Wrong Shopping List
The arms build-up by Bangladesh is inexplicable since there is no apparent threat to the country’s security and other sectors of the economy need more attention.
In the absence of any apparent threat to Bangladesh’s security, the arms build-up by the country is inexplicable.
When Sheikh Hasina went on a four-day visit to Russia in January 2013, it was seen as a significant step towards improving bilateral relations between the two countries and also towards securing favorable deals to strengthen Bangladesh’s defense potential. Closing the deals of purchase of different types of military hardware was on the cards and when it was announced that Bangladesh was going to purchase defense equipment worth $1 billion, it did not come as a surprise to many. It was the biggest ever arms deal negotiated by Bangladesh and caused quite a few ripples in the region.
Relations between Bangladesh and Russia are decades old and have always been friendly. The role of the former USSR in supporting the Awami League’s independence movement in 1971 is well known. It vetoed three times the resolutions of the Security Council to help India in the creation of Bangladesh. During the post-1971 period, the Soviet Union helped the new country in getting stabilized after the war damages. It has been a trusted ally of Bangladesh since then.
Russia supplied the modern MiG-21 along with other sophisticated military equipment to the nascent Bangladesh Air Force. This friendship blossomed whenever the Awami League came into power. The relationship between Russia and Bangladesh began reinvigorating when the Awami League formed the government in 2009. Soon after that Russia began helping Bangladesh with developing nuclear technology and in nuclear exploration.
Before the signing of the arms deal, Russia had signed a MoU for helping Bangladesh in building nuclear power plants to fulfill its energy needs. To overcome the shortage of electricity, Bangladesh started building two new nuclear power plants of 1,000 megawatts each with Russian help. Funding for the plants and the provision of fuel was the responsibility of Russia. It was expected that it won’t be long before Bangladesh signed an arms deal with its trusted ally as a sequel to the nuclear power plants deal. It did not take very long for the two countries to announce that Bangladesh intended to purchase $1 billion worth of modern military equipment from Russia for its ‘defense needs’.
Initially, the amount involved for the purchase of military equipment was $850 million but it was later increased on the request of the Bangladesh government. The terms and conditions for paying back the loan were kept very lenient. The credit of $1 billion was to be utilized between 2013 and 2017 on a ‘decent rate of interest – 4.5 percent’. The loan was to be repaid after 2018 in 18 years. The equipment to be procured for the army included anti-tank missiles, armored vehicles, grenade launchers, air defense system and latest radars. The Bangladesh Air Force got four types of armament as well as Mi-17 transport helicopters. In addition, it also went for the conversion of fighter jets.
In spite of having closed such a profitable deal with Russia only last year, the statement of Sheikh Hasina that ‘Bangladesh must have the ability of counter-attack if its independence and sovereignty was attacked by anyone’ and its efforts to seek arms aid from the U.S. came as a surprise. Why does Sheikh Hasina wish to sail in two boats? Does Bangladesh really feel threatened by its neighbors? Historically, Bangladesh has had extremely friendly relations with its western neighbor and benefactor, India.
When Bangladesh forged the arms deal with Russia, the opposition leaders and some observers criticized it, questioning the priority for such an arms build-up at a stage when there was no apparent threat to the country’s borders and when other sectors of the economy needed more attention. Leaders of the Bangladesh National Party went to the extent of saying that the build-up was actually a move by the Awami League-led government to show its muscle to intimidate the opposition. The government’s spokespersons, on the other hand, tried to justify the ‘grand purchase’ by giving their reasons for entering into the historic deal in the interest of the country.
One of the reasons given to justify the huge arms deal with Russia was the need to modernize the armed forces and make them worthy of participation in the United Nations’ Peacekeeping Force since it required the contingents to be equipped with the latest and the best weapons and equipment. Bangladesh’s Peacekeeping contingent was deployed in many countries and was a good source of earning for the
country. This explanation still holds good. However, it seems strange that Russia could not fully cater the ‘shopping list’ of Bangladesh, forcing the latter to turn to the U.S. for the same reason!
The developments on the eastern borders were certainly a source of concern for the Awami League government. The regime ruling in Myanmar had demonstrated its antiMuslim designs and the persecution of the Muslim population in that country had earned global condemnation. Though not seen as a major threat by many analysts to call for such a huge arms-building exercise by Bangladesh, the concern was put forward as another excuse for the build-up.
This rationale could still be accepted as a matter of concern for Bangladesh, particularly in view of the mass exodus of Rohingyas Muslims from Myanmar, but there was still no indication of any expansionist designs by the Myanmar government. However, border clashes were reported on the western borders despite friendly relations with India. However, with Sheikh Hasina in charge of policy matters in Bangladesh, no one could think of hostilities starting with India.
The desire of the Bangladeshi government that the country’s armed forces should have the latest military equipment and technology to compete with other South Asian countries is understandable. But the arms drive looks more like an effort to satisfy one’s ego than preparing to meet a potential threat from across the borders. There is also the feeling in certain quarters that such expensive arms purchases could mean kickbacks for some people.
A cogent reason could be that Sheikh Hasina wanted to further strengthen relations with both Russia and the U.S. – to be counted as a trusted ally of the Russian Federation as well as of the U.S. There had been some concerns and comments from certain quarters that she was focusing too much on India and that Bangladesh’s policies could be compromised if it took too much dictation from its stronger neighbor. The improvement in relations with both Russia and the U.S. could allow Bangladesh to pursue a balanced approach to national policies.
If the entire scenario is viewed in the larger perspective then the developments in Russia-Bangladesh relations seem to be in favor of both countries as Russia must be feeling uncomfortable with the growing relationship between India and the U.S. Secondly, Russia had always wanted to avail the facility of the Bay of Bengal through Bangladesh and opportunities like the current arms deal could facilitate accomplishment of that desire.
The U.S., on the other hand, must be observing over the years Russia’s overindulgence in the South Asian region. To stop further encroachment in terms of influence, the U.S. might consider wooing Sheikh Hasina and increase its influence in Bangladesh, thus denying any advantage to either Russia or China. In a nutshell, the regional situation is quite interesting and worth watching in the coming months.