Strategic importance of the India-Bangladesh’s recent ‘military diplomacy’
By: Zubeda Chowdhury
Defense cooperation between India and Bangladesh has made significant progress in the last few years. It is depicted in the exchange of visits between the leaders of the two countries, as well as the conduct of training programs, joint exercises, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR). India has always cherished its close ties with Bangladesh and at the same time works to strengthen its ties while contributing to Bangladesh’s development agenda. Bangladesh is an important partner under India’s flagship ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy. Cooperation between the two countries is extensive in all areas including trade and commerce, power and energy, transport and connectivity, science and technology, defense and security, maritime affairs, climate change and sustainable development.
Bangladesh is also showing interest in exporting military hardware from India. With India opening a $500 million credit line for defense procurement, Bangladesh aims to buy military equipment such as specialized vehicles, Tejas light combat aircraft and Dhruv light helicopters from Tata and Mahindra. Both countries are seeking India’s assistance to Bangladesh in maintaining Russian-origin equipment such as Mi-17-IV helicopters, Antonov An-32 transport aircraft and MiG-29 fighter jets. While Bangladesh already buys protective gear like bulletproof jackets and helmets, both countries now aim to increase defense trade for big-ticket items.
Bangladesh is India’s closest neighbor and a strong component of the “Indian Neighborhood Policy”. It is also a significant ally of India. In 2017, the Bangladesh government under the leadership of Sheikh Hasina signed two defense agreements. Military forces of both countries will undertake joint exercises and training. In addition, the Indian Armed Forces will provide specialist training and logistical support. Counter-terrorism is a common area for cooperation between the two. It is essential to suppress/contain the nexus of insurgents and drug lords in India’s Northeast region. Close to the northeast and bordering Bangladesh. The Government of Bangladesh has pledged to ensure that “no neighboring country can use Bangladeshi soil for terrorist activities) Both countries maintain zero tolerance towards terrorism, extremism and organized crime.
Bangladesh Army Chief General S.M. Shafiuddin Ahmed, who was recently on a three-day visit to India, met Army Chief General Manoj Pandey and discussed counter-terrorism cooperation and overall bilateral cooperation. Bangladesh Army Chief General SM Shafiuddin Ahmed held a meeting with Indian Army Chief General Manoj Pandey in New Delhi on Thursday. A statement was released by the Ministry of Defense of India. According to the statement, the visiting Bangladesh army chief was given a guard of honor at the South Block lawn. Army Chief Shafiuddin Ahmed also met India’s Chief of Defense Staff General Anil Chauhan, Chief of Naval Staff Admiral R Hari Kumar, Vice Chief of Air Staff Air Marshal AP Singh, Defense Secretary and Foreign Secretary.
After the meeting in India, the Department of Defense Production (DDP) and the Army Design Bureau also briefed the Chief of Army Staff of Bangladesh about the Indian domestic defense equipment production eco-system. An ‘Implementation Arrangement’ was also signed between the Center for United Nations Peacekeeping (CUNPK), India and the Bangladesh Institute of Peace Support Operations Training (BIPSOT) for cooperation in UN peacekeeping operations and training between the armies of the two countries during the visit of the Chief of Army Staff of Bangladesh.
Bangladesh Army Chief General SM Shafiuddin Ahmed laid wreath at Indian Air Force War Memorial. Apart from this, more active participation of India and Bangladesh in the United Nations Peacekeeping Force was also discussed. General Shafiuddin Ahmed will meet the reviewing officer of the passing out parade at the Officers Training Academy in Chennai on Saturday. There, he will visit the Officers Training Academy Museum and interact with the cadets of the passing out course, the notification also said.
It is to be noted that earlier on Thursday Bangladesh Army Chief General SM Shafiuddin Ahmed went to India on a three-day visit. India and Bangladesh military relations are very strong.
Besides, the two army chiefs also discussed various issues related to interoperability, training and enhancing and strengthening overall bilateral cooperation as part of the comprehensive strategic partnership between the two countries.
During General Ahmed’s visit, he also met senior military and civilian leadership of India where he discussed ways to enhance Indo-Bangladesh defense ties. After meeting General Manoj Pandey, General Ahmed later met General Anil Chauhan, Chief of Defense Staff, Chief of Naval Staff Admiral R. Hari Kumar met Air Marshal AP Singh, Air Chief, Defense Secretary and Foreign Secretary. The Ministry of Defense said that he was also briefed on the Indian indigenous defense equipment manufacturing eco-system by the Department of Defense Production (DDP) and the Army Design Bureau.
India and Bangladesh share a historical legacy of cooperation and support during the 1971 Liberation War. Active participation on the defense side includes at the level of service chiefs.
The Bangladesh army chief began his visit on Thursday by paying tribute to the fallen heroes of the Indian Armed Forces by laying wreaths at the National War Memorial. The visiting General was accorded a guard of honor at the South Block Lawn and later met Army Chief General Manoj Pandey.
During the visit, he held meetings with senior Indian military and civilian leadership where both sides discussed ways to enhance India-Bangladesh defense ties.
The army chief’s visit, most importantly, comes at a time when the Bangladesh government has recently formally set out the ‘Indo-Pacific Outlook’ and Myanmar, Bangladesh are trying to resolve the Rohingya crisis with Chinese mediation. The visit is apparently part of the “outstanding” bilateral defense relationship between Bangladesh and India. The Chief of Army Staff’s visit could strengthen relations between the two armies at the bilateral level and act as a catalyst for improved coordination and cooperation between the two countries on various strategic issues. India-Bangladesh relations will reach a new level. Bangladesh can gain confidence from the Indian government as India is an active member of the Indo-Pacific Alliance. Bangladesh, on the other hand, can counter China’s predicament intelligently as it aims to engage structurally rather than militarily. Defense and security are important components of India-Bangladesh bilateral relations and the armed forces of the two countries cooperate and coordinate with each other at various levels. India can assist Bangladesh in achieving its visionary military plan, “Forces Goal 2030”. It can help strengthen bilateral relations and reflect improved bilateral understanding. This visit is very important for Bangladesh and India in the region.
In terms of defence, relations between India and Bangladesh go back to 1971, when the Indian Army fought Bangladeshi freedom fighters in that year’s liberation war. Over time, the defense ties were eroded. But since this government came to power, there has been significant progress in defense cooperation between India and Bangladesh in the last few years.
The visit of the Bangladesh Army Chief could strengthen the relationship between the two armies at the bilateral level and act as a catalyst for improved coordination and cooperation between the two countries on various strategic issues.
Bangladesh is an important ally of India in South Asia. The two countries work together on issues such as climate change, counter-terrorism and regional security. The visit could strengthen bilateral defense ties. Defense cooperation between countries can strengthen bilateral relations. Both India and Bangladesh are essential to the region. Despite some bilateral issues, both countries are eager to strengthen their bilateral relations, which can be evident through this visit. It can help strengthen bilateral relations and reflect better bilateral understanding. This visit is very important for Bangladesh and India in the region. Bangladesh and India must work together as reliable partners to resolve certain partnership issues. India and Bangladesh have strengthened their defense ties through this visit.
Bangladesh Army Chief General SM Shafiuddin Ahmed and India’s new Army Chief General Manoj Pandey spoke via video chat early last year in a bid to improve bilateral defense cooperation.
The two army commanders are also believed to have discussed how the geopolitical landscape is changing and how it will affect regional security.
Defense and security relations between India and Bangladesh have improved in recent years. The 50th anniversary of Bangladesh’s independence was in 2021. Both India and Bangladesh have highly trained, experienced militaries and work together to keep the eastern region peaceful.
For a long time, Bangladesh was reluctant to address India’s security concerns, primary among which was the presence of many insurgent groups in its northeastern region who enjoyed safe haven in Bangladesh and operated across the border. India also believed that militant outfits with roots in or links to Pakistan were using Bangladesh as a transit point. India has repeatedly urged Bangladesh to take action against such groups, only to deny their existence. When Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina came to power in 2009, she vowed to crack down on groups active in Bangladesh that were against India’s interests. Bangladesh has taken steps to help arrest top rebel leaders, including Arvind Rajkhwa, chairman of the United Liberation Front of Assam, and Ranjan Daimari of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland. Such a move proved to be a turning point for bilateral relations.
Currently, India and Bangladesh have a warm relationship and are cooperating in various economic, social, scientific and technological fields. In 2014, the two countries settled their maritime boundary dispute and the following year they settled their dispute over land. Defense ties have grown manifold since Bangladesh Army Chief General Moin Ahmed’s visit to India in 2008. The heads of their armed forces now visit each other regularly; The presidents of both the countries, who are the commanders of their armed forces, also exchanged visits. Former President of India Pranab Mukherjee visited Bangladesh in March 2013 while his Bangladeshi counterpart Abdul Hamid visited India in December 2014. Ongoing discussions between the top leadership of the armed forces have helped to remove previous misconceptions on both sides and are contributing to mutual understanding by exchanging each other’s views.
The defense services of both countries are now also participating in joint exercises, medical assistance and training programmes.
India must take advantage of its cultural ties with Bangladesh and work to invite more officers and personnel for training. Although currently, there are several travel exchanges among the staff, more steps can be taken to strengthen engagement, such as increasing the amount of stipend or providing special allowances to Bangladeshi officers attending courses in India to encourage their visits. Annual consultation should be done to promote the principles of Army, Navy and Air Force Chiefs. Finally, industry-to-industry discussions should be encouraged to facilitate trade relations in defence.
Building trust between Bangladesh Army and Indian Army
The views and perspectives of the defense forces – in this context, the Bangladesh Army – are considered a defining factor in Indo-Bangladesh relations. After all, Indian and Bangladeshi armies fought the liberation war jointly. For security analysts in Bangladesh, the increase in defense cooperation with India indicates the Bangladesh Army’s interest in developing defense ties with India. A section of security analysts in Bangladesh observed that the importance of maintaining good relations with India is now widely understood. This is not to say that years of mistrust and apprehension can be completely banished, especially within the military. Although India was skeptical about signing an MoU instead of a treaty, analysts say a comprehensive defense agreement may not gain acceptance easily but the MoU will create an opportunity to expand defense cooperation in the future.
Drivers of cooperation
Since the MOUs are protected by confidentiality clauses, very little information is available in the public domain, making it difficult to conduct a highly detailed analysis for this brief. A number of MoUs have been signed between the two countries keeping in mind the past, present and future – to the benefit of both. Moreover, the MoU on ‘Future Cooperation Framework’ implies that these discussions are being undertaken with a long-term perspective (Annex II contains a summary, based on open source information on future cooperation frameworks. ).
India and Bangladesh share a border of more than 4000 km. They share history, culture and language, all of which add to the relationship. Both countries understand that events in one country have ramifications across borders. So, the solution lies in cooperation, not conflict. The issue of militancy is a phenomenon. Despite the punitive measures taken by the Bangladesh government, militancy has become an issue largely due to the cross-border networks of radical groups that threaten the security of both the country and the region as a whole. The need for increased security and defense cooperation is driven by this convergence of interests.
Counter-terrorism cooperation is an important aspect of the defense relationship between India and Bangladesh, as both countries have been victims of terrorism and face increasing security threats. To effectively counter these threats, there is a need for greater coordination between the armed forces of the two countries, inter-agency coordination and cooperation, joint training and exercises, greater interaction and understanding.
A peaceful Bay of Bengal
Peace and tranquility in the Bay of Bengal is an important aspect of this cooperation and both countries have important roles to play. After demarcating maritime borders with India and Myanmar, Bangladesh acquires a large swath of land in the Gulf and has a major stake in maintaining law and order in the region.
No major incidents of piracy have been recorded in the Gulf region (as in Somalia), except for a few cases of petty robbery. However, the region is vulnerable to organized crime such as human trafficking, and arms and drug smuggling. Cooperation and coordination between navies and coast guards in the region will help address such challenges. In this regard, the cooperation agreement between the coast guard forces of the two countries has taken a step forward.
Another significant outcome of such cooperation would be the safety and security of maritime trade. The Gulf is a major trade route for coastal countries, especially for Bangladesh, as it provides exclusive access to the sea and most of its trade is through maritime routes. Search and rescue operations would also stand to benefit from such cooperation, since the Gulf is vulnerable to natural disasters: fishing boats often go missing on the high seas or drift away due to technical faults in their vessels.
These MoUs will strengthen cooperation between the two countries in the field of Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR). Frequent cyclones in the Gulf are a constant challenge, demanding advanced HADR skills. Interaction between countries provides opportunities to learn from each other’s experiences while ensuring smooth and effective coordination in times of need.
Both India and Bangladesh are working to ensure their growth and prosperity. They are one of the fastest growing economies in the world today. India ranks among the top 10 economies globally, while Bangladesh ranks in the league of emerging economies, after the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa). Bangladesh has maintained a growth rate above six percent for more than a decade. Both countries strive to improve their economies, and peaceful and friendly relations with their neighbors are crucial to achieving this goal. Defense diplomacy and trade are a major aspect of this relationship.
India’s US$500-million credit for procurement of defense equipment, particularly communications and coast guard patrol boats, came into focus. While the strategic objectives are obvious, there are other considerations. Bangladeshi companies can tap into the supply chain network of major equipment manufacturers. Bangladesh can be a big market for India for its defense products. Due to the ‘Make in India’ initiative, many multinational companies are setting up their assembly and manufacturing units in India and can become a major supplier of arms. It would be convenient for Bangladesh to procure arms from its immediate neighbours. This puts the country in a good negotiating position, allowing it to negotiate on issues such as technology transfer. Ultimately, this could help Bangladesh evolve from a buyer to a producer of high-end technology products.
The China Factor
Any discussion of India-Bangladesh defense cooperation is incomplete without considering the Chinese factor. China is Bangladesh’s strategic partner and its largest arms supplier. Indian security analysts, however, have been eyeing the relationship for a long time.
Security observers in Bangladesh say the issue is more economic than strategic. The government has adopted an Armed Forces Vision 2030. Bangladesh is also buying large quantities of weapons. It is working to transform its navy into a three-dimensional force. Therefore, submarines are considered a necessity. Defense analysts, however, take a different view as they believe that Bangladesh faces little threat from other countries.
The writer is working as a teacher in Dhaka city. [email protected]