What else could one expect from a hyperventilating news broadcast channel last week (see: http://www.timesnow.tv/Debate-America-eyes-Bay-of-Bengal---1/videoshow/4403335.cms & http://www.timesnow.tv/Debate-America-eyes-Bay-of-Bengal---2/videoshow/4403336.cms) other than sheer ill-informed and misguided revelations about the US Navy’s 7th Fleet trying to gain a firm foothold in Bangladesh. That broadcast journalism has hit a new low is no longer in doubt, but what is far more worrisome is the attitude of certain self-styled India-based ‘strategic experts’ to justify the purpoted US presence-to-be inside Bangladesh’s territorial waters as being a counter-balance to an alleged military presence of the People’s Republic of China inside Myanmar. To say the least, the facts say otherwise. Here’s what the issue is all about.
Given the need to demarcate the maritime boundaries of Bangladesh and Myanmar without any further delay, Dhaka in October 2009 brought the issue before the International Tribunal for Arbitration, having exhausted all attempts to reach a bilateral agreement with Yangon. Consequently, Bangladesh was recently awarded 111,000 square kilometres of exclusive economic zone (EEZ) waters in the Bay of Bengal, almost the same size of Bangladesh, which includes all sea-based resources currently available for exploitation (especially oil and gas) and all such resources that may be discovered in the future. The Tribunal also awarded Bangladesh a 12-mile territorial sea around St Martin's Island, overruling Myanmar’s argument that it should be divided in half. The judgment is final and without appeal, with Bangladesh winning by 21 votes to 1. The biggest advantage for Bangladesh that is likely to stem from this judgment is that it will now be able to utilise the area that had been in dispute for the last 38 years. But in the absence of any bilateral agreement between the two countries clearly delimiting their maritime boundaries, what factors pushed the two governments toward a judicial solution? It was the strong likelihood of newly accessible gas and heightening demand in both countries that eventually motivated Bangladesh and Myanmar to pursue a solution through international arbitration, since the demand for natural gas in Bangladesh is immense, and the country’s acute power crisis has also emerged as a burning political issue. For Myanmar, demand for gas in the export markets has motivated the government to export more gas in order to gain greater foreign reserves.
Bangladesh has also gained several other important economic benefits from this verdict. Firstly, the government can now start drilling for oil and gas 200 nautical miles out to sea. The discovery of new oil and gas may help the country meet its domestic power demands, and the government could also generate capital by allocating blocks to international companies (especially US-, UK- and China-based) for further exploration. Secondly, Bangladesh will now be able to access different types of perishable marine and mineral resources, which should help strengthen its economy. Dhaka is also expected to find various types of minerals, including cobalt, manganese, copper, nickel and sulfite. Thirdly, this verdict will help increase the number of skilled workers capable of extracting much-needed resources from the sea. This issue has already been discussed between Bangladesh’s Foreign and Education ministries, which have agreed to open oceanography departments at Dhaka and Chittagong Universities. Fourthly, these developments could also help Bangladesh win the maritime dispute with India, which concerns the western side of the Bay of Bengal. India is insisting on the principle of equidistance instead of equality in demarcating the maritime boundary. The verdict on this dispute is expected to be handed down by 2014 through international arbitration.
Set against this background, what could the US possibly stand to gain from Bangladesh, apart from the expected lucrative offshore hydrocarbons exploration contracts? For one, the US is well aware that in the years to come the Bay of Bengal will indeed witness a naval arms race of sorts between India and China. India is already on record for having specified that its eastern seaboard will house the naval establishments required for supporting her survivable nuclear deterrent, i.e. the fleet of SSBNs and associated SSNs. For both the US and China, therefore, logic demands that the navies of both countries seek and develop suitable shore-based naval logistics infrastructure aimed at monitoring the envisaged growth of India’s nuclear-powered undersea warfare platforms. Between the US and China, it was the latter that took the first logical step forward, when in August 2011 saw Myanmar officially inviting China to develop logistics facilities for visiting PLA Navy (PLAN) flotillas at the existing port in in Kyaukpyu in the Bay of Bengal. The ultimate intention behind the creation of such naval logistics infrastructure is to provide support for the PLAN’s warships, ballistic missile tracking vessels and oceanographic survey vessels, that will be engaged in persistently monitoring India’s sea trials for its SSBNs, SSNs and SLBMs along the Bay of Bengal and southern Indian Ocean, and also for providing protection for Beijing’s expanding offshore oil-and-gas exploration facilities in the Bay of Bengal. This was reportedly the main topic of discussion between Myanmar’s recently-elected President Thein Sein and his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao when the former visited Beijing between May 26 and 28 last year on his first official overseas visit. The strategic port of Kyaukpyu, a multi-billion dollar project totally financed by China, will house a network of pipelines which, after being commissioned in 2013, will have the capacity to transfer to Yunnan Province more than 80% of China’s imported oil from the Middle East and Africa, as well as natural gas from the Shwe Gas Field--currently Myanmar’s largest gas reserve with an estimated 7.0 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. It may be recalled that Yangon chose to sell the natural gas from Shwe to China over India in 2007, a move that consolidated Myanmar’s position as a valued ally of Beijing. The Kyaukpyu project includes upgrading the existing airport on Ramree Island where Kyaukpyu is located.
It is also believed that the PLAN will also make use of Kyaukpyu for providing logistics support for a new generation of ocean-going intelligence-gathering vessels. The first such vessel, the Uranus (No853), was last August commissioned into the PLAN’s South Sea Fleet. The PLAN also intends to deploy its new-build ocean surveillance catamarans being built at Guangzhou’s Huangpu Shipyard. The first three such vessels (991, 992 and 993) are presently in service with the North Sea Fleet, while the fourth vessel will be deployed with the South Sea Fleet. These vessels will lead the flotilla of marine exploration vessels which China will soon be dispatching after having obtained a deep-sea mining licence in central Indian Ocean (Southwestern Indian Ridge) from the International Seabed Authority (ISA). The State-run China Ocean Mineral Resources Research and Development Association had applied for the licence in May 2010 to explore for polymetallic sulphides in the Southwest Indian Ridge. It would now be required to sign a contract with the ISA, allowing it to explore up to 10,000 sq km over the next 15 years in line with the new rules on polymetallic sulphides adopted by the ISA last year. China, which has ratified the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention and is an ISA member, has been active in deep sea exploration since 2002 when it launched a programme that included developing an active diving submersible—Jiaolong--designed for a maximum depth of 7,000 metres.
The US strategy is plain and simple: it too, like China, has an overriding need to monitor India’s sea-based nuclear weapons-related developments, and what better than to do this under the guise of conducting perfectly legal offshore oil/gas exploration activities within Bangladesh’s EEZ. After all, all that the US will be required to deploy will be a fleet of no more than three non-militarised ocean surveillance vessels and two EP-3-type airborne ELINT aircraft, for which all that the US will require will be a ‘civilian’ shore-based logistics station that includes a runway, all of which can be built within a short span of time at Bangladesh’s St Martin’s Island. For tracking the sea-trials of India’s SSBNs and SSNs, both the US Navy and the Royal Navy will be able to deploy on short notice their SSNs from their bases in Diego Garcia, located 1,200 nautical miles (2,200km) south of the southern tip of India, and from The Maldives’ Gan Island.
In a related development, the DRDO’s Kochi-based Naval Physical & Oceanographic Laboratory (NPOL) has released the first definitive illustration of the next-generation S-5 SSBN, which externally bears a close resemblance to the Project 667BDRM Delta IV SSBN. The illustration, carried on a brochure of the NPOL-developed submarine sonar suite (SSS I-12), which is still under development for the S-5, which will carry twelve 6,500km-range SLBMs. Thus far, India’s MoD has sanctioned the fabrication of only three SSBNs: S-2 (Arihant), S-3 and S-4. Financial sanction for fabricating the S-5’s hull has yet to be obtained. The double-hulled Project 667BDRM Delta IV SSBN has an operational diving depth of 320 metres and a maximum depth of 400 metres. The propulsion system allows speeds of 24 Knots (44kph) submerged while using two VM-4 pressurised water reactors rated at 180mW that drive two GT3A-365 turbines each rated at 27.5mW.