Two warships that Bangladesh purchased from China arrived in the South Asian nation on Thursday, officials said, less than three months after Dhaka confirmed it was negotiating to buy fighter jets and combat helicopters from the United States.
The frigates – renamed the Umar Farooq and the Abu Ubaidah – had been decommissioned by the Chinese navy and symbolically handed over to the Bangladeshi navy in China in December.
“The two frigates arrived today [Thursday] at the Mongla naval jetty,” Lt. Col. Abdullah Ibn Zaid, director of Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), the Bangladeshi military’s news agency, told BenarNews, referring to the seaport in the country’s southwestern Khulna district.
The warships’ armaments include twin 100 mm cannons, surface-to-air missiles and anti-submarine torpedo tubes, Zaid said.
He and other officials declined to say how much the ships cost or whether they were refurbished or new.
Bangladeshi Navy Chief Adm. Aurangzeb Chowdhury and Rear Adm. Bai Yaoping, deputy commander of the Chinese navy’s Eastern Fleet, attended the handover ceremony in Shanghai in December, officials said.
The two ships served with China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy until they were decommissioned and sold to Bangladesh last year, according to Jane’s Defense Weekly, a news website that monitors military and security issues.
The Umar Farooq – previously known as Lianyungang – was commissioned in 1998 and Abu Ubaidah – formerly named Putian – went into service for the Chinese navy the following year, Jane’s said.
“The two Chinese ships are refurbished,” retired Rear Adm. Abu Taher, former chief of Bangladesh Navy, told BenarNews on Thursday. “Frankly speaking, it’s very hard for countries like us to afford brand-new frigates.”
Beijing was helping strengthen the navies of Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka as it aimed to enhance its footprint in the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean, security and defense analyst Sakhawat Hossain, a retired brigadier general, told BenarNews.
“[Chinese officials] want to increase their influence in the geopolitics by enhancing militaries of the three south Asian countries,” he said. “Thanks to China, Bangladesh is now one of the countries with submarines, although conventional in nature, in South and Southeast Asia.”
China’s bid to tighten its military influence in the Bay of Bengal occurred as regional rival India announced in July last year that it had asked seven shipyards to submit proposals for the construction of six warships and support vessels worth 150 billion rupees (U.S. $2.2 billion) for New Delhi’s navy and coast guard.
“In addition to the above, a few more request for proposals for more shipbuilding projects are likely to be issued in the next few months,” India’s Ministry of Defense said in a statement.
American offer: ‘An opportunity for us’
Since the 1980s, Bangladesh’s 157,000-member military has purchased equipment from China – its traditional main weapons supplier – as well as Russia, Great Britain and South Korea.
China provided weapons valued at almost U.S. $2 billion to Bangladesh between 2008 and 2018, about 71.8 percent of the South Asian nation’s military acquisitions, according to the Washington-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Dhaka’s military expenditure, totaling about $3.2 billion in 2017 and 2018, accounts for about 6 percent of its annual budget, according to official statistics.
The two frigates were turned over to Bangladesh as the Muslim-majority nation ramps up a program to modernize its armed forces.
Dhaka recently acquired two submarines valued at $205 million from Beijing. Those submarines, which were berthed at a Bangladeshi naval base in Chittagong district, will be housed at a naval base that is expected to be constructed in a southeastern district, officials said.
Bangladesh is negotiating to purchase fighter jets, missiles systems and combat helicopters from the United States, according to retired Col. Faruk Khan, chairman of the parliamentary Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs.
“We have been in negotiation with the United States regarding procurement of attack helicopters, fighter planes and missiles,” Khan told BenarNews in October 2019.
The negotiations marked the first time that Dhaka had approached Washington for defense equipment since Bangladesh broke free from Pakistan in 1971, security analysts told BenarNews.
During her Dhaka visit in November, Alice Wells, the U.S. acting assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian Affairs, confirmed that the United States was seeking an expanded military relationship with Bangladesh.
Wells said that under the Bay of Bengal Initiative, a new U.S. State Department program that involves foreign military financing, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the Maldives could build their maritime and border security capacities.
“The U.S. offer to strengthen ties between militaries under the initiative is an opportunity for us,” security analyst Abdur Rashid, a retired major general, told BenarNews.
“We have to grab it.”