Can India-Myanmar submarine diplomacy with counter Chinese influence in the region?Miran
India has given the Soviet-era Kilo-class submarine to Myanmar, a move that many analysts see as an attempt by New Delhi to counter China’s clout in the region.
A “nation,” as distinct from a state, is a composite entity. It has unity, but also multiplicity. Can diplomacy, traditionally understood as the process by which sovereign states deal with each other, accommodate the participation of masses – a nation’s people themselves?
Myanmar’s first submarine, the 3,000 diesel-electric submarine INS Sindhuvir, which has been renamed UMS Minye Theinkhathu, was showcased during the Myanmar Navy’s Bandoola fleet exercise on October 15. On the same day, the external affairs ministry announced that India had gifted the submarine to Myanmar as a neighboring country.
This move is India’s vision of “security and growth for all in the region, and also in line with our commitment to build capacities and self-reliance in all our neighboring countries.”
The INS Sindhuvir, which was commissioned to the Indian Navy in 1988, has been refurbished by state-run defense shipbuilder Hindustan Shipyard. With a displacement of 3,000 tonnes, a maximum operating depth of 300 metres and a top speed of 18 knots.
Taking their bilateral defense cooperation to new heights, India has given the Soviet-era Kilo-class submarine to Myanmar, a move that many analysts see as an attempt by New Delhi to counter China’s clout in the region.
Myanmar is the only country in Southeast Asia that shares a land border with India who are accused of systematic genocide against the ethnic minority Rohingya Muslim community. Myanmar is also a part of the 10-member Association of the Southeast Asian Nations.
India has repeatedly emphasised the need for ASEAN to play a central role in the Indo-Pacific as China asserts itself in the region. That frontier stretches for more than 1,600 km. The two also share a 725 km maritime boundary in the Bay of Bengal. New Delhi sees Myanmar as its gateway to Southeast Asia.
Analysing all scenarios, it is feasible and true that Myanmar planned to buy the submarine after its neighbour Bangladesh inducted two Ming-class diesel-electric submarines from China. Beijing has already delivered two submarines to the Bangladesh Navy, bought for $203 million nearly three years ago.
These submarines are being operated from a makeshift base in Cox’s Bazar. After procuring these submarines, Dhaka had approached Beijing to lend its hand in building a modern submarine base for Bangladesh Navy at Pekua, in the Coast of Kutubdia Island, southeastern Cox’s Bazaar.
Chinese state-owned company Poly Technologies Inc (PTI) has been assigned for the submarine base project and a full-fledged construction, estimated to be worth Tk10,300 crore, has begun at the site. The submarine base would have facilities like wharfs, barracks, ammunition depot and repairing dock.
Dhaka is also founding a new naval base in Patkhauli that will have submarine berthing and operation facilities to ensure the security of Payra seaport in southern Bangladesh. It was also a sort of pride for them that Bangladesh became a member of the elite club of 40 countries that have submarines, with North Korea topping the list (86) and Bangladesh the lowest (2), according to Globalfirepower.com.
In 2019, in a joint statement of China and Bangladesh, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had not only backed Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), but she also agreed with China’s plans to bolster defense industry, including strengthening Bangladesh Navy and maritime management in Bay of Bengal. Some analysts believe that the purchase and construction of submarine base shows growing Chinese presence in the Bay of Bengal.
Dhaka stated that Bangladesh is deeply indebted to India for its critical support during the country’s liberation war against Pakistan in 1971, the country would not do anything that would harm India’s strategic interest.
Certainly, the hope was that this kind of bold public statement from the Bangladesh leader on top of the expanded military cooperation memorandum of understanding that Dhaka signed with New Delhi in 2017 would convince India that the neighbor would not harbor any nefarious design against its benefactor.
China is a major economic partner of Myanmar. In Myanmar, China is leading an infrastructure project to build a deep-water port in Kyaukphyu, which is to be connected with China’s Yunnan province by road and rail. The US, India and Japan are all keeping a sharp eye on the project, fearing the port could be used by China for military purposes.
Despite the military-to-military cooperation between Myanmar and China during Myanmar’s period of estrangement from the West in the 1990s and 2000s, Myanmar’s military is aware of China’s ambitions. China maintains unofficial connections with the ethnic armed groups in border areas, which Myanmar sees as a threat to its sovereignty.
Myanmar and Bangladesh have recently engaged in a war of words over heightened military tension near the border at Chittagong regarding the Rohingya issue. Bangladesh sought help to repatriate about 1.1 million Rohingya refugees who have taken refuge in Cox’s Bazar, but India has so far done little.
Even this time, congratulating his counterpart on India becoming a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, Masud Bin Momen conveyed Bangladesh’s greater expectation from India as a member of the UNSC to play a more meaningful role for a lasting solution to the Rohingya crisis, including their early repatriation to Myanmar.
Myanmar has 1,468km of land border with India. Several rebel groups along the Nagaland-Manipur border use Myanmar as a haven. The two countries’ border guards are working together to stop India’s National Socialist Council of Nagaland, United Liberation Front of Asom, National Democratic Front of Boroland members and Myanmar’s Arakan Army, Kachin’s freedom fighters, taking extra security measures.
India has sought Myanmar’s cooperation in the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project to deliver goods to Mizoram and the other northeastern states by sea. It will connect the Indian port of Kolkata with the port of Rakhine’s Sittwe.
In August, Indian Foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla suddenly visited Dhaka. After his visit Indian news and media try to prove there is a mistrust between Delhi and Dhaka. They focused Chinese economic partnership in Bangladesh a security threat for India. It was a rumor that Indian Foreign secretary’s sudden visit was a message from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Its message of peace and friendship, and for preventing further alliance with the “Dragon.”
This visit, they claimed, was useful in discussing specific initiatives in several key areas of mutual interest. It also reflected the priority that India accorded to Bangladesh as part of its Neighbourhood First policy. In the near future, Narendra Modi and Sheikh Hasina will jointly inaugurate the Akhaura-Agartala railway line and the Rampal power plant.
A few security analysts thought that a Chinese company would get the tender of Sylhet Airport (Terminal 2) competing with an Indian company. And that is why India is asserting that the construction of that terminal is a threat to Indian security, as the airport is next to its eastern states, known as the Seven Sisters.
Another crisis has been opened regarding “Teesta River Comprehensive Management and Restoration Project”. The Chinese government agreed to fund nearly $1 billion for that project. India has been promising a Teesta water-sharing agreement since 2011. Now it is blaming West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee for not having an agreement.
But Mamata has said that Teesta water has been withdrawn and taken to Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, and Madhya Pradesh. How would they give water to Bangladesh even if there was an agreement?
The fact is that India lacks the capacity to invest for Bangladesh development project. India is claiming to give $8 billion loan to Bangladesh, saying that it is their highest loan given to any country. The reality is that the loan is being spent on projects that are all in India’s interest, and for the need of constructing the mainland’s rail, road, and river connectivity with its eastern states via Bangladesh.
There is a rumor that closer economic relations between China and Bangladesh is causing unease in India and Delhi gifted the submarine to extend the limited naval operation of Myanmar. At present, they operate five frigates armed with anti-ship missiles and a lack of air defense.
Minhaj Uddin Miran, research fellow, Faculty of Law, Universiy of Malaya.