AFTER prolonged marginalization in the Asian maritime space, the Bay of Bengal is emerging as a critical strategic theatre. Once considered a backwater of the Indian Ocean, the Bay of Bengal is now viewed as a fulcrum of a wider geopolitical space called the Indo-Pacific or Indo-Asia-Pacific. The paper, structured in three parts, examines the historic evolution of the littoral, the current economic and political forces shaping its regional centrality, and concludes with the case for a strengthened regional cooperative order for the promotion of prosperity and peace in the Bay of Bengal. The resolution of many outstanding maritime territorial disputes and the tentative steps for political and security cooperation in the region provide the basis for imagining a Bay of Bengal Community that will benefit all the peoples of the region.

At first look, the Bay of Bengal looks like a placid sea, but for the seasonal cyclones that disturb life in the littoral. It is almost a closed sea with just three countries bordering its northern reaches – Burma, Bangladesh and India. The northern waters of the bay are also far from the main sea lines of communication. The region has not seen any serious great power rivalries or major conflicts in the recent past. This traditional sense of the waters could turn out to be deceptive. The Bay of Bengal might well be poised to reclaim its historic place amidst the changing economic and political geography of its littoral. The bay would be at the very centre of the new conceptions of space such as the Indo-Pacific. It is also an arena where the interests of the great powers and littoral states are beginning to intersect in a more intensive way and make it one of the most contested zones in the eastern hemisphere. But first to the past.

Through ancient times, the Bay of Bengal was the natural connector between the subcontinent and the abutting regions to the east right up to the southern coast of China. Movement of people, goods and ideas across the Bay of Bengal was extensive and enriched all civilizations along this littoral. The spread of Hindu and Buddhist influences across the littoral was later followed by the spread of Islam. The trading communities along the subcontinent’s coast were instrumental in this. The rise of European capitalism and the revolution in maritime capabilities saw the distant powers dominate the littoral. This involved intensive competition among the European powers for the resources and markets of the region leading to eventual colonization of the territories of the Bay of Bengal and beyond.

The rivalries among the European great powers ended after the Napoleonic wars in the early 19th century with the triumph of Great Britain. Its Dutch and French rivals accepted British primacy and the geopolitical accommodations among them endured until the middle of the 20th century. The rise of Japan in the early 20th century as a great power and the growth of Asian nationalism helped unravel the European imperial project in Asia. The 19th century, however, saw the political and administrative integration of the subcontinent into a coherent territorial entity under the British Raj. This in turn allowed the more purposeful political and strategic direction of the subcontinent’s massive material and manpower resources.

While the dominance of the British during the colonial era remains controversial to the day, it is easy to forget that the success of the Raj could not have been possible without significant cooperation from many of the subcontinent’s elites. The 19th century also saw the globalization of the subcontinent. Capital and labour from the subcontinent moved across the world and its armies became the principal instrument for the promotion of political stability from the east coast of Africa and the Middle East to the South China Sea. The legal and administrative ideas developed in the subcontinent became valuable in governing many spaces beyond South Asia that came under British colonial control. The Raj, headquartered in Calcutta through the 19th century, was not a mere post office for Whitehall in London. It had an agency of its own in shaping the political and strategic realities of the Indian Ocean littoral and the adjacent territories. The extraordinary power of the Raj meant the Bay of Bengal was a tranquil zone that had flourishing commerce and connectivity under the supervision of Calcutta.

The primacy of the Raj in the littoral was briefly threatened in the First World War when the German cruiser Emden spread mayhem in the waters of Bay of Bengal. That brief interlude, however, presaged the kind of challenges that would eventually undo the Raj. That threat became quite material in the Second World War, as a rising Japan ousted Britain from Malaya and Burma and knocked at the eastern land gates of the Raj, occupied the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and set up a provisional government of India in Port Blair. It needed all the resources of the subcontinent and assistance from afar to reverse the Japanese occupation of South East Asia and its ingress towards India. If the Indian Army swelled to more than two million soldiers in the Second World War, nearly 800,000 troops had to be deployed to the so called Burma-China-India theatre.

The subcontinent, which seemed an invulnerable fortress in the 19th century now turned into a frontline against Japan. The South East Asia Command of the Allied Forces was headquartered in Kandy and led by Lord Louis Mountbatten. The northern littoral of the Bay of Bengal too played a decisive role in ousting the Japanese aggression. With China’s eastern seaboard occupied by Japan, the eastern subcontinent provided the base from which the Chinese nationalist government in Chongqing could be supported. That an American General, Joseph Stilwell, worked with Britain and the Raj to support China against Japan should remind us not to take for granted the prevailing great power relations of the day.

The Allied triumph in the Bay of Bengal at great cost and the enormous sacrifices of the people of the subcontinent would however fade from the memory soon enough amidst the shifting great power alignment, the wave of decolonization and major internal changes in key nations of the littoral. The massive battles in the BCI theatre are now called the ‘forgotten war’. The Bay of Bengal would not return to being a British lake. It would simply disappear from the geopolitical and geoeconomic view in the second half of the 20th century. It was only at the turn of the 21st century that the bay would return to become a critical theatre. The next section looks at the factors that resulted in the marginalization of the bay and its return to the centre stage.

The decline of the Raj and the decolonization of the subcontinent did not have to inevitably reduce the salience of the Bay of Bengal. Central to that evolution were three factors that were rooted in the politics of the littoral itself. One was the partition of the subcontinent that resulted in the fragmentation of the region’s energies. Undivided India that played a large role in shaping the politics of the Indian Ocean and the Pacific in the 19th century was now focused on coping with the conflicts within. If the military energies of the Raj were focused outward, the exertions of its successor states were unfortunately directed at each other. This tragic turn was further complicated by the impact of the Cold War power politics among the United States, Soviet Russia and China. 

The second development of consequence was India’s refusal to partner Great Britain and the West in shaping the post-War regional order. India’s determination to pursue a nonaligned foreign policy meant that Delhi would have nothing to do with the new security arrangements such as the Cold War alliances like the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO) and South East Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO). Pakistan did join these alliances, but these institutions could not survive the vicissitudes of post-Cold War regional politics in the Indian Ocean and beyond. With the ‘India Centre’ that provided the basis for regional security until the middle of the 20th century broken up, there was no easy way of supplanting it without the effective participation of independent India. In any event the focus of geopolitical contestation during the Cold War was focused on Central Europe and North East Asia and the waters of the Indian Ocean became less critical for the great powers.

A third factor completed the marginalization of the subcontinent. It was the choice that most countries in the littoral made on economic orientation. As the ideas of economic autarky gained ground in South and South East Asia after the Second World War, the commercial significance of the Bay of Bengal began to diminish. As Partition erected new borders within the subcontinent, the emphasis on economic self-reliance set up high commercial fences along these borders. The fascination with ‘socialism in one country’ within the subcontinent resulted in the disruption of multiple trade and financial links that were forged during the globalization of the region under the Raj. The South East Asian nations, however, changed course in the 1970s by abandoning state socialism and reconnected with the global markets. But with the subcontinent persisting in its isolationist ways meant the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) had no reason to look west to the Bay of Bengal.

The situation began to change only at the turn to the 21st century. India’s economic reforms launched at the turn of the 1990s began to produce substantive growth by the turn of the new millennium. India, however, was not unique. Barring Pakistan and Afghanistan, which were mired in a terrible conflict, other countries in the region, especially Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, have embarked on a growth trajectory making South Asia the fastest growing region in the 21st century. The opening up of Burma across the littoral and its integration into South East Asian structures has provided the basis for overland and maritime links in the Bay of Bengal.

Meanwhile the interests of major powers too begin to grow in the Bay of Bengal littoral. China, for example, has long sought ocean access for its south western provinces like Tibet and Yunnan. The Bay of Bengal remains the closest sea to these two provinces. As part of its West Region development strategy announced in 2000, Beijing has promoted connectivity within and across China for these provinces. These projects included building new road and rail corridors and trans-border energy pipelines. China has also developed new institutional mechanisms like the Kunming Initiative to promote regional cooperation in the Bay of Bengal littoral. Complementing the search for overland connectivity has been the growing significance of the southern waters of the Bay of Bengal that host the growing maritime traffic from China to the Indian Ocean through the Malacca Strait. Fears of vulnerability of its sea lines of communication has seen Beijing put greater stress on naval presence in the Indian Ocean.

And China is not the only one dependent on the Malacca Strait for energy and commerce. The other leading economies in the East, Korea and Japan too are deeply dependent on the few channels connecting the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Japan, which had historic links to Burma and has over the decades invested in the modernization of South East Asian infrastructure, is now keen to promote sub-regional cooperation in the Bay of Bengal. Meanwhile, India’s growing commercial engagement with East Asian countries has raised Delhi’s stakes in the partnership with the region. The oil producing countries of the Gulf and the mineral rich African states, which had traditionally looked to the western world, were looking east to India and China. 

This general integration has helped break the traditional tendency to view the Indian and Pacific Oceans as different worlds. The United States that had long dominated both the oceans had surprisingly seen these spaces as unconnected in the past. Today, amidst the growing strategic integration of the two regions, Washington has begun to toy with new terminology such as the Indo-Pacific or the Indo-Asia Pacific. Like China, Japan and India, it is also putting some emphasis on the idea of connectivity and corridors across the Indo-Pacific. If China has talked about the Belt and Road Initiative, Japan has promoted the idea of a ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ and offered its own ‘Partnership for Quality Infrastructure’. The United States has talked about an Indo-Pacific Corridor stretching from the east coast of Africa to the western Pacific. All three major powers have also emphasized the importance of multilateral cooperation in the promotion of these corridors.

As the new spatial concept of the Indo-Pacific gains traction, it is not difficult to see the emerging geographic centrality of the Bay of Bengal. Coupled with the new outward orientation of the littoral and its rapid economic growth, the Bay of Bengal is overcoming its fragmentation in the second half of the 20th century and finding ways to reconnect. The historic possibilities to link the disconnected spaces of western China, eastern India, northern Burma and the archipelagic territories in the Bay of Bengal and adjacent waters are matched by the potential for growing political mistrust and strategic tensions in the region. The unprecedented opportunity for economic transformation of the littoral and the new dangers of geopolitical rivalry make it imperative that the littoral states work together to create regional maritime institutions for limiting conflict, promoting political stability and facilitating regional integration and economic prosperity.

The initiative and leadership for regional cooperation in the Bay of Bengal must necessarily come from the littoral itself. This is not a tall order. After all Sri Lanka and Bangladesh have a record of leadership in promoting regional initiatives. The former was at the forefront of articulating Indian Ocean regionalism decades ago and the latter was the one that pursued the idea of South Asian regionalism through what is now known as SAARC. After many decades of suspicion, India too is more enthusiastic about developing regional institutions in the subcontinent and across it. The real challenge, however, is not about developing new institutions, but of making the best use of existing ones.

The SAARC has rightly been criticized for failing to meet the aspirations for South Asian regionalism. But it is a fact that not all provisions of the SAARC charter, for example the one allowing sub-regional cooperation, have been tapped into the past. That might now be changing. With the SAARC locked in a stasis, some of the South Asian states are already moving in the direction, for example through the BBIN mechanism involving four nations of the eastern subcontinent (Bhutan, Bangladesh, India and Nepal). Some South Asian countries are also involved in developing transregional mechanisms like the BIMSTEC (the Bay of Bengal Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) that was established two decades ago. The members of the BIMSTEC are Bangladesh, Bhutan, Burma, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand. India had also initiated the idea of a Ganga-Mekong initiative cutting across the Bay of Bengal and bringing together India and five South East Asian countries – Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. Delhi is not the only one thinking of transregional initiatives. Bangkok had occasionally talked about reviving the idea of Suvarnabhumi that restores connectivity between Thailand, Burma and the eastern subcontinent. Indonesia has recently talked about the notion of a ‘maritime nexus’ at the heart of the Indo-Pacific. In multiple ways, the idea of regionalism surrounding the Bay of Bengal is already with us.

In the subcontinent and beyond there has long been a strong temptation to focus on the political and strategic rather than the economic. This has been at the root of the failure of regionalism in South Asia. In other regions, such as neighbouring South East Asia, the emphasis has been on keeping political differences aside while concentrating on pragmatic cooperation agreements that benefit all members of the regional forum. As political disputes raise their ugly head again in South East Asia, the gains made in the last half century in the region are now threatened. Limiting political disputes must be an important guiding principle for those of us looking at developing a community of cooperative states in the Bay of Bengal.

Fortunately, the littoral has not had the kind of intense territorial disputes that have roiled the waters in the adjacent South China Sea. Thanks to Dhaka’s initiative, the maritime territorial disputes between India, Bangladesh and Burma have now been addressed through international arbitration. This has created a positive environment for building a regional community in the Bay of Bengal. Given the widespread interest among major powers to promote regional integration and the availability of multiple sources of funding, the littoral has a rare opportunity to come up with practical ideas for advancing the agenda on connectivity, commerce and sustainable development of the littoral.

This article was originally published in the Seminar.