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The Geopolitics of the Bay of Bengal

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The Bay of Bengal is located in the North-East region of the Indian Ocean, and is bounded by Bangladesh to the North, Myanmar and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands of India to the East, India and Sri Lanka to the West. Some of the major sea ports in the Bay of Bengal include Chennai, Kolkata and Visakhapatnam in India and the port of Chittagong in Bangladesh making the region (of the Bay) a crucial economic hub. With an area of 2,173,000 square kilometres, the Bay of Bengal is the largest Bay in the world which is at the forefront of Asia’s experience of climate change[1]. Over the years the significance Bay of Bengal have been on the rise largely owing to the rapid economic growth of the littoral nations and the major powers involved in the bay.[2]

Brief History

Throughout the medieval, early modern and modern periods of world history from the indigenous city-states as well as empires, later to the British Empire the Bay of Bengal had been a singular civilisation united by a rice culture and common coastline that kept bringing trade and migrants along its shores.[3] Historically the Bay of Bengal has played a significant role of a connector- where trade, commerce and culture were intertwined for centuries. However in the early 20th century the British Empire used the Bay of Bengal for trade and other related activities, causing a significant increase in shipping between British India and British Burma. Yangon (Burmese Capital) was fascinatingly turned into one of the busiest ports in the world for migrant arrivals alongside the likes of New York; with majority of the flow from India towards Burma (now known as Myanmar)[4]. Strong ties between Burma and India developed as a direct consequence of the migration, which followed a downward curve in the years following the partition of India in 1947 and the Burmese independence in 1948 from Japanese occupation since world war II.[5]

Economic and Security issues

Bay of Bengal is rapidly becoming an area of key economic and strategic competition in the Indo-Pacific. A crucial geopolitical development was the creation of a regional body- the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) between Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Thailand- which seeks to promote regional cooperation and engagement in the area particularly between the two major geopolitical blocs of the region- the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). However BIMSTEC’s focus is solely economic with their main objective being supporting free trade hence it does little to provide any support in terms of maritime security issues that have particularly grown in recent years with respect to Chinese and Indian interests.[6]

Crucial geopolitical factors concerning the Bay of Bengal

China’s economic and security interests over the past few decades have resulted in greater Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean. China has been successful in developing strong economic relations with major Bay of Bengal countries such as Bangladesh and Myanmar primarily through infrastructure development projects that include pipelines, roads and railway, port-development and power-plant construction.[7] Key strategists from India expressed concerns over the rising Chinese influence in the outposts of the Indian Ocean which they fear could enable China to turn them into military bases encircling India.[8] Although it is argued that China’s interests are more economic in terms of ease of connecting to the other parts of the world on their West, it has not stopped India from taking precautionary steps by making rapid developments in modernising their naval capabilities as well as developing multilateral and bilateral naval ties with key players of the Bay of Bengal.

China-India relations in the Bay of Bengal

China and India are playing a strategic and economic tug-of-war in Myanmar among other littoral nations along the Bay of Bengal. China has recently assisted in building key ports in Gwadar in Pakistan and Hambantota in Sri Lanka and according to recent reports it is funding the development of the Chittagong port of Bangladesh, while having reached an multi-billion dollar agreement to build a major deep sea port in Kyaukpyu, Myanmar on the coast of the Bay of Bengal.[9] China already have a significant presence in Myanmar with the gas pipeline connecting China’s Yunnan Province with Myanmar’s major Rakhine state already in operation and a parallel oil pipeline that is supposed to soon begin operations.[10] Since the launch of India’s Look East Policy in the 1990s it has strengthened its political, economic and strategic ties with South East Asian countries and beyond [11], with more actions being considered in order to have leverage over China. It is safe to say that while India had other priorities such as the inward economic orientation and preoccupation with troubled land borders mainly in the North and the North West, it was the growing influence of China’s maritime influence that prompted India’s strategic interests in the Bay of Bengal through its Look East Policy.[12] India and China are locked into this strategic competition for naval dominance as well as influence in the Indian Ocean’s littoral states and it can be argued that China might just have the edge due to its closer connections to some of the major littorals- i.e. Bangladesh and Myanmar.

The island nation of Sri Lanka also has strong economic ties with both India and China, with a growing regional and security cooperation with the former. However the recent takeover of Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port by China has had significant impacts- one of which is lessening the country’s debts to China, who has made a lot of investments in Sri Lanka over the years.[13]

Maritime disputes


Bangladesh, India and Myanmar have had their fair share of disputes regarding maritime territories. One of the most recent disputes was between Bangladesh and Myanmar as tensions were building when South Korea’s Daewoo began natural gas exploration for Myanmar in what Bangladesh claimed was their waters, prompting Bangladesh to submit a continental shelf claim to the United Nations’ Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. Largely owing to Myanmar’s conflicting claims, the events led up to the mobilisation of naval forces along the disputed area although eventually a conflict was avoided.[14] The disputes were largely settled by the International Tribunal for the Land of the Seas (ITLOS) in 2012 and 2014 respectively.[15]

Myanmar relations with the littoral nations

Myanmar is regarded as a key player in the strategic equation along the Northern region of the Bay of Bengal that is fiercely contested by China and India. Myanmar have seen growing economic ties with India since the World War II while China have also been developing ties through various means primarily comprising infrastructure support.  Myanmar signed its first bilateral trade deal with India in 1970 and has been gradually increasing in volume since. According to some of the latest figures available, Indian exports to Myanmar totalled US$1.1 billion (1111.19 million) in the FY 2016-17 while imports were worth US$ 1 billion (1067.25 million), making it the fifth largest trade partner with Myanmar, despite trade said to remain below potential.[16] On the other hand Bangladesh and Myanmar established diplomatic ties in 1972 which resulted in progressing bilateral relations in the subsequent years. However in the mid-seventies as President Thein Sein’s government transformed Myanmar’s military government into a quasi-civilian government the bilateral relations never realised their full potential.[17] The end of their military rule in 2011 brought about a new glimmer of hope, however the recent Rohingya crisis has hindered any progress as Bangladesh are hosting a million refugees and have constantly failed in their repatriation due to the Bangladeshi government failing to have reached an agreement with the Myanmar government led by Aung (San) Suu Kyi.

Security/strategic issues

China are the largest trade partners to both Bangladesh and Myanmar and is also the biggest supplier of conventional arms to both the countries. Bangladesh had recently purchased two submarines from China to bolster its naval forces causing tensions in India, with Indian analysts claiming it “greatly enhances the mistrust between Delhi and Dhaka”.[18]

While most of the issues were regarding the littoral nations and China, major actors such as Japan, alongside China have significant interest in the Bay of Bengal, as they access it through the Malacca Strait for the purpose of trade in goods and energy.[19] One of the most significant reasons for China’s growing presence is to find reliable oil supplies and secure unencumbered SLOCs.

India on the other hand had been working towards a “Bay of Bengal community” envisaging greater security cooperation with the littoral nations.[20] It is obvious that other actors play a significant role however the Bay of Bengal does have significance for India’s own best interests as well as data from 2013 reveals that 95 percent of India’s foreign trade by volume and 75 percent by value were conducted by sea.[21] The economic growth also led to India’s expansion of its Navy as it claims is for the safety of the Ocean’s SLOCs regarding it a critical move to support and protect for themselves and for the global community.[22]

Other challenges to stability

There is little doubt about the significance of the Bay of Bengal to the Asia’s rising powers however there are some challenges especially for its low-lying littorals. Currently, the Bay is being reshaped by population growth, climate change, overexploitation of fisheries, degradation of critical habitats, pollution, and deteriorating water quality and it is getting increasingly clear that multilateral cooperation is vital for the littorals, especially important is that they keep aside their political differences to work together while maintaining a healthy competition. Currently there is already an initiative known as the Bay of Bengal Large Marine Ecosystem (BOBLME) Project designed to improve the lives of the coastal populations through improved regional management of the Bay of Bengal environment and its fisheries, and countries that are involved are as follows- Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Maldives, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand.[23]

What’s Next

The geopolitics surrounding the Bay of Bengal is probably one of the most complex issues in the continent if not the world, with the region comprising a diverse range of social, economic and political factors. However there is little doubt that the key actors involved with the Bay of Bengal all have a crucial role to play in the progress of the region and for themselves in relation to prospects of regional strategic security and economic cooperation and transformation of the (developing) nations.

 

[1] http://blogs.bbk.ac.uk/research/2014/01/27/the-bay-of-bengal-in-global-history/

[2] https://hrcak.srce.hr/135023

[3] https://worldview.stratfor.com/article/critical-bay-bengal

[4] King’s College Discussion. “The Bay of Bengal: Rise and Decline of a South Asian Region”. YouTube.

[5] https://www.mea.gov.in/images/pdf/Indian-Migrants-Myanmar.pdf ; https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-33973982

[6] https://southasianvoices.org/bay-of-bengal-indias-centerpiece-springboard/

[7] https://www.cna.org/CNA_files/PDF/IRP-2012-U-002319-Final.pdf

[8] https://www.cna.org/CNA_files/PDF/IRP-2012-U-002319-Final.pdf

[9] https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/china-myanmar-ink-deal-for-port-on-bay-of-bengal-third-in-india-s-vicinity/story-Lbm4IwOMuqrNvXGv4ewuYJ.html ; https://www.ndtv.com/world-news/china-to-build-port-in-myanmar-third-in-indias-neighbourhood-1944916

[10]

[11] http://library.fes.de/pdf-files/bueros/indien/11043.pdf

[12] https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/chinese-takeaway-bengals-bay/

[13] https://www.defensenews.com/digital-show-dailies/navy-league/2018/04/09/sri-lanka-cedes-major-port-to-china-fueling-tensions/

[14] https://amti.csis.org/the-bangladeshmyanmar-maritime-dispute-lessons-for-peaceful-resolution/

[15] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RskGT2pUiIY

[16] https://www.mea.gov.in/Portal/ForeignRelation/MYANMAR_August_2017_new.pdf

[17] https://www.myanmarisis.org/publication_pdf/final-version-myanmar-bangladesh-relations-mmedits-ah2-1wpFhW.pdf

[18] https://thediplomat.com/2017/01/why-chinas-submarine-deal-with-bangladesh-matters/

[19] https://hrcak.srce.hr/135023

[20] https://www.deccanherald.com/national/india-wants-bay-bengal-be-688774.html

[21] Hughes, L., 2014. Examining the Sino-Indian Maritime Competition: Part 4 – India’s Maritime Strategy. Future Directions International. [online] January 30 2014. Available at: http://www.futuredirections.org. au/publications/indian-ocean/1516-examining-the-sino-indian- maritime-competition-part-4-india-s-maritime-strategy.html

[22] https://hrcak.srce.hr/135023

[23] https://hrcak.srce.hr/135023

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