Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Bangladesh in the Bull’s Eye

Look at the map of the Indian Ocean.  On the west there are the Middle Eastern countries and East Africa.  On the east the long peninsular starts at the northern point of the Bay of Bengal and follows a series of north-south coasts going all the way to Singapore.  In a real sense the Indian Ocean is closed in with the only convenient exit the man made Suez Canal in the west and the straits of Malacca in the east. 
In the west is a large part of the world’s discovered, remaining oil and natural gas reserves.  Over in the east are three great industrial nations—Japan, China and Korea -- all consumers of a large amount of energy from oil and natural gas.  These three nations have limited domestic energy resources and are dependent on imports particularly for oil and gas. 

Think of the history of Japan in the first half of the 20th century.  As industrial development got under way in Japan at the end of the 19th century the issue of access to raw materials became increasingly important.  By the end of World War I modern navies were switching away from coal to oil as the fuel for driving the ships.  Aviation was becoming more and more important in military affairs and war planes also depended on oil based fuels.  From the Japanese viewpoint both their military and their industrial activities were increasingly dependent on importing oil.   This oil was coming from Indonesia and the United States.  The Japanese Government had imperial designs on China which, not being acceptable to the United States and the Netherlands led to the banning or limiting sale of oil products to Japan.  The Pacific War between Japan and the allies followed.  The war was an expression of Japanese desire for imperial expansion to insure that they had access to oil and the American resistance to this.  The America resistance to Japan arose from the empathy felt by ordinary Americans for the Chinese who were oppressed by both their own Government and the Japanese occupation forces.  The point of the story is that the Pacific War was about access to oil resources and the Japanese desperation to escape from dependence on the United States and the Netherlands.

Today 75 years later the same situation exists in the minds of the Chinese Government.  Look at that map again and you see that the oil that is imported by China is coming largely from the Middle East and East Africa; to import this oil it is necessary to take the tankers through the Straits of Malacca between Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia or through the Lombard straits in Indonesia.   Both of those routes are easily under the control of the American 7th fleet which has a de facto base at Singapore.  Put another way Chinese oil imports can only reach China if the United States allows them to do so!  Of course no threats are made nor are action taken to actually limit the passage of the oil products, but everyone understands the real threat without having to express it.

China’s response to this is to try everything that they can think of to develop alternative supply sources –these include deep water oil wells in the islands found in the South China Sea, oil and gas from Myanmar, and oil and gas that might be located in Russia.   In addition China is developing alternative transport routes for Middle Eastern oil and gas.  There are three that are potentially feasible:  A pipeline over the Kra peninsular in Thailand; pipelines from central Asia and Iran to China; pipelines from the Bay of Bengal through Myanmar to China.   The first of these is the simplest but as Thailand is a close ally of the United States it does not provide China much improved energy supply security.  The pipelines from central Asia are very long complex construction projects that are probably many years from completion; further more these may be difficult to use for oil from East Africa and the Gulf States.  Oil from such states may require ports in Pakistan and pipelines from these ports through Pakistan into western China.   The Myanmar pipelines are needed not only for product from Myanmar but also for gas and oil from the Middle East shipped by targer to Myanmar ports.  This includes major port facilities in Myanmar as well as pipelines and roads to protect and provide maintenance. These are all giant engineering projects, but China is well on the road to construction of some of these.   The next decade will see continuing strong efforts by China to insure the security of its oil and gas supply by diversification of sources and transportation routes. 

We are probably at the start of a new cold war with China and its supporters vs. the United States and its supporters.   There are a few clear placements for Asia: North Korea, Myanmar, and Pakistan come down on the Chinese side; Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, India, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore come down on the US side.  Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, and Nepal will be trying to avoid taking sides.

What does this mean for Bangladesh?

For Bangladesh the key issues revolve around two points:

1.      Should Bangladesh improve the maritime access of China to the Bay of Bengal by using Chinese funds and contractors to construct the new deep sea port?

2.      How will China perceive the threat to their position and energy supply routes through Myanmar from Bangladesh’s relationship with India?  The struggle now taking place in the northeast part of South Asia is more and more important to Chinese strategic interests. 

Since its achievement of independence in 1971 Bangladesh has had the great advantage of being of limited importance to the strategic interests of major world powers.   The natural resources of oil and gas are not of a magnitude to make the country of strategic importance.   The economies of eastern India, Myanmar and Bangladesh were small and poor.  The northeast part of India was particularly poor and backward.  Starting around the early 1990s the growth prospects for this area began to improve, increasing market size and attracting interest of foreign investors.  While these areas are still much poorer than other parts of South Asia, Chinese interventions to raise their naval presence in the Indian Ocean opened the eyes of Indian strategic planners to the threats that they faced.  Increasingly northeast South Asia including Bangladesh and Myanmar loom large in their potential impact on national security concerns of China and India.  From being irrelevant to major power strategic interests, Bangladesh is now in the bull’s eye.  Both China and India see Bangladesh as a key area.  For India to insure a friendly neighbor and to have transit access to the northeast states; for China to keep India from achieving a hegemonic role over Bangladesh and to provide a secure route for gas and oil to be shipped via pipeline to southern China.

However much Bangladesh wishes to avoid being drawn into these matters, it is no longer possible to return to the past where no one has important strategic objectives in the region.   Bangladesh will become increasingly the target of maneuvers by India and China to gain advantage with respect to their higher strategic goals.  Many Bangladeshis believe the true interests of Bangladesh are to be a friend to both great powers and avoid taking sides.  However, India and China have different ideas and would like to draw Bangladesh into as exclusive relationship as possible.  Unfortunately for the conduct of Bangladesh foreign policy there are powerful domestic political forces at work.  The Awami League and its allies are clearly pro-Indian and the present government is moving systematically to improve its relationship with India.  The BNP and its allies are clearly pro-Chinese and would like to encourage the “opening to the east” while keeping India at arms length.  

The question facing the nation is the general strategic approach.  There are in effect two choices:  Move towards a strategic alliance with India and with that decision let the relationship with China be decided by China. This means being on India’s side in any conflict with China.  Going down this path requires a toughness to deal with an annoyed China.  The alternative is to maintain a balance and ensure that the country stays out of any conflicts between India and China.  Choice between these alternatives is made difficult by the potential instability.  Movement towards a strategic alliance with India might be reversed by a new Government.

India’s actions clearly indicate that they want a friendly relationship with Bangladesh and that they seek to have a strong position in Bangladesh in the energy sector and infrastructure to facilitate transit of goods between the northeast Indian states and the rest of India.   The Indian government is pushing hard on these issues with considerable success.   These actions serve India’s strategic purposes by raising their role in the Bangladesh economy and providing the infrastructure for logistical support to any military operations in the northeast states.  [In a serious conflict between India and China there would be little possibility of enforcing a no military equipment or personnel clause.]

China faces a somewhat more difficult position.  The recent visit by the leader of the opposition to China at the invitation of the Chinese Communist Party is an indication of their displeasure with the speed with which the relations with India are deepening.   Chinese attitudes towards Bangladesh will continue to provide low cost financing of some projects and active participation of Chinese companies in Bangladesh Government tenders etc. but underneath there will be a toughness and caution. China continues to be a major arms supplier to Bangladesh.  There is no point in China making an enemy of Bangladesh; in response to the progress with India, China will be cooler and less responsive as well as more demanding on assistance projects.  

The past lack of strategic importance of Bangladesh’s location meant that the formulation of national security strategy was easy.  The objective of all foreign policy was to maximize the foreign aid inflow and open up markets for Bangladesh exports.   This was relatively simple and consequently a serious national security organization was not needed.  But now the choices are more difficult requiring joint analysis by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Defense and involving a wide range of specialist organizations.

The new world that Bangladesh now faces suggests two points:

1.    The organization for formulation and review of national security policy needs to be put in place insuring that there is close coordination between the military and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  At present there is no stable systematic coordination among those responsible for national security.

2.    The importance of stability of policy calls for a less political approach suggesting that the two political groupings must find a way to work out a core program that both major political grouping will not repudiate with each new government.

During the past few years there has been regular talk of a “national security council”; the best I understood this it was a device for bringing military officers into considerations of national policy.  The idea stated in point 1 above is quite different. It focuses on two key issues that have never been correctly faced in Bangladesh:  the strategic objectives of the country as defined by its relationships with other countries and the determination of military requirements based on the strategic objectives.  Instead the size and mix of the military services is based on no strategic objectives but is determined in some mysterious way.  To develop the strategic objectives and the military requirements that arise from them is the objective of a national security council.  Now strategic objectives are set without reference to the military and military force levels are set without consideration of the strategic objectives.  This was just fine when it did not matter very much.  Now that Bangladesh is in the Bull’s Eye there is grave danger in not approaching the strategic objectives and military force levels in an intelligent, purposeful way. 

As for the importance of stability of policy, that is up to the political leaders.  In the United States at the beginning of the cold war in 1948 the two major political parties more or less agreed on the strategic objectives of the nation and worked out the implied force levels and roles of the military organizations.  Neither party ever seriously challenged the underlying strategic objectives.  During the next two decades as the cold war between China and the USA develops and escalates, Bangladesh can no longer sit out from the action.  The long term survival of the nation depends on finding a strategic policy that is accepted by most of the population and in particular by the major political leaders.  The choices are tough but must be faced.
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