Indian Tug Boat “Fights” Chinese Submarine In The Great Game; Delhi Works To Limit Beijing’s Presence In Bay Of Bengal

India has unleashed a charm offensive to pull Bangladesh from the Chinese embrace. After Prime Minister Narendra Modi hosted her Bangladeshi counterpart, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, twice within a month, the new Indian Navy chief, Admiral Dinesh Tripathi, chose Dhaka for his first official visit.

Amidst other maritime issues to be discussed by the Indian Navy Chief, Bangladesh has signed a contract for an 800-tonne ocean-going tug from an Indian shipyard. It remains to be seen if the tugboat from the Garden Reach Shipbuilders and Engineers (GRSE) Kolkata will match the Type 035G diesel-electric attack submarines, a Ming-class variant, given to Bangladesh by China.

China is also building a submarine base in Bangladesh, and if the Chinese Navy gets access to the strategic base, it will be a matter of concern for India, considering its proximity to India’s Eastern Naval Command.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was the first head of state invited by Prime Minister Modi after forming the new government in India. The Indian Government offered to manage the Teesta River Comprehensive Management and Restoration Project.

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The project, estimated to cost $1 billion, has attracted China’s interest. Beijing has submitted an official proposal to carry out this project along with India. New Delhi’s offer to finance the project stems from the need to keep China away from the river that flows into India.

The river also has geopolitical and geostrategic importance. The area is closer to the vulnerable “Chicken Neck” corridor that connects India’s northeast with the rest of the country.

Dhaka is yet to make a call on the project. India and Bangladesh have also signed Dhaka-Delhi’s Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on train movement between Bangladesh and India. An agreement will pave the way for train connectivity between India, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Bhutan.

Prime Minister Hasina will visit China from July 8 to 11 in an effort to balance the two Asian giants.

It is against this backdrop that the Indian Navy Chief is visiting Bangladesh, and it is important to cement ties with Bangladesh. Bangladesh has decided to join the Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI), a forum promoted by India for countries to work together for collaborative solutions to the common challenges in the Indo-Pacific region.

During the five-day visit, Admiral Tripathi will discuss the passing-out parade at Bangladesh Naval Academy (BNA), Chittagong (now called Chattogram), with his counterpart in Bangladesh, Admiral M Nazmul Hassan.

Admiral Tripathi will meet Bangladesh Army Chief General Waker-Uz-Zaman and Bangladesh Air Force Chief Air Marshal Hasan Mahmood Khan. Meanwhile, the Indian warship INS Ranvir will be at Chattogram for a week and conduct a maritime partnership exercise with the Bangladesh Navy.

China is helping the Bangladesh Navy build a dry dock in Chittagong. Named Sheikh Hasina submarine base and located at Cox’s Bazar, the US $1.2 billion facility is capable of hosting six submarines and eight warships at a time. Considering the Bangladesh Navy has only two Chinese submarines, it has been surmised that the facility will be opened to Chinese submarines in the future.

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The base was inaugurated by Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Hasina in March 2023 in a ceremony that saw Chinese officials and at least two senior PLA-N officers in attendance as well. The Dhaka Tribune reported last year, allowing for “safe and swift movement of the submarines in case of emergency.”

The Great Game In the Bay of Bengal

The Bay of Bengal is the largest in the world, nestled between India on the East and Indonesia on the West. Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar are the coastal countries. The region’s economic, diplomatic, and security importance attracts significant powers from the East and the West (China, Japan, India, the US, and even Russia).

File Image: Modi, Xi

The Bay of Bengal lies on top of the sea lanes of communication that connect China, Japan, and Korea with the Middle East and Africa. Half of the world’s trade passes through these lanes. The region is essential for the US policy of a ‘Free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific,’ a euphemism for checking China’s assertiveness.

China has long sought access to the Bay of Bengal, and Myanmar and Bangladesh have facilitated its entry into the region. Gaining a foothold in the Bay of Bengal would significantly increase the PLA’s ability to operate farther from China’s shores and create new challenges for India, the United States, and its allies.

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The Bay of Bengal’s importance prompted the US Department of Defense to include Bangladesh and Myanmar on its list of locations where Beijing is likely striving to establish overseas military facilities.

India considers the Bay of Bengal as its immediate area of dominance and has been augmenting the military capability of the littoral countries. However, China has beaten India to the punch with its spending power. Bangladesh is one of the leading defense importers from China.

India may not be overly concerned about China’s support in building the submarine base in Bangladesh, but Chinese submarines in its backyard are a different ball game altogether.

Considering China’s increasing presence in the Bay of Bengal, India is bolstering its presence in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, which sit on the Malacca Strait—a critical chokepoint for China.

Chinese submarines entering the Bay of Bengal have to surface while traversing the shallow water of Malacca Strait, giving India the advantage of geography. Hence the push towards having more military assets in the islands of Andaman and Nicobar.

  • Ritu Sharma has been a journalist for over a decade, writing on defense, foreign affairs, and nuclear technology.
  • The author can be reached at ritu.sharma (at)
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