Chinas strategic military sales to Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand has raised security concerns in the Indian Ocean Region. China aims to be a key defence exporter to many Asian and South East Asian countries in Indias neighbourhood.
Many of these countries are not able to acquire expensive military tech from other reliable sources and procure seemingly inexpensive weapons and systems from the Chinese market.
The Bangladesh military imported the 02 Type 035G submarines of 1970s vintage and Type 053H frigates from China, now their import dependence on Chinese hardware is touching 85 percent.
Myanmar after the military coup in 2021 and sanctions by the West, has turned towards China and is procuring the majority of its military hardware from that country.
Sri Lanka has received warships and military aircraft (Harbins, J-7) in recent times.
Nepal continues to be aggressively wooed by China in the recent past for procuring Chinese military hardware with a NPR 2.5 billion grant for the Nepalese Army.
The Chinese development of overseas bases in the Indian Ocean Region continues to unnerve the Indian military planners.
The commissioning of the Djibouti military base in 2017, development of Gwadar port in Pakistan and taking over of Hambantota port in Sri Lanka gives them a credible infrastructure where they can position military assets in the region.
The new entrant in this club is Pekua port in Bangladesh.
China plans to develop this port and offer it for berthing and maintenance of submarines given to Bangladesh.
However, its real intent might be to establish a transit base for its nuclear submarines which are likely to foray into the Indian Ocean Region in the future.
However, the CCP’s customers are in for a rough ride as they would realise, at their own peril, that they have not factored in the life cycle costs and reliability factors of Chinese products.
The poor quality and workmanship of these Chinese military weapons and systems has turned out to be the bane of its clients. Countries like Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Nepal have found this out the hard way.
Thailand Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha on April 4 threatened to cancel a deal for the purchase of Chinese S26T Yuan Class submarines for the Thai Navy, unless the CCP includes the German-made MTU 396 engine.
Whilst the Chinese side has supposedly requested a modification in the contract to replace the German engines with Chinese MWM 620 engines, considering the poor reputation of anything Chinese made, the Thais don’t appear willing to go ahead with the deal unless their demands are met.
In January, Nepal Airlines grounded six Chinese-made aircraft, their reason as stated was that these aircraft were proving to be unaffordable to fly.
These sub-standard planes delivered extremely poor serviceability rates and required major maintenance efforts. The loan from China for these aircraft has, however, continued to haunt the airlines. Dues worth $35.1 million, at a steep interest rate along with a service charge and management expenses, are still pending.
Beijing gifted two 1970s era Ming class Type 035G submarines to Bangladesh valued at $100 million each in 2017. The Bangladesh Navy commissioned them as BNS Nobojatra and BNS Joyjatra.
Both these submarines have been lying idle due to “technical issues” and could not be used as planned.
And then in 2020, China gifted Dhaka the Wuhan virus along with two Chinese 053H3 frigates – BNS Umar Farooq and BNS Abu Ubaidah.
As per sources, the type 053H3 frigates gifted to the Bangladesh Navy have defects in the fire control system as well as in the helicopter fuelling and defuelling systems.
Defects have also been discovered in the gyro compass. The frigates were supplied by Poly Technologies Inc. Poly Technologies is a subsidiary of China Poly Group Corporation, a trade company with headquarters in Beijing, which deals with missiles and other military hardware.
Not only this, the basic trainer aircraft and K-8 aircraft for the Bangladesh Air Force and short range air defence system for the Bangladesh Army continue to be defect prone.
The other cases of supply of poor quality drones, armoured personnel carriers, missiles and even warships across the globe are well documented.
In some cases, loss of lives due to malfunctioning equipment have also been reported. The lack of quality of military hardware from China is increasingly coming under the scanner and has brought to the fore the substandard capabilities being sold to economically weaker countries in the garb of supporting them.
The world over, reliability and quality of defence equipment is known as the true mark of a nation’s technology, manufacturing ability and maintenance practices. One would have expected Chinese defence manufacturers to have taken this onboard as an inviolable fundamental.
China seems to have missed the mark entirely – opting for quantity and quick delivery over quality.
This has led to distrust among the neighbouring countries and they are now looking towards India for strategic partnerships.
(Sumit Kumar Singh can be reached at email@example.com)