The three Chinese-run ports in South Asia – Chittagong in Bangladesh, Hambantota in Sri Lanka, and Gwadar in Pakistan – are called a “triangle of death” encircling India.
New Delhi, striving to maintain strategic dominance in its backyard, is forging power, maritime, and connectivity relationships with Dhaka and Colombo to woo them back into its corner through energy and military hardware deals.
While India is developing a port in Sri Lanka, it is offering to maintain the Russian military hardware of Bangladesh besides offering enhanced connectivity and energy deals. There have been reports of Dhaka showing interest in the Indian indigenous Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas, but the Bangladesh Air Force is favoring European fighter jets to modernize its fleet.
Power Play In Bangladesh
At the beginning of 2023, Bangladesh announced the opening a submarine base BNS Sheikh Hasina, located in Cox’s Bazaar, for its Chinese-supplied subs. And here comes the stitch. The base was developed with aid from China. 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, and through these lanes, half of the world trade passes.
The Bay of Bengal is the largest in the world, nestled between India on the East and Indonesia on the West; while Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar are the littoral countries. The region’s economic, diplomatic, and security importance attracts major powers in the East and the West (China, Japan, India, the US, and even Russia).
The ‘state-of-the-art’ submarine base was constructed with China’s help under a contract signed in September 2019. The submarine facility can berth six submarines and eight naval vessels simultaneously. For India, the presence of Chinese-built submarines in the Bay of Bengal, in a way, makes it a very crowded water body as far as underwater activities are concerned. And it also legitimizes the Chinese presence in more ways than one. It complicates the underwater picture for India.
Traditionally, New Delhi has shared strong cultural and historical ties with Dhaka. India was the first country to recognize Bangladesh as a separate and independent state and established diplomatic relations with the country immediately after its independence in December 1971.
However, it changed after Xi Jinping became the first Chinese President to visit Bangladesh. After the trip, Bangladesh purchased two used Type-035G Ming-class submarines. Purchased for US$203 million and commissioned in the Bangladesh Navy as BNS Nabajatra and Joyjatra, these submarines have typical Ming-class features.
The submarines in the Bangladesh Navy do not threaten India’s authority in the region, but the two Chinese submarines came with Chinese officials on board to train and familiarize Bangladesh’s crew with the vessels.
Apart from this, Bangladesh has purchased a lot of other military equipment of Chinese origin – 44 units of Main Battle Tank-2000, two regiments of FM-90 short-range surface-to-air missiles, QW-2 and FN-6 hand-held anti-aircraft missiles, PF-98 anti-tank rockets and 36 units of WS-22 multiple rocket launcher system. The Bangladesh Air Force has purchased 16 Russian-made Yak-130 training and light attack aircraft and 16 F-7BG light attack fighter jets from China.
Besides increasing connectivity with Bangladesh through rail networks and inland water shipping, India has strengthened its military ties with it. The two countries in the sub-continent are exploring the prospect of India maintaining Russian-origin equipment in the Bangladesh air force, like the Mi-17 1V helicopter, Antonov An-32 transport aircraft, and MiG-29 fighter jets. India has been operating rotary-wing and fixed-wing aircraft and has its own maintenance facilities.
“India has operationalized a US$500 million line of credit to Bangladesh, and it will be used for defense purchases,” an official familiar with the development says.
The previous Bangladesh Air Force Chief, Air Chief Marshal Masihuzzaman Serniabat, flew LCA Tejas during Def Expo 2021 and was impressed by the fighter jet. However, India’s hopes to sell Tejas were dashed by the retirement of Air Chief Marshal Serniabat and the economic slowdown caused by the pandemic. Now sources in the Bangladesh forces indicate that no deal will be announced until next year when the country’s national elections are due.
“Bangladesh is likely to opt for a European aircraft – either Eurofighter Typhoon or French Rafale. But nothing is final before the next elections,” the Bangladeshi official told the EurAsian Times.
Jousting In Sri Lanka
In July 2023, Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe visited India, his first after assuming charge in 2022. During the visit undertaken at the invitation of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, both countries signed a slew of deals in maritime, air, energy, and power cooperation.
India will be developing several ports – including Colombo on the island nation’s western coast, Trincomalee on the east, and Kankesanthurai on the northernmost tip of the island country facing the Palk Strait, a narrow path separating Sri Lanka from India. To familiarize the people of Sri Lanka with the Indian Navy, an indigenously-built Missile Corvette of the Khukri class INS Khanjar visited Sri Lankan’s eastern harbor of Trincomalee.
Trincomalee is one of the largest natural harbors in the world, but it lacks the facilities to host big shipping vessels. Delhi wanted to develop the port to have “something outside India but within the triangle.”
Apart from this, Delhi and Colombo are exploring several joint ventures, including an integrated energy grid that will connect the island country with the South Asian region, including Bangladesh, Bhutan, and Nepal. These countries are members of the regional initiative BBIN (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, and Nepal), born after India’s intractable relation with Pakistan made the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) irrelevant.
Apart from this, the Indian Oil Corporation (IOC) has initiated talks with officials in Colombo, proposing an oil distribution pipeline that connects Nagapattinam, Colombo, and the strategic city of Trincomalee on the east coast of Sri Lanka, where India is helping restore World War II-era oil tanks. There is also a proposal for a petroleum pipeline from southern India to Sri Lanka. It has been a lifeline for the island nation facing a crippling energy shortage.
In 2022 when Sri Lanka was going through its worst economic crisis since independence in 1948, it asked China to restructure its loan to the country. But it did not hear from the country. India, on the other hand, provided critical financial aid and supplied worth over US$4 billion to Sri Lanka, including food, medicine, and fuel, giving a modicum of stability to the country reeling under outstanding total debt of over US$83 billion of which US$41.5 billion was foreign. China owns about 10 percent of Sri Lanka’s foreign debt.
In 2023, India offered carte blanche support to Sri Lanka for the Indian Monetary Fund (IMF) fund facility that calls for a 10-year loan moratorium and 15 years of debt restructuring. On the other hand, China offered only two years of debt moratorium to the island nation, where Beijing was given the Hambantota port on a 99-year lease.
The strategic location of Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean has made it an important ally for both China and India. While the former wants to extend its influence sphere in the region, India strives to safeguard its area of interest.
An independent political and energy analyst from Sri Lanka, Aruna Kulatunga, told the South China Morning Post that India views Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Pakistan as “de facto satellite states of China because they have leased out land to China.”
The Sri Lankan analyst says these countries form a “triangle of death.” “For (India), it is like strangulation,” he said, adding that New Delhi needs to put more resources into protecting vital sea routes.
- Ritu Sharma has been a journalist for over a decade, writing on defense, foreign affairs, and nuclear technology.
- She can be reached at ritu.sharma (at) mail.com