pakistan's proxy war on India's Eastern
China's Strategic Interests Served by Bangladesh-China Defence Cooperation
Agreement: China as the most intrusive external power in South Asia would be
well served by its Defence Cooperation Agreement with Bangladesh. The scope of
this agreement, not spelt out more out of design, would encompass a much wider
canvas than just training and maintenance. The agreement could more aptly be
termed as ' Bangladesh-China Treaty of Friendship and Strategic Cooperation'.
China's strategic interests are served in the following manner:
* China gets a strategic toe-hold on India's Eastern flank in Bangladesh.
* China's strategic encirclement of India is completed with the above
* Soon one could witness Chinese plans to develop Chittagong Naval Base on the
lines of Gwadur in Pakistan.
* China could get naval bases facility in Bangladesh.
India-The Strategic Implications: Despite protestations by Bangladesh, that the
Defence Cooperation Agreement is not aimed at India, the symbolic value, if not
anything else, would dismay India greatly.
India cannot ignore the strategic embrace of Bangladesh by China, whose
strategic implications are:
* China's strategic intrusiveness in South Asia gets further reinforced.
* Bangladesh's enhanced military profile will have to be factored in India's
future military plans.
* India will now have to factor in a fourth strategic concern in its operational
plans, namely China-Pakistan-Bangladesh military collusion in the context of any
Indo-Pak or Sino'Indian conflict.
* China's naval intrusions are facilitated by Bangladesh into the Bay of Bengal
* India's North East region's strategic vulnerabilities (especially the lines of
communication) become more complicated.
* India's IRBM deployments in the North East against China will now need more
All the above concerns are realistic and one cannot be dismissive about them as
conclusions of an overactive imagination.
United States'The Strategic Implications: Preoccupied with its Iraq fixations,
the United States does not appear to have reacted to this development. Till now
it appeared that the United States had a good military hold on Bangladesh. The
United States had been providing military training assistance to Bangladesh.
Bangladesh Armed Forces personnel were participating in US Pacific Command's
training events and the US Marines had carried out familiarization exercises in
Bangladesh. On the economic front, the United States had been more than generous
Logically, therefore, Bangladesh, should have turned to the United States for
military Insurance to offset her threat perceptions, basically focused on India.
That it did not do so, and turned towards China, carries strategic implications
for the United States as follows:
* China had earlier outflanked United States strategic interests in the Gulf
region by its strategic nexus with Pakistan.
* China can now outflank United States strategic interests in South East Asia by
reinforcing the defence cooperation with Bangladesh into a strategic nexus.
* China adds Bangladesh as an additional pressure point against United States in
South Asia in addition to Pakistan.
* China's containment by the United States at some future date becomes complex
with Pakistan and Bangladesh in a strategic nexus with China.
The United States needs to re-evaluate its strategic concerns in South Asia. It
should not reach to the conclusions as enshrined in a RAND report (The United
States and Asia: Towards a New US Strategy and Force Posture, 2001) that:
'finally given the proximity of this region (Bangladesh and Myanmar) to China,
these countries would likely to be reluctant to become too closely aligned with
the United States, in the event of heightened tensions'.
Conclusions: The Bangladesh-China Defence Cooperation Agreement, presently being
termed as only a consolidation of different defence agreements between the two
countries, carries in it an inbuilt potential of serious strategic implications,
not only for India but also for the United States and for the South Asia region
as a whole.
China does seem to have a grand strategic design in South Asia, basically
focused on the strategic encirclement of India and imprison her within South
Asia confines. The bitter strategic reality for India is that it has no friends
in South Asia. India to break out of the strategic bind imposed by China, needs
to lessen the conventional and nuclear weapons gap with China. India's ICBM and
SLBM development programmes need to be put into over-drive.
Coming back to the Bangladesh-China Defence Cooperation Agreement, the policy
and decision-makers in Bangladesh need to ponder long and hard whether China can
provide the strategic insurance it seeks against India. China's record of
support to Pakistan in the Indo-Pak wars of 1965 and 1971 are an ample pointer
to the efficacy of its military insurance with China. Bangladesh's
inter-dependencies with India far outweigh those with China with which
Bangladesh does not even share geographical contiguity. It would be futile
politically, economically and militarily for Bangladesh to follow the Pakistan
model in terms of off-setting asymmetries with India by playing the China card.