Bay of Bengal: Center of the Indo-Pacific?

Udayan Das
March 16, 2019

 

The Bay of Bengal is increasingly becoming a strategic hotbed from a dormant sea. While the sea was a highway for migration in the colonial times, as pointed out by Sunil Amrith in his book, “Crossing the Bay of Bengal”, it gradually lost its importance with the demarcation of mental maps between South and South East Asia. The line of this demarcation went from the middle of the Bay, cutting across the age-old links and drying out the strategic salience of the space. However, the space is gradually becoming important because of the strategic initiatives of the major powers and its crucial geo-political centrality. These two factors have the potential to centre the Bay of Bengal at the fulcrum of the Indo-Pacific.

The geographical importance of the region has been one of the key factors for the rise of the Bay of Bengal. First, the Bay connects the South and the South East Asian states forming a bridge between the two sub-regions. Not only these shelter a massive proportion of the population but these states are also relatively faster growing economies of the world. Second, the Bay of Bengal overlooks the network of important trading routes in the region. Its proximity to the Straits of Malacca makes it even more crucial to the network of sea lanes of communication in this part of the world. Third, the Bay of Bengal is a region which is rich in resources but at the same time it has an environmental threat looming large on it. The nature of any such environmental threat would have a trans-boundary effect on the bordering states of the Bay. This in turn requires a security arrangement of an inclusive kind in the region, further adding to its significance and importance.

While one set of reasons are concerned and dependent on geography, the other set of reasons are strictly political in nature that have supplemented the importance of the Bay. First, India has been looking to take over the role of a net-security provider in the region. Shedding off its dormant and inward-looking tag in the 1990s, the watershed moment in India’s foreign policy for this region came with the Look East Policy. Look East Policy’s present upgradation into Act East has furthered the importance of the Bay of Bengal not only as a centrepiece for the region but also as a springboard to venture further east. India has furthered its interactions in the Bay with the formation of the BIMSTEC, a multilateral organisation solely organised on the sea which further looks to capitalise on the deadlocks of SAARC. Even though the organisation has little concrete achievements on paper, renewed emphasis on it has underscored its value as a model of sub-regionalism in the region. Alongside, India has also been upgrading its military capabilities in the Bay of Bengal. Its only tri-services command is housed at the crucial chain of Andaman and Nicobar Islands which also hosts the biennial MILAN exercise. While India views the Bay of Bengal as a defensive theatre to tackle conventional and non-conventional threats of the region, it has also time and again emphasised on power projection and the responsibility to become a net-security provider. New Delhi’s investments in the region, the likes of which consists of the Tri-lateral highway and the Kaladan Multi-Modal Project, are symbolic of the importance of that the region has in the decision making circles.

Another factor emerging in the Bay of Bengal is the rise of China in the region. China is building greater maritime links with the Bay of Bengal states through its Belt and Road Initiative. It has cemented ties with Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sri Lanka with its investments in infrastructure and defence of these states which in turn have made this states dependent on Beijing. While BRI is binding the states of the region and at the same time establishing a strong Chinese foothold in the region, Beijing’s geographic rationale in its investments in the Bay of Bengal is to protect its trading routes and to evade the Malaccan Dilemma. The bulk of Chinese trade passes through the crucial choke points of the Straits of Malacca. The Chinese project, part of its Bridgehead Strategy, of building a deep sea port in Kyaukpyu plans to evade this dependency and connect mainland China with the Indian Ocean through Myanmar. This close proximity of China within the immediate neighbourhood of India has fears of Sino-Indian competition and rivalry extending to the Indian Ocean, creating a potential flashpoint.

As there is an increasing tendency to see the convergence of the Indian and the Pacific Ocean, the Bay of Bengal with its geo-political importance and the strategies of the major states can be at the fulcrum of the Indo-Pacific. There has been a two-fold approach in studying the region. While there has been an approach to study the region exclusively owing to its security dynamics, Bay of Bengal has also been seen as an adjoining part of the Indian Ocean as well. The later perception has been gradually cemented by the increasing investments of extra-regional actors. Japan has shown interest in the region in order to connect with the western shores of the Africa, owing to the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor and the initiative of the Big-B (Bay of Bengal Industrial Growth Belt). The United States has also been promoting the Quad and the idea of Indo-Pacific concept. There has also been attempts at viewing the Bay of Bengal as a strategic twin of the South China Sea, lying on the other side of the Straits of Malacca.

With the gradual fluidity of the oceanic space, the geographic centrality of the Bay of Bengal would gain ascendancy, furthered by the strategic jostling of the regional and extra-regional actors.

*** The author is a Doctoral Candidate at the Department of International Relations, Jadavpur University. He is a Visiting Faculty at Amity University, Kolkata and a Guest Lecturer at Scottish Church College, Kolkata ***