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Bangladesh in talks with US to buy Apaches and missiles

Despite long China ties, Dhaka seeks Washington's help with military upgrade

Bangladesh has shown interest in buying Apache attack helicopters, such as those shown here, and unspecified missile systems.   © Reuters

DHAKA -- Bangladesh has opened talks with the U.S. to buy advanced arms, in a move seen as a major blow to China, which has traditionally been the South Asian nation's biggest supplier of military hardware.

The planned purchases from Washington are part of a broader effort to modernize Bangladeshi military forces by 2030.

"We desire to support the Bangladesh Military Forces Goal 2030, as Bangladesh seeks to modernize its military equipment," the U.S. Embassy in Dhaka said in a statement made available to the Nikkei Asian Review.

Since Bangladesh's independence from Pakistan in 1971 after a nine-month war, China, Russia, the U.S., the U.K. and South Korea have been the country's main suppliers of arms and ammunition.

While China remains Bangladesh's largest defense equipment provider, purchases from the U.S. have grown steadily since the 1990s, reaching $110 million for the 9 years since 2010. This figure is dwarfed by its $1.92 billion in defense purchases from China in the 2010s, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

But that long-standing relationship may soon shift as Bangladesh inches toward signing two pacts with the Americans: an Acquisitions and Cross Servicing Agreement, or ACSA, and a General Security of Military Information Agreement, or GSOMIA. These agreements are part of a long term plan for closer military cooperation between the two countries.

The accords provide a foundation for greater bilateral security cooperation, to advance "our mutual interests in ensuring peace and prosperity for Bangladesh and the region," a U.S. official told the Nikkei Asian Review. One benefit would be "to significantly ease our ability to transfer major defense equipment that will help safeguard Bangladesh's sovereignty and our mutual interests in the region," he added.

"These agreements are also consistent with our interest in expanding our partnership with Bangladesh in the areas of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, peacekeeping, defense trade, military cooperation and counterterrorism, as well as maritime security and regional issues."

Depending on how the negotiations go, an ACSA takes an average one to two years to complete. For a GSOMIA, the average timeline is two to four years, the official said.

Bangladesh has shown interest in purchasing two Apache helicopters and unspecified missile systems, the official said. He could not give a price for the systems because they vary by model.

Bangladesh believes modernizing its military is essential to address the changing geopolitical environment. "We need to keep pace with the new era," said Abdullah Ibn Zaid, director of the Inter Service Public Relations Directorate, an arm of the Bangladesh Army. "Professionalism won't develop unless we modernize the military," Zaid told the Nikkei Asian Review.

Asked whether procurement from the U.S. would antagonize China, he said, "It's not an issue of making one happy while [the] other [is] unhappy." "We have bought from the U.S. before. We've a pact with China as well."

Zaid said Bangladesh procures defense equipment at "the lowest prices, without compromising quality," through international tenders.

Military cooperation between Bangladesh and the U.S. has been on the upswing. Over the last year, the U.S. doled out $5.3 million to cover the cost of procurement and delivery of five coastal patrol boats to the Bangladesh Navy.

The U.S. also provided $3.3 million to send 233 members of the Bangladesh military to training courses in the United States and in the Indo-Pacific region.

GSOMIAs are bilateral agreements that permit greater collaboration and sharing of classified military intelligence. The intelligence accord is a reciprocal, legally-binding agreement designed to protect classified military information. However, it does not obligate governments to share such information or materials, it merely ensures equivalent protection for any information shared.

The U.S. has such agreements with 76 countries around the world, including several in South Asia. Washington says the pacts strengthen cooperation and advance the "shared interests of trusted partners."

The objective of the ACSA is to allow the U.S. and partner nations' forces to procure and pay for common types of logistical support, supplies, and services in a way that fosters cooperation. For example, an ACSA may facilitate the transfer of fuel from the Bangladesh military to visiting U.S. naval ships participating in annual training exercises.

It could also improve the U.S.'s ability to respond to humanitarian or natural disasters through cooperation with Bangladesh by, for example, facilitating the transfer of fuel from the U.S. military to Bangladesh naval ships operating outside their normal areas.

The U.S. has ACSA accords with over 100 countries, including India and Sri Lanka.

Analysts say the country's booming economy and strategic location make a compelling case for Bangladesh to bolster its military strength.

Bangladeshi training jets fly overhead during a Victory Day parade in 2015: Bangladesh hopes to strengthen its strategic relations with the U.S. by stepping up arms purchases.   © Reuters

According to Delwar Hossain, a professor of international relations at Dhaka University, it is imperative for Bangladesh to acquire sophisticated military gear because the importance of the Bay of Bengal has risen "all of a sudden," while China's Belt and Road Initiative has raised the profile of the region globally.

"It's a pragmatic decision," Hossain told Nikkei. "It's a new area of building strategic relations with the United States."

Last year, Bangladesh signed a defense cooperation treaty with India under which New Delhi will extend $500 million credit line for military hardware purchases, he said, adding that Bangladesh is cooperating with a wider range of partners.

It remains to be seen how "rationally" China will react to the purchase deal with the U.S., Hossain said.

Sheikh Shams Morsalin, an associate professor of international relations at Dhaka University, argues that Bangladesh wants to "counterbalance," and rebuild relations with the U.S.

"There was no recent instance of large-scale cooperation with the U.S.," he said. "This will usher in a new chapter of bilateral relations."

Despite the warming of U.S.-Bangladesh military ties, the South Asian country continues to work with its traditional partners. It is working with Russia to build Bangladesh's first nuclear power plant in Iswardi, some 100 miles northwest of Dhaka, he said.

Morsalin noted the potential defense procurement deal highlights Bangladesh's plan to scale back buying of Chinese military equipment, while it seeks to engage the U.S. in resolving the Rohingya crisis, in which Beijing appears to have sided with Myanmar.

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