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.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Munir Ishrat Rah­mani The writer is a re­tired colonel of the Pak­istan Army and writes on cur­rent af­fairs and so­cial is­sues.

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.

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