The evolving geo-strategic scenario in Bay of Bengal: Strategic options for Bangladesh
Rear Admiral Kazi Sarwar Hossain
Bay of Bengal has historically been a major ‘Culmination point’ of different cultures, Civilization and Empires. The Bay of Bengal is gradually emerging as a major commercial pathway with the greater Indo-pacific region. In the British era, the Bay served as a key economic corridor between the British India and the South East Asia. In terms of security, the British Indian Navy provided much of the net security in the Bay of Bengal region. But after the end of colonial era the Bay of Bengal lost its economic significance as the centre of Indian commerce moved to Bombay in the coast of Arabian Sea. However, the Bay of Bengal is gradually becoming more significant strategically with the development of littoral economies and the rise of great power competition in the region. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is gaining traction among Bay of Bengal littorals. The Chinese Investments in Myanmar under China Myanmar economic Corridor (CMEC) is a prime example of Chinese involvement in the Bay of Bengal region. Beijing is also funding or already funded numerous ports in the Bay of Bengal littoral nations such as the Hambantota port in Sri-Lanka and Kyaukpyu in Myanmar. With the rise of Chinese involvement in Bay, India has also increased its military presence in the Andaman Islands and other critical regions of the Bay of Bengal. US has also delegated much importance to Bay of Bengal in the Indo-Pacific strategy report. Bay of Bengal is an important commercial domain which is a gateway between the Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean. Any confrontation in the bay could seriously harm the prospects of global economy. Thus the ensuring the commercial safety and freedom of navigation in Bay of Bengal is vital for the economic interests and regional peace. The Paper has analysed the evolving geo-strategic dynamics of the Bay of Bengal given the great power competition in the region and propose possible strategic options for Bangladesh.
The geo-strategic significance of Bay of Bengal: The Bay of Bengal is widely regarded as a sub-region within the Indian Ocean region. The region has been a centre of trade and cultural exchange for centuries. Strategically, the region serves as a corridor between South Asia and South-East Asia. It is also assuming a new strategic importance. It’s located close to the geographic centre of the Indo-Pacific region at the intersection of the expanding zones of strategic interest of China and India. The Bay of Bengal is also a key transit zone between the Indian and Pacific Oceans and the main route for trade in energy to East Asia. The region is seen as a connecting corridor between heavily populated South Asia and Newly industrialized South East Asia. In terms of geo-politics, the region is greatly important in terms of maritime connectivity between the two above mentioned sub-region within Asia. The regional integration of South and South East Asia depends on the cohesion and integration of the Bay of Bengal littorals. However, the Bay of Bengal has seen a limited efforts and initiatives to increase integration and maritime connectivity among the littorals. But lately the nations in the Bay of Bengal has initiated major strategic collaborations on the basis of multilateral co-operation on a plethora of issues. The ‘Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation,’ or BIMSTEC has been an important platform to unite the littorals of the Bay under a single organizational umbrella. The shifting global power dynamics is changing the status-quo in Bay of Bengal. Global and regional powers are vying for power and influence in the region. However such competition could jeopardize the economic and security architecture of the region. The region is geo-strategically significance in terms of trading routes, energy security and regional linkages. The region’s strategic centrality, just as much as its good economic prospects, drives the unprecedented competition over resources and influence by the major powers, including China, India, Japan, the United States and even Russia.
Trading routes: The proximity of Bay of Bengal to the Malacca strait has made the Bay an important trading routes in the greater indo-pacific. The strait is one of the world’s busiest waterways: Nearly 100,000 vessels pass through it each year, accounting for about one-quarter of the world’s traded goods. But geography, which makes the strait especially crucial for global commerce.
Energy security: The Bay of Bengal is also an important space for global energy security. The Bay is geographically close to the Malacca strait which is an important energy chokepoints. Nearly one-third of the 61% of total global petroleum and other liquids production that moved on maritime routes transited the Strait of Malacca. Petroleum and other liquids transiting the Strait of Malacca has reached 16 million barrels per day. Major industrial powers such as China, Japan and South Korea imports their oil from Persian Gulf directly through the strait.
Ports: The Bay of Bengal hosts some of the world’s major emerging ports in the world such as Chennai, Kolkata, and Chittagong etc. Other major ports under construction in the region are Kyaukpyu and Matarbari, both of which are expected to be major deep water ports.
Major strategic initiatives in Bay of Bengal: The Bay of Bengal has attracted several global infrastructural initiatives which are critical in building much needed infrastructure in the region. However, at the same time, these initiatives have increased rivalry among different players as these initiatives are often backed by different powers. The increased activity of China in the Bay of Bengal has created major concerns among the Bay’s traditional power specially India. India being an emerging partner of United States, has brought the so-called ‘Quad’ states into the geo-strategic equation. The major strategic initiatives are discussed to contextualize current geo-strategic dynamics:
Maritime Silk Road initiative in Bay of Bengal: The Maritime Silk Road initiative (MSR) is the maritime sub-project of the Belt and Road initiative (BRI). The Maritime Silk Road initiative has been a major Chinese push to create so called ‘String of pearls’. Many analysts believe that Chinese infrastructure initiatives in Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal are part of Beijing’s ambitions of creating a ‘string of pearls’, a network of maritime infrastructure which would enable Beijing to secure its energy imports, Sea-lanes of communication and could serve as outposts for enhancing Chinese navy’s ‘Blue water’ capability. In the context of Bay of Bengal, the China-Myanmar economic Corridor and Kyaukpyu port holds significant strategic implication from Chinese point of view. At present, more than half of China’s domestic oil imports come from the Middle East, Africa, and Southeast Asia, and about four-fifths of the imported crude oil is transported through the Malacca Strait. China’s three largest oil exporters are Angola, Iran, and Saudi Arabia and oil tankers from all of them have to go through the Malacca Strait. Such heavy reliance on the waterway poses a major potential threat to China’s energy security, which is subject to the changing dynamics of strategic competition among major powers over control of the Malacca Strait. The Kyuakpyu port, thus, strategically important for Beijing. The port is also considered as the flagship of the China-Myanmar economic corridor (CMEC). The port would connect a Y-shaped transportation network all the way to the Yunnan province of Southern China. This would give the less industrialized Southern region an access to Bay of Bengal, thus would increase its industrial prospects. The project would also include an oil pipeline connecting Yunnan with Rakhine state, potentially carrying almost 6% of China’s petroleum demands annually. With the completion of the port, Beijing can significantly reduce its over-dependence on the Malacca strait.
Figure 1: China Myanmar Economic Corridor
Besides, China is also investing heavily in Bangladesh. In 2016, Chinese president Xi Jinping signed a series of deals worth over $21 billion dollar to develop infrastructures in Bangladesh. Bangladesh has also officially participated in the Belt and Road initiative. Beijing has always been interested in building a deep sea port in Sonadia. Chinese companies are also involved in developing several components of the Pyra deep sea port.
Figure 2: Kaladan Project
Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project: The Kaladan project aims at connecting the landlocked North-East region with the rest of India through the sittwe port. The multimodal project is consist of both land and sea routes connecting the north-east with mainland India. The Project has been seen as ground-breaking initiative to increase the connectivity of North-eastern India with the rest of the mainland and beyond. The initiative serves two objectives simultaneously: the project would ensure a long term Indian presence in Myanmar and secondly, it would provide the landlocked north-east part of the country a passage to sea routes in Bay of Bengal. The project would also serve as an alternative route in case of Bangladesh refuses corridor access to India in future.
Bay of Bengal Industrial Growth Belt and Asia Africa Growth corridor: The Bay of Bengal Industrial Growth Belt (BIG-B) is the Japanese initiative aims at developing infrastructures in Bangladesh’s coastal region. It would include ports, energy and transportation initiatives. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina during their summit in Tokyo on March 26, 2013, proposed the Bay of Bengal Industrial Growth Belt (BIG-B) Initiative. The planned BIG-B is based on three pillars:
The first pillar is industry and trade which would be realized by constructing a Japanese funded deep sea port at the Matarbari Island. It is located in the eastern coast of Bay of Bengal, 60 km south of Chittagong City and along the Chittagong-Cox’s Bazar highway. It would offer Bangladesh an important trade gateway to the rest of Asia and beyond. The second pillar is energy. Matarbari Island can be developed into a massive supply base of primary energy (such as coal, LNG and oil). The third pillar of BIG-B is transportation. In future, Bangladesh can be an important connectivity hub by extending the Dhaka-Chittagong-Cox’s Bazar transport artery to rest of South Asia.
Recently, India and Japan has developed a new joint initiative to support connectivity infrastructure across the Indian Ocean region. The Indo-Japanese Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC), is being portrayed as an alternative initiative with similar scope to that of BRI. The AAGC aims to establish a ‘special and strategic global partnership’ between India and Japan to create a “peaceful, open, equitable, stable and rule-based order” in the Indo-pacific region. The Bay of Bengal Industrial Growth Belt (BIG-B) could potentially be absorbed into the larger AAGC framework in future which would increase Indian involvement in the Japanese funded projects in Bangladesh. Overall, the Japanese initiatives in Bangladesh and Bay of Bengal are a unified attempt with the political support from India is to challenge and disrupt Chinese initiatives in Bay of Bengal.
US interests in ‘Bay of Bengal’
Bay of Bengal has traditionally never received much attention in US policy circle. It was always a secondary US interest in Indian Ocean. However, the US policy in in context of the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal is changing with the emergence of ‘Free and Open indo-pacific’. The US presence in Bay of Bengal have to be understood in terms of the concept of ‘Pivot to Asia’. The ‘Pivot to Asia’ is strategy to counter the growing Chinese influence in the Pacific Ocean and China’s attempt project influence in Indian Ocean through the Belt and Road initiative. At the beginning of Trump administration, the ‘Pivot to Asia’ concept was officially integrated within the Indo-pacific strategy. In 2017, President Trump announced our nation’s vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific at the APEC Summit in Vietnam, and our commitment to a safe, secure, prosperous, and free region that benefits all nations.
Figure 3: BIG-B
US interests in Bay of Bengal has three main pillars: First, the most important of these is to maintain the Indian Ocean as a secure highway for international commerce, particularly between the oil-rich Gulf States and an economically dynamic East Asia. Bay of Bengal is strategically located between the Arabian Sea and the ‘Strait of Malacca’ which is a very important geo-strategic region for US interests.
Second, a second and more immediate concern is to maintain freedom of navigation through the strategic chokepoints of the Indian Ocean highway in the Strait of Hormuz on one end and the Strait of Malacca and the South China Sea on the other. Both chokepoints are under growing pressure from openly or potentially hostile states such as Iran or China.
Finally, the Bay of Bengal region is important to the United States and U.S. allies because it could become a secondary arena for great power strategic competition in Asia, particularly between India and China. The US while keeping itself engaged in the more important South China Sea domain, is willing to maintain an indirect presence in the region given China’s strategic objective to create a ‘second coast’ in Bay of Bengal through numerous infrastructure projects in Myanmar, Bangladesh and Sri-Lanka.
However, US is unlikely to establish a military foothold in the Bay given Indian reservations regarding such move. Rather it would sought to create a strong partnership with New Delhi in geo-strategic and military level to deny Beijing any opportunity to establish permanent Naval or military presence in the region.
Formation of Quadrilateral Security Coalition vis-à-vis Chinese activities in Bay of Bengal: In terms of current two powers are significant in the region namely India and China. India due to its sheer size and military power have become a dominating force the Bay of Bengal region. Historically, the Indian Navy in British period served as the net ‘security provider’ in the Indian Ocean region. After Independence, New Delhi gradually limited its role in the security architecture in the region. However, with the rapid economic growth, New Delhi seeks to restore its role as a ‘potential net security’ provider in the region. India considers the Indian Ocean as its own ‘lake’, the Bay of Bengal thus serves as the ‘window’ through which India could access to the Eastern Indian Ocean, Pacific and beyond. But that role is increasingly challenged by Beijing which seeks to build a better presence in the region.
Beijing’s own economic ambitions have led it to the Bay of Bengal region. Whether, Beijing wants to challenge or contain India is up for debate but its interests in the Bay are clear. The infrastructures that Beijing is developing in the Bay are instrumental in establishing its presence in years to come. India is particularly wary of China’s infrastructure initiatives in Myanmar. The China Myanmar economic corridor which connects the Kyaukpyu port to Yunnan is a particular concern to New Delhi. Many Indian policy makers see the corridor as an attempt to create a ‘Second coast’ for Beijing. The port and related infrastructures would give Beijing a direct commercial access to Bay Bengal. New Delhi has fears that these infrastructures would open the gateway for future naval presence of China. If China could secure a naval presence in Bay of Bengal, it would not only compete with India in the whole region for resources and influence but could pose serious threat to India’s own security and the freedom of navigation.
However, New Delhi is well aware of its own weaknesses and limitations. Hence, India has established strong political and strategic partnership with other IOR and non-IOR littoral states to check Beijing’s intrusion in the Bay of Bengal. The Quadrilateral security coalition is the product of the Indo-US ‘marriage of convenience’ against China. It is an informal security partnership among United States, Japan, Australia and India. The Quad is revolving around a US strategy of ‘Offshore balancing’, which conceptualize an Indo-pacific order in which US with delegate some security responsibility to partner states (like sub-contract) in order to increase collaboration, Cooperation and coordination. The quad states would establish a military partnership to contain China’s thrust into Indo-pacific region.
The Militarization of Bay of Bengal: The growing geo-strategic rivalry in Bay of Bengal between the regional and extra-regional powers in Bay of Bengal has increased the possibility of armed conflict in Bay of Bengal. The military activities in the Bay has increased significantly over the years due to the emergence of Beijing as a major player in the Bay. The Indian Navy has increased its naval co-operation with other littoral states including Myanmar and Bangladesh. Indian Navy now regularly organizes naval drills and exercise with the Navies of not only the littorals of Bay of Bengal but also with also neighbours of other regional Navies. The Milan exercise for example has become a flagship initiative of Indian Navy to increase its naval preparedness in the Bay of Bengal and surrounding regions.
However, the threat of an actual military confrontation between the rival states in the Bay of Bengal has dramatically increased after the Sino-Indian border conflict in Ladakh which led to the death of 20 Indian soldiers. India in return has sought to push back against Chinese activities in the Seas. India has strengthened its naval presence in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands which would in theory would give New Delhi an oversight over the strategic waters in IOR. In addition, New Delhi has commissioned a new naval airbase named INS Kohassa in the islands.
At the same time, other nations have also increased their military presence in the Bay of Bengal. Indian sources have claims that Chinese Submarines and survey vessels have increased their routine visits in the surrounding waters of the Bay of Bengal. The US has also increased its naval presence in the Bay. The US aircraft carrier recently visited the Indian Ocean to engage in a planned naval exercise with India.
Strategic options for Bangladesh: Given the strategic competition in the Bay of Bengal, Bangladesh must play its cards wisely. In future, it is possible that the entire Bay of Bengal region could become a conflict prone region. Keeping such possibilities in mind, Bangladesh have to explore the policy options which are best for the security and prosperity of the country. Some of the options are discussed here:
1. Adopt an inclusive development oriented foreign policy: Bangladesh has to adopt a pragmatic foreign policy based on inclusive development. Bangladesh has to establish links and trade ties with all concerned parties while not being pulled into any strategic alliance from any parties.
2. Multilateral institutionalism: Bangladesh have to advocate multilateralism in the Bay of Bengal to limit the probability of disputes. Bangladesh have to support an agenda that would serve all the nations in the Bay of Bengal region regardless of their geographic size. Bangladesh can encourage building new institutions and materialize existing institutions to ensure peaceful settlement of disputes and oppose hegemony and unilateralism.
3. Augment naval capability: While Bangladesh have to pursue regional peace in Bay of Bengal. Bangladesh must also continue to increase its naval power to ensure the security of its own territorial sea, EEZ and possibly the commercial sea lines of communication. The global order is changing rapidly and plunging into anarchy. Bangladesh must be ready to ensure its own security.
4. Advocating regional connectivity: Bangladesh have to advocate and promote the concept of regional connectivity among the neighbouring countries through institutional mechanisms like BIMSTEC, BBIN and possibly SAARC.
Rear Admiral Kazi Sarwar Hossain, Executive Director, Maritime Search and Rescue Society.