The emergence of the Bay of Bengal as a new strategic space requires careful study of its past and its changing geopolitical and geoeconomic profile. To revive the region as a distinct community, the Bay of Bengal’s littoral states will have to build appropriate institutions that provide a framework for engaging with extra-regional powers and building havens of cooperation.
This roundtable marked the informal launch of Carnegie India’s new Bay of Bengal Initiative. The discussion was led by Dr. David Brewster and Dr. Anthony Bergin, senior research fellows at the National Security College in the Australian National University, and chaired by Dr. Constantino Xavier, a fellow at Carnegie India. Dr. C. Raja Mohan, director at Carnegie India, gave introductory remarks emphasizing the Bay of Bengal’s rising importance in Asia and recent contestations in the region.
- Regions as Constructs: Participants agreed that the mutable nature of regions requires a constant evaluation of the mental maps on which states base governance arrangements. While during the colonial era the Bay of Bengal was a single political entity, with a clear commercial centre in Kolkata, its significance declined in India’s post-independence period. Its littoral states turned inwards with the emergence of a conceptual wall in the middle of the region–the division into SAARC (South Asia) and ASEAN (Southeast Asia). Today, participants said, the concept of this region has gained importance once again due to China’s growing interest in the Indian Ocean, India’s Look East policy, and the growing relevance of an integrated Indo-Pacific.
- Institutional Governance: In economic terms, the Bay of Bengal region is a black hole in the Indo-Pacific, participants said. Cross-border exchanges of goods, capital, and people remain relatively rare. Compared to the South Pacific, one participant categorized governance in the Indian Ocean region as “primitive,” leading to a situation akin to the “Wild West” when it comes to fishing. In the Bay of Bengal, in particular, participants pointed to the limitations of the present institutional architecture, with the Indian Ocean Rim Association dormant and the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation, despite India’s push, still relatively weak. Other participants warned against the temptation to establish new institutions, and emphasized expanding and investing in existing ones.
- China’s Role: Some participants argued for excluding China from the regional institutions in the Bay of Bengal, given the problems that plague the South China Sea, Beijing’s underlying zero-sum mindset, and the geographic fact that China is not a littoral state. Others argued for developing governance arrangements that address particular functional issues, rather than one overarching organization, which could include China as necessary. One participant emphasized that China’s aggressive and interventionist stances in ASEAN and other multilateral initiatives has shaken regional confidence in investing in institution-building.
- External Powers: Participants cautioned that while investment in this region could provide much-needed economic impetus, there is also potential for strategic competition. Today, they explained, poor regional infrastructure and connectivity has sparked a race, with China trying to build north-south connectivity, and India and Japan focusing on east-west connectivity. Japan, given its resources and lack of historical baggage in the region, is increasingly seen as a viable alternative for checking growing Chinese involvement, participants added. They argued that this creates the possibility of a quadrilateral cooperation between Australia, India, Japan, and the United States. In the end, however, they argued that it is Sri Lanka and Bangladesh who are the key stakeholders in fostering cooperation, instead of competition, in the Bay of Bengal region. Participants underlined that Colombo and Dhaka are bound to take a leading role in establishing a new regional community that is insulated from extra-regional rivalries.
- Domestic Imperatives: One participant pointed out how governance in the region is caught between the twin pressures of regional and domestic priorities. The leaders of India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar, for example, are still focusing on stabilizing their borders and are therefore only reluctantly embracing connectivity and cooperative mechanisms at the regional level. Participants also agreed that the future of the region depends on Bangladesh and Myanmar establishing a positive relationship.
- Quadrilateral Cooperation: The concept of a ‘blue economy,’ comprising a wide range of thematic concerns ranging from aquaculture to blue carbon, has already elicited significant Indian interest, participants pointed out. Both India and Japan have shown interest in gas hydrides and marine biotechnology–an area in which Japan holds the most number of patents. Participants suggested that the existing cooperation between Australia and Japan in marine sciences and fisheries could be expanded to the Bay of Bengal. Non-traditional security issues, such as smuggling, trafficking, and illegal fishing, offer the potential for India, Japan, Australia, and other like-minded states in the region to invest in cooperative programs for capacity-building. In the maritime domain, participants suggested that this could be based on Canberra’s Pacific Patrol program for southern Pacific states, and delivering and sustaining small coast guard and patrol vessels, along with training and information-sharing mechanisms.
This event summary was prepared by Sharanya Rajiv, an intern at Carnegie India.