Adding a pearl: China looks for a naval base in Bangladesh

On the invitation of Bangladesh, China which has been eyeing for a naval base in Bay of Bengal has decided to initially develop Sonadia Islands as a deep sea port for Bangladesh which may later turn out to be another Gwadar-giving a high voltage headache to Indian defence establishment.

China has agreed to fund 99 per cent of the Sonadia Islands deep water port project and by 2015 the first phase will be completed. The proposal to set up a base in Bangladesh which can give much needed access into Bay of Bengal has been approved by the Chinese government last week.

Once ready, China which so far maintains that it is all for trade and transit could use it as yet another pearl in its ‘string of pearls’ strategy to access blue waters of Bay of Bengal that is vital for China’s energy and military security.

This time the naval base project in Bangladesh will be handled little differently as the Standing Committee of the Chinese State Council which includes Chinese premier, four vice-premiers, five state councilors, and secretary-general have decided to review the project once in a month – apparently an attempt to be better prepared to ward off strategic and diplomatic fallout that might arise.

Strategic access

Indeed, China’s Central Military Commission and State Council are looking for new partners to accomplish the task of setting up the much publicized ‘string of pearls’ strategy, an ambitious plan, to surround with bases that can allow Chinese naval ships and submarines to get berthing and strategic access to various chock points.

After Sanya base in South China Sea, the Sonadia Islands could provide new beads for the ‘string of pearls’ which could chock India’s strategic depth in the Bay of Bengal.

Strategically, Bay of Bengal is ideal for India to opt for a second strike capability which is an inherent part of India’s strategic-military doctrine that will ensure the best insurance for retaliation.

If China’s Sonadia Islands plan succeeds then India will have to recount its strategic plans and readjust its naval deployment pattern in the whole of Bay of Bengal. For Bay of Bengal contingency, China has already opted for development of Chittagong Port.

Besides, China has two more projects, the development of Hambantota in southern Sri Lanka and a special naval base project in Hanggyi Island where it has established a monitoring station at Coco Island, north of India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

Sonadia Islands which is approximately seven kilometer from Cox’s Bazar and about nine square kilometer in area offshore from Cox’s Bazaar in southeastern Bangladesh, is a tiny but effective strategic point. Now Dhaka wants to use this potential deepwater port with the help of China as Beijing is ready to fund 99 per cent.

Earlier, Bangladesh Communications Adviser Major General (Retd) MA Matin had insisted that Bangladesh will go ahead on its own funds to develop Sonadia and Kutubdia channels which have been selected as the first and second suitable sites to set up a deep seaport.

The 11 km long port will have 58 jetties, the Adviser said adding that the deep-sea port would be constructed in three phases by 2055 Rail connections are yet to be built, and the question of gauge has yet to be decided later on. Both China and Bangladesh are also going ahead with two more proposals - Chinese assistance for up-gradation of Chittagong port and creation of a ‘deep sea port’ in Sonadia Island.

But the plan has changed after Bangladesh Prime Minister met with Chinese President Hu Jintao last year. Sensing a strong future prospect for its strategic adventurism, China would now provide 99 per cent support in the construction of the planned ‘deep sea port’ at Sonadia.

Last year, two months after her visit to India, Sheikh Hasina had gone to Beijing and requested Chinese President Hu Jintao to build the China -Chittagong road through Myanmar. The proposal had actually been first floated by her predecessor Begum Khaleda Zia in 2003.

Geo-strategic threat

China-Myanmar-Bangladesh tri-national highway, Beijing’s imminent presence in Chittagong and Dhaka’s interest to Chinese offer to Sonadia port construction, would inevitably pose serious geo-strategic threat to India and affect New Delhi’s maritime interest. Both Chittagong and Sonadia would give China direct access to the Bay of Bengal and in extension to the Indian Ocean.

China had already got considerable trade and infrastructure development projects. Bilateral trade between Dhaka and Beijing is expected to increase to US$ 6.4 billion in 2011 from US$ 4.58 billion in 2009.

During her China visit in March last year Hasina had surely kept in mind the strengthening Sino-Bangla economic cooperation. A joint communique was issued which said: The two sides decided to establish a closer Comprehensive Partnership of Cooperation between China and Bangladesh from the strategic perspective and on the basis of the principles of longstanding friendship, equality and mutual benefit.

In March this year, China first sent a high level team to make a study about Sonadia Islands and had extensive interactions with Bangladeshi leaders about long term feasibility of this deep water port which can also be open for strategic use in future.

Again on May 30, Chinese government sent another delegation which met Bangladesh Shipping Minister Shajahan Khan and the ministry’s high-ups to discuss providing funds to Bangladesh’s USD 1.9 billion deep-sea port project.

“They (Chinese) sought some more details from us and it was a kind of counter guarantee about the project and whether Bangladesh will stand strategic pressure from its neighborhood over the project in future,” remarked a senior minister from Hasina Cabinet.  

In fact, The Chinese government wants to extend funds for design, construction and operation of the deep-sea port in Bangladesh in a build-own-operate-transfer basis but there are few clauses which suggest in future certain terms and conditions can be dangerous for India.

On May 30, a five-member Chinese central government delegation led by Zhang Xiaojie which met Bangladesh Shipping Minister, Chairman of the Chittagong Port Authority, CEO of the Deep Sea Port project along with other high officials of the ministry, had pointed to the fact that China will provide construction design for Sonadia Islands project.

Now it is a carrot and stick approach as China has made it clear that it has to be Beijing’s project design for which it will fund 99 per cent, in case Bangladesh insists its own design then it should follow on a different funding pattern.

Like Gwadar, China can make the whole project tailor made according to its own convenience and future plans that can fit its strategic interests because depending upon Myanmar and Sri Lanka for Bay of Bengal access is not ideal. There should be a third access route.       

Publicly, Bangladesh claims to build a deep-sea port to handle the country’s growing external trade and increase regional transit facilities. It says cargo handling at Chittagong port is rising on an average 12 per cent a year.

The Bangladesh government earlier completed a $1.62 million feasibility study in 2006, after the Chittagong Port Authority (CPA) had taken up a plan for the deep-sea port at Sonadia off the Kutubdia coast, 65km (40 miles) to the south of the port.

But now this Sonadia Islands project will be put into China’s strategic calculus after its Indonesia project went sour few years ago where China was planning to have a small seaport for its ships and submarines.