Monday, July 15, 2024
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China-Bangladesh defence trade: Story so far

New Delhi: One month ago, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China announced its plans to conduct a joint military exercise with the Bangladesh Armed Forces, named ‘China-Bangladesh Golden Friendship 2024’. This unprecedented exercise in the history of China-Bangladesh bilateral relations will focus on UN peacekeeping counter-terrorism operations.

The training will adopt an integrated methodology, covering areas such as clearing terrorist camps, rescuing hostages and anti-hijacking measures. The defence relationship between China and Bangladesh was significantly strengthened with the signing of a comprehensive defence cooperation agreement in 2002, positioning Beijing as the first to forge such an extensive defence pact with Dhaka. Over the past decade, China has become a major defence ally to Bangladesh, making it the second-largest recipient (11 per cent) of Chinese arms exports globally from 2019 to 2023, following Pakistan.

Additionally, Bangladesh ranked 26th among the world’s top arms-importing countries (0.9 per cent) during the same period, with 72 per cent of its arms imports sourced from China. Clearly, like the economy, defence trade forms a critical component of the China-Bangladesh bilateral relationship. With the upcoming joint military exercise on the horizon, it is crucial to examine the recent developments in China-Bangladesh defence relations.

For the fiscal year 2022-2023, Bangladesh allocated a defence budget of $3.8 billion, representing 1.1 per cent of its GDP. The predominant influence of China in Bangladesh is manifested through its substantial imports of military hardware, with approximately 86 per cent of the military imports sourced from China. Over the past decade, Bangladesh has expended around $2.9 billion on the acquisition of defence equipment from China, including naval guns, anti-ship missiles, surface-to-air missile systems, and corvettes. Since 2006, the majority of small arms — over 1600 rifles and 4,100 pistols — have been procured from Beijing.

The intensification of Bangladesh’s defence cooperation with China coincided with its maritime boundary dispute with Myanmar. During this period, in 2016, Bangladesh purchased two Type 035G class (Ming class) submarines from China at a discounted rate of $203 million, under the China-Bangladesh submarine deal, laying the foundation for its inaugural submarine base. A year subsequent to this acquisition, Poly Technologies, a Chinese state-owned defence contractor, secured a $1.2 billion contract to construct Bangladesh’s first submarine base in Cox’s Bazaar, named ‘BNS Sheikh Hasina’.

Operational since the previous year, the base is equipped to house six submarines and eight warships simultaneously. China is also reported to be involved in training Bangladeshi submariners in the operational management of the submarine base. Sheikh Hasina remarked that “ships traversing the Bay of Bengal could also seek assistance from the base,” hinting at the potential for future Chinese naval visits. In 2018, Bangladesh entered into a military agreement with China, which included the procurement of K-8W intermediate training jets.

The subsequent year, China transferred two Type 053 (Jiangwei-II) frigates to Bangladesh after their decommissioning from the Chinese navy, which were renamed BNS Umer Farooq and BNS Abu Ubaidah in Bangladesh Navy service. To further enhance defence supplies, Bangladesh imported 36 F-7BGI aircraft from China in 2021, regarded as the most sophisticated model available. According to the US Defence Department’s 2023 annual report, the Chinese Armed Forces are likely contemplating establishing additional overseas bases and access points in countries such as Bangladesh, reflective of China’s role as a major supplier of naval vessels to Bangladesh.

Despite the robust defence cooperation with Beijing, Dhaka, along with several other Asian nations reliant on Chinese arms exports, has encountered quality issues with Chinese-supplied arms. In 2021, trainer aircraft and naval frigates delivered to Bangladesh developed serious defects. The K-8W training jets, for instance, failed post-delivery tests due to problems with firing ammunition shortly after delivery. Tragically, in 2018, two pilots lost their lives when a K-8W jet crashed shortly after take-off.

Consequently, further deliveries of these jets, as stipulated in the 2018 agreement, have been postponed due to these recurring malfunctions. In 2022, the Bangladesh Army expressed dissatisfaction with military supplies from Beijing. Notably, the China North Industries Corporation (Norinco), one of China’s primary state-run arms export organisations, faced rejection of its tank ammunition supply to Dhaka as it was untested. Additionally, Norinco encountered challenges in providing spare parts for tank repair and maintenance.

Furthermore, the $3 million HQ-7 short-range surface-to-air missiles supplied by China’s Precision Machinery Import Export Company (CPMIEC) were also found to have equipment defects shortly after delivery. The two Ming-type submarines procured at a discounted rate from Beijing also failed to meet operational expectations, revealing multiple defects such as non-functioning gun systems and navigation radars during transit. A significant challenge for Dhaka is the shortage of trained personnel to address the issues associated with military equipment. Additionally, Beijing has demonstrated a lack of accountability for repairing the defective parts supplied, leaving Dhaka to bear the additional costs.

The substandard performance of Chinese-supplied military technology has imposed additional burdens on purchasing nations, which often depend on Chinese arms exports due to their cost-effectiveness. However, due to the consistently poor quality and performance of its military components, Chinese arms exports experienced a decline of 5.3 per cent between the periods 2014-18 and 2019-23, now comprising 5.8 per cent of global arms exports.

Technological incompatibility with Chinese-supplied equipment represents another substantial hidden cost for buyer countries such as Bangladesh. Furthermore, Chinese weapons, apart from falling below certified standards, have not been tested in combat situations. Despite the cost advantages of Chinese arms exports, the lack of transparency and accountability in defence contracts regarding the supply of defective equipment has negatively impacted its share in global arms exports due to the financial burdens placed on purchasing countries.

For Bangladesh, which relies heavily on Chinese arms exports, equipment defects represent a significant concern as they are likely to impair the overall performance of its defence forces. Consequently, it is imperative for Dhaka to diversify its defence trade to mitigate the challenges posed by Chinese-supplied equipment. The joint military exercise, though seemingly more crucial for Beijing to demonstrate its soft use of hard power, is also vital for Dhaka. As China aims to achieve military modernisation, this joint exercise with Dhaka is perceived as an attempt to rehabilitate its global reputation concerning the quality of its military technology.

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