THE Asian maritime landscape is undergoing significant changes marked by great power rivalry, geopolitical competition, and increased hostilities. In this changing Asian security dynamic, the Bay of Bengal is emerging as a critical theatre for economic and strategic competition in the region. A historical bridge between South and East Asia, the bay today appears to be the fulcrum of a wider Indo-Pacific strategy. A quest for new connectivity corridors across the bay has renewed its geoeconomic significance while highlighting its strategic undertones.

Darshana M. Baruah
Darshana M. Baruah is an associate director and senior research analyst with Carnegie India. Her primary research focuses on maritime security in Asia with a focus on the Indian Navy and its role in a new security architecture.
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There appears to be a need for greater cooperation in the maritime domain given the increasing rivalries in the region. The littorals of the bay as well as the wider Indian Ocean are looking to resident powers, such as India, to lead collaborations at a regional level. There is also a greater interest among the Bay of Bengal littorals to take collaborative initiatives as great powers continue to compete in the region. India’s renewed maritime outlook and its  greater emphasis on international engagements has opened up new avenues to explore collaborations, economically and strategically, between like-minded countries. Given the strategic importance of the Bay of Bengal to India’s security concerns, New Delhi is particularly keen on increasing collaborations with Colombo and Dhaka, and with Southeast Asian nations. Such engagements facilitate a better understanding of each other’s concerns and challenges, thereby forming the foundation of a stable Bay of Bengal.

A key factor in the evolving geopolitics of the bay is the emergence of new players in the region. The rise of China and its growing naval ambitions has placed the Bay of Bengal in Beijing’s area of interest. Given the bay’s economic and geopolitical significance, Beijing has increased its presence and engagements in the region. The deepening engagements between Beijing and the littorals of the bay is extending the Sino-Indian maritime competition in the region. New Delhi for its part is increasingly concerned about Beijing’s initiatives around its neighbourhood. As China has begun developing and connecting its western and southwestern regions, the Bay of Bengal has emerged as a key economic area as well as a potential alternative to China’s Malacca dilemma.

Access to the bay has significant advantages for Beijing; as an external power in the Indian Ocean, Beijing has for centuries relied primarily on American and Indian forces to secure its energy lines running through the Indian Ocean and the Malacca Strait. With China now seeking to place itself as a great power, it must not only reduce its vulnerabilities but also emerge as a security provider for the region at large. Without bases to support its naval forces, it is difficult for China to become a security provider in the Indian Ocean let alone secure its energy lines independently. Until Beijing finds a way to sustain a credible presence in the Indian Ocean and secure its own lines of communications, it will continue to explore ways to reduce its dependence on the Malacca Strait. 

An alternative Beijing is exploring is the possibility of connecting the Indian Ocean through Myanmar and the Bay of Bengal. Consequently the competition is not primarily regarding defence and security cooperation, but also economic projects. Infrastructure development and connectivity initiatives are rapidly becoming new areas for cooperation and competition in Asia. Some of Beijing’s initiatives in Myanmar (a key player in its Bay of Bengal outreach) include gas and pipelines connecting Myanmar’s western coast and Maday island to China’s Yunnan province. These pipelines aim to reduce Beijing’s dependence on the Malacca Strait by cutting its travel time from Africa and Middle East to China by 700 miles or by 30%.1 Beijing is also building Special Economic Zones (SEZ) which includes ports and industrial zones.2

Additionally, Beijing is also championing the Bangladesh-China-India- Myanmar (BCIM) Corridor which has been under discussion since the 1990s. Beijing is also investing in commercial projects in other littorals (Bangladesh and Sri Lanka) through road, highway and port construction projects. If previously countries like Japan played a leading role in development aid and India was the primary strategic partner to the littorals, China has been able to combine both, creating a new sense of competition amongst the big powers in the region. Delhi’s inability to provide economic support in development projects to these countries has left a wide berth for China to emerge as a favourable alternative.

There is also increased competition between Beijing and Tokyo on leading development projects in the region. Traditionally, Japan has remained the major economic development partner for most South Asian nations. However, Tokyo is increasingly concerned about the expanding Chinese influence beyond the South China Sea and across the Indian Ocean region. On its part Tokyo launched the BIG-B (The Bay of Bengal Industrial Growth Belt) Initiative aimed at leveraging Bangladesh’s position as the land and sea bridge connecting South and Southeast Asia. The initiative is focused on three sectors: energy and power, transport (fostering connectivity as a regional node and hub) and climate change.3 Apart from bilateral collaborations, the Bay of Bengal is also a part of Beijing’s Maritime Silk Road, a component of the Belt and Road Initiative. Parallel and competing corridors and infrastructure projects in the region have led to a new sense of great power dynamic in the bay. There is also apprehension that such competition in the military domain could spark off a naval arms race with both India and China offering weapons and assets to the smaller littorals.

The strategic competition in the bay is becoming noticeable and challenging the existing security architecture in the region. As the geopolitical environment continues to shift, there is also a new opportunity to strengthen existing platforms and mechanisms as well as explore new cooperation amongst the littorals. India is taking the lead in creating a Bay of Bengal community that can address the concerns and challenges of the littorals. In helping build such an environment, India’s approach has largely been in deepening its existing ties with the littorals, reviving regional institutions, and exploring new areas of cooperation of mutual interest such as domain awareness.

New Delhi aims to play a constructive role by instilling a greater sense of community among the littorals of the region. India is the lead security provider in the Bay of Bengal and regularly patrols and monitors the Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC) in the bay. India’s Eastern Naval Command is located in the Bay of Bengal, thereby increasing the regions security importance in New Delhi’s maritime strategy. As such, Delhi is injecting a new sense of enthusiasm through platforms such as the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) and Exercise MILAN which carries significant participation from the Bay of Bengal littorals.

IONS is an initiative led by the Indian Navy that provides a platform for military leaders of the region to discuss the regional challenges. India hosts exercise MILAN, a biennial naval exercise among the littoral navies of the Bay of Bengal, Southeast Asia, and the larger Indian Ocean community to enhance better understanding among the navies of the region. On the maritime front, India regularly conducts coordinated patrols with Myanmar, Thailand, and Indonesia, thus, covering the immediate and extended waters of the Bay of Bengal.

An emerging area of importance for the navies of the region is collaboration on Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA). MDA is aimed at increasing ‘situational awareness’ at sea in order to better respond to any kind of scenario in the maritime domain.4 The littorals of the bay have significant Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) and limited surveillance capacity to monitor such large areas. A better MDA would allow for continuous surveillance and identification of hostile threats approaching coastal waters. MDA also contributes to curbing transnational crimes such as drug and human trafficking. India in its revised maritime strategy of 2015, has placed MDA as a priority in its overall maritime security strategy. As the leading maritime power in the region, Delhi is assisting the littoral states in boosting their own capabilities as well as extending its own resources to provide surveillance.

Within MDA, White Shipping (an agreement that allows for exchange of information on commercial shipping to create a better awareness picture) has emerged as a key tool. India currently has White Shipping agreements with Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka and has ongoing conversations to sign the agreement with Thailand and Indonesia. India is also assisting nations like Thailand in setting up advanced navigation systems and Myanmar with radar and sonar equipment for better surveillance capabilities.5

Maritime Domain Awareness today is a critical point of discussion in Delhi’s maritime conversations with its friends and partners. Apart from sharing information to present and map the activities in the region, India is also willing to provide resources to strengthen its regional MDA capabilities. India at the 2017 Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) Summit announced its initiative to host an Information Fusion Centre (IFC).6 While details on the fusion centre remain unclear, it will perhaps be modelled on the fusion centre hosted by Singapore. The centre facilitates information and collaboration among 23 countries. The IFC in Singapore ‘fuses and disseminates accurate and timely maritime security information.’7

If to the East we have a fusion centre in Singapore, we also have a fusion centre in Madagascar in the West. The IFC in Madagascar covers the maritime domain in eastern and southern Africa, including the Indian Ocean region. With a new fusion centre in India, there will now be better coverage of the Indian Ocean from North to South and East to West. The IFC along with White Shipping and coordinated patrols will help boost India’s MDA abilities.

There is now a need for India to take the lead in the Bay of Bengal as it regains its place as a key geostrategic theatre. The Bay of Bengal littorals are currently covered under the initiatives in the eastern Indian Ocean. India carries out coordinated patrols with Indonesia and Myanmar. As the conversation on regional MDA continues to grow the strategic importance of islands in the Bay of Bengal will increase tremendously. Developing MDA assets on islands will boost regional surveillance capabilities. The development of Indian MDA assets and resources in the Andaman islands will also enhance the MDA capabilities in the region.

New Delhi has unfortunately failed to tap into the strategic potential of its own islands, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands (ANI). However, the current government has given greater importance to the islands and is looking to develop them into a maritime hub. There is a political will to transform the islands, marking a shift from India’s earlier approach of neglect. Although there is a political will to realize the full strategic potential of the islands, much work remains to be done.

The ANI ensure an unmatched advantage to the Indian Navy, given its proximity to the Malacca Strait, a key Sea Lane of Communication (SLOC) connecting the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. The India Navy has inducted eight U.S. manufactured P-8I’s (maritime surveillance aircraft) intended for long-range anti-submarine warfare, anti-surface warfare, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance operations. These would give India and its partners eyes into waters of immediate interest and beyond, with flying hours of approximately 10 hours at a stretch. These advanced surveillance aircraft are also deployed to the ANI on rotation for India’s patrol and surveillance operations near and over the Malacca Strait.

There are better chances of building a Bay of Bengal community through a consultative and collaborative approach addressing regional challenges and advancing areas of mutual interest. The littorals of the bay will have to adopt new concepts such as burden sharing through pooling their respective resources in their areas of expertise in creating a stable foundation for a new architecture in the bay. As great power politics is likely to continue, theregional actors will have to take the initiative to shape the emerging security discourse.

The strategic importance of the Bay of Bengal will only grow significantly as key powers in the region seek to compete over strategic and commercial initiatives. These advantages in turn will boost the competing powers’ maritime capabilities and presence across the Indo-Pacific. Alongside a prevailing sense of competition dominating the region are also increased avenues for collaboration among friendly nations. The littorals must continue to explore new areas of cooperation and discuss fresh concepts and ideas as the maritime environment continues to shift drastically.

There is a keen interest amongst the littorals for New Delhi to strengthen its relationships across the region. India must be willing to adopt new approaches and shed inhibitions of the past when and where required. Despite being a traditional Indian Ocean power, there might be a need for New Delhi to formulate a new Indian Ocean policy and revise its current strategy and policies. It must work toward concepts such as burden sharing and take complete advantage of the friendly navies willing to help India’s role in the region.

While India continues to shape a Bay of Bengal community, it will have to manage its engagements with China. Delhi will have to adjust and accept an increased Chinese presence in its maritime neighbourhood while continuing to protect its national strategic interests as well as shaping a regional framework for the Bay of Bengal. The Sino-Indian dynamic in the maritime domain will largely shape the evolving security architecture in the region. India must continue to evaluate its terms of engagements and secure its strategic interests in the Bay of Bengal. Perhaps the only concrete way to mitigate this security dilemma with Beijing is to pursue a policy of cooperation where it can and competition where it must. Delhi must be able to tap into this opportunity in creating a regional framework for maritime security in the bay. 

India must understand that it cannot achieve its strategic goals by countering Chinese presence rather than offering and leading new areas of collaborations through its existing bilateral and regional relationships. India will have to change its approach from a reactive to a proactive policy by deepening its engagements with its maritime neighbours.

This article was originally published in the Seminar.

Footnotes: 

1. Eric Meyer, ‘With Oil and Gas Pipelines, China Takes A Shortcut Through Myanmar’, Forbes  Asia,  9 February 2015: http://www.forbes.com/sites/ericrmeyer/2015/02/ 09/oil-and-gas-china-takes-a-shortcut/ #1fe551972d40

2. Htoo Thant, ‘Govt Reserves Land for Rakhine State SEZ’, Myanmar Times, 7 Dec-ember 2015: http://www.mmtimes.com/index.php/business/17995-govt-reserves-land-for-rakhine-state-sez.html

3. ‘The Initiative of BIG-B (The Industrial Growth Belt)’, Japan International Coopera-tion Agency, 5 November 2014: https:// www.jica.go.jp/bangladesh/english/office/top-ics/141105.html

4. For a detailed understanding of India’s need for MDA please see, Indian Navy, ‘Ensuring Secure Seas: Indian Maritime Security Strategy’, 2015. Integrated Headquarters, Minis-try of Defence, Government of India, accessed 30 October 2016: https://www. indiannavy.nic.in/sites/default/files/Indian_ Maritime_Security_Strategy_Document_ 25Jan16.pdf

5. ‘India-Thailand Joint Statement During the Visit of Prime Minister of Thailand to India’, Ministry of External Affairs, 17 June 2016: http://www.meagov.in/bilateral documents.htm?dtl/26923/IndiaThailand+ Joint+Statement+during+the+visit+of+ Prime+Minister+of+Thailand+to+India

6. ‘Remarks by Vice President at the 1st IORA Leaders’ Summit in Jakarta’, Ministry of External Affairs, 7 March 2017: http:// www.mea.gov.in/Speeches-Statements. htm?dtl/28119/Remarks_by_Vice_President_ at_the_1st_IORA_Leaders_Summit_in_ Jakarta_March_07_2017

7. ‘Fact Sheet: Information Fusion Centre’, Ministry of Defence Singapore, 27 September 2016: https://www.mindef.gov.sg/imindef/press_room/official_releases/nr/2016/sep/27sep16_nr/27sep16_fs.html#.We8UVFuCzIU