AFTER decades of neglect, the Bay of Bengal is today reassuming strategic and economic salience. Nearly 1.4 billion people live along its coastline and almost a fourth of the world’s total population calls this region home. The seven countries situated immediately on and around the bay (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand) have a combined GDP of approximately US$ 2.7 trillion and an impressive average rate of economic growth of around 5.5%.
One fourth of the world’s traded goods cross the Bay of Bengal every year. As the world’s largest bay, it is also rich in untapped natural resources, with some of the world’s largest fishing stocks, reserves of gas and other sea bed minerals. A strategic funnel to the Strait of Malacca linking the Indian and Pacific oceans, the region is of pivotal importance for China, Japan and most East and Southeast Asian states seeking to secure their access routes to crucial energy resources in the Gulf and Africa.
The Bay of Bengal hosts a variety of transnational threats that can disrupt regional stability. The 2004 Asian tsunami devastated the bay’s coastline and the region is regularly affected by tropical cyclones. Political conflict has resulted in some of the world’s largest refugee flows, including recently almost one million people from Myanmar into Bangladesh. Whether it is to traffic narcotics, weapons and people, to illegally exploit natural resources or to spread extremism and terror, the Bay of Bengal also hosts some of the most challenging non-traditional security threats.
Beyond its economic potential and strategic significance, however, the Bay of Bengal distinguishes itself globally by abysmal levels of integration, reflecting a deep divide between South and Southeast Asia. Intra-regional trade among its littoral states is today less than 5%, compared to 29% among ASEAN countries. Paradoxically, trade volumes or air, sea and road transportation infrastructure were often more developed in the 1950s than today. For example, today the 1,600 km long India-Myanmar border is one of Asia’s least open, with current land based trade (USD 71 million or 3.5% of bilateral trade) being less than India’s total trade with distant Nicaragua.
These abysmal levels of connectivity are the result of decades of economic, political and geostrategic divergence as the colonial era came to an end and new states formed in and around the Bay of Bengal. Starting with the inauguration of New Delhi as the British Raj’s capital in 1931 (replacing Calcutta), and the administrative separation of Burma in 1937, the Bay of Bengal entered a long period of fragmentation and stagnation.
With the establishment of new political borders, beginning with India’s independence in 1947 and culminating in the creation of Bangladesh in 1971, the region’s economic openness receded dramatically. Except for Thailand, all countries adopted various models of state-driven development, protectionism, autarky and isolation. Free trade and market economy were discarded and borders turned into bulwarks against the mobility of people, capital, goods and ideas. The region turned inwards, prioritizing political consolidation at home over economic openness and interdependence. Security was to be achieved through isolation, not integration.
By the 1970s, the idea of an ‘Asia-Pacific’ region was, therefore, generally understood to stretch from the Korean peninsula to Indochina, including Southeast Asia but excluding the Indian subcontinent. The subsequent creation of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) in the mid-1980s, formalized the regional divide between ‘South’ and ‘Southeast’ Asia.
So while the Bay of Bengal’s long history reflects intense flows of people, goods and ideas at the crossroads of the Indian subcontinent and Indochina, and also between the Himalayas and the Indian Ocean, by the 1980s few people thought of it as a distinct region, economic community or geostrategic space.
With the economic reforms of the 1990s in India and across South Asia, however, the Bay of Bengal’s geo-economic centrality and legacy of integration was slowly reactivated. Driven by the new logic of interdependence and comparative advantage, states in the region began seeing borders as connectors and invest in the infrastructure of connectivity to permit greater flows of goods, services, capital and ideas. No longer a gulf of disintegration, the Bay of Bengal slowly began assuming the role of a hub to leverage synergies between South and Southeast Asia.
As pointed out by historian Sunil Amrith, therefore, the ‘hope for a new regionalism lies in recognizing that the bay’s history, as much as its ecology, transcends national frontiers.’1 Similarly, Prime Minister Narendra Modi underlined that ‘with shared values, histories, ways of life, and destinies that are interlinked, [the Bay of Bengal] represents a common space for peace and development.’2
This new narrative about the Bay of Bengal is driven by a variety of actors and interests. For India, which has almost one quarter of its population living in states bordering the bay, growth and development are increasingly seen to hinge on the degree of connectivity with the Southeast Asian markets, as reflected in its ‘Act East’ policy. As the Belt and Road Initiative increases China’s North-South access routes to the Indian Ocean, especially via Myanmar, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, New Delhi is accelerating alternative East-West connectivity plans across the Bay of Bengal.
For Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, the rising centrality of the Bay of Bengal helps to realize their economic interests in the emerging markets of South Asia and to reduce their dependence on India. For Nepal and Bhutan, both landlocked between India and China, growth prospects will increase dramatically by giving their Himalayan hinterland economies a stronger maritime link. Finally, the ‘Look West’ policies of Myanmar and Thailand will only succeed if the Bay of Bengal is transformed into a hub of connectivity with adequate infrastructure investments.
Beyond country specific drivers, the new interest in the Bay of Bengal is also reflected at the multilateral level, whether through the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), ASEAN’s western outreach to South Asian countries, or the Asian Development Bank’s massive commitments to develop transportation infrastructure in and around the Bay of Bengal. Finally, situated at the heart of the Indo-Pacific region, the Bay of Bengal has also attracted an increasing interest from extra-regional powers, including the United States, Japan, Australia and Singapore.
Through a variety of perspectives from within and beyond the region, this issue of Seminar contributes to a better understanding of what factors drive this new narrative on the Bay of Bengal, as well as the opportunities and challenges it will face to emerge as a distinct region, economic community and strategic space.
1. Sunil S. Amrith, ‘The Bay of Bengal in Peril from Climate Change’, The New York Times, 13 October 2013, http://www. nytimes.com/2013/10/14/opinion/the-bay-of-bengal-in-peril-from-climate-change.html
2. Indian Ministry of External Affairs, ‘Prime Minister’s Message on 20th Anniversary of Establishment of BIMSTEC’, 6 June 2017, http://www.mea.gov.in/Speeches-Statements.htm?dtl/28514/Prime_Ministers_message_on_20th_anniversary_of_ establishment_of_BIMSTEC