By the end of 2019, India is scheduled to transfer one of its Kilo-class submarines to Myanmar. Transfer of the sub has been facilitated through a line of credit offered by India to augment strategic and military cooperation with Myanmar. A vital takeaway of the event is that it signals news heights for the India-Myanmar strategic security nexus. The event also exposes a tug-of-war between India and China to export the naval arms inventory to littoral states on the Bay of Bengal, the northeastern extension of the Indian Ocean.
During the Cold War era, the Kilo-class submarine had been hailed as the most formidable diesel-electric submarine and a menace in shallow water. If stealth is the mantra for subsurface activity, the Kilo-class submarine aptly suits with this category. Indeed, it is one among the few diesel electric submarines which has surface-to-air missile battery in its quiver of armament. Nevertheless, it lacks modern and critical components like air independent propulsion (AIP) system which is essential for submarine’s longer submergence and much stealthier mode. Considering this feature as a dragging line, the AIP- equipped Ming-class Type 035G submarine, which was inducted in the Bangladesh Navy in 2016, would obviously have the upper hand in any stealth superiority situation in the shallow water of the Bay of Bengal.
There are reasons that India’s announcement to transfer the Kilo-class submarine to Myanmar stands out. There are various prognoses regarding how this will affect the geostrategic as well as military influence vibe in the Bay of Bengal.
India views Myanmar as stepping stone to materialize its Act East Policy, which is a critical spearhead of India’s regional security politics, in order to counter steadily brewing Chinese influence in the Bay of Bengal. India has embedded security in its relations with Southeast Asian countries through the Milan Exercise and the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium. Moves by India to export subsurface naval armament to Myanmar is a counter to growing Chinese military influence in coastal states on the Bay of Bengal aimed to affect China’s arms export to littoral states. In fact, the initiative would be helpful for India to engrain its military influence in the blue orb of the Bay of Bengal. Furthermore, this also mirrors dedicated embrace of maritime geostrategic significance of the Bay of Bengal by India.
The looming diesel-electric submarine procurement competition in the Bay of Bengal came into prominence in 2016 with Bangladesh’s official reception of two Ming-class submarines namely BNS Joyjatra and BNS Nabajatra. Myanmar’s inclination to procure the Indian Navy’s indigenously refurbished Kilo-class submarine reiterates a tacit balance of power response to acquisition of Chinese submarines by Bangladesh and Thailand. Nevertheless, there exist pitfalls. Like a distant foghorn, Myanmar’s submarine acquisition announcement also signals some far-reaching implications and India is not standing outside the clutch of those consequences. Given the geostrategic significance of Myanmar in the Bay of Bengal, India’s decision to transfer a submarine seems apt and reasonable. However, the picture appears more complex when assessing the perplexing military and economic conduits between China and Myanmar. Since its independence in 1948, Myanmar has maintained a complex relationship with China which has experienced a series of upheavals in diplomatic relations but also massive cooperation in military assistance and foreign direct investment. Hence, it stands out that Myanmar is skillful in adjusting itself to accommodate its own military and economic nexus with China. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute in its recent fact sheet reveals that during 2014-2018, China was the major supplier of military hardware inventory to Myanmar. Therefore, any expectation of a sudden ebb in Chinese military influence on Myanmar is off-base. There is some support to the view that India’s submarine transfer decision will backfire and the technological nitty gritty of the refurbished Kilo-class submarine would get disclosed to China through Myanmar. India should remain cautious.
Mohammad Rubaiyat Rahman is a Teaching Assistant at the Department of Political Science, Texas Tech University, USA. His research focuses on maritime security and Indian Ocean Region.