By Vidya Sagar Reddy (*)
Recognising security as an integral part of regional integration and economic development, India hosted National Security Advisors level meet of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) countries. This meeting is meant to underscore Bay of Bengal as the ‘common security space’ and establish a framework for identifying the traditional and non-traditional security challenges in the region and policy coordination for tackling them.
The BIMSTEC countries account for approximately 21 per cent (1.5 billion) of global population and has a combined Gross Domestic Product of $2.5 trillion. Of the seven BIMSTEC countries, five (India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Thailand) are Bay of Bengal littoral countries while the other two, Nepal and Bhutan which are land-locked, are seeking access to this maritime space via the ports in India and Bangladesh.
In addition, similar geographical positioning constraints effective development of India’s North East region. Access to Bay of Bengal that offers multitude of economic and trading opportunities is therefore vital for the development of BIMSTEC countries.
India once dominated the global economy with its ships voyaging to distant parts of the world establishing trade and cultural linkages. Its ships traversed Bay of Bengal visiting the ports of current day Myanmar, Malaysia and Indonesia. The current government envisions such maritime culture initiating Sagaramala project, a model of port-led development of the country.
The Bay of Bengal is known to possess vast reserves of untapped hydrocarbons and the settlement of maritime boundary disputes in the region is welcoming. Within this maritime space, fishing and related industries have contributed significantly to India’s economy. However, it is also a major source of diplomatic tension with Sri Lanka as fishermen foray into each other’s Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ).
Piracy, terrorism, drug trafficking and illegal migration continue to pose challenges to the security of Bay of Bengal maritime space. India possesses an extensive array of sea, shore and space based assets that are crucial for preventing these activities and safeguard this maritime space.
This region is also prone to natural disasters threatening the livelihood of thousands and undoing the development activities in the region. The Indian Navy (IN) was the first responder to the Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004 relieving Sri Lanka, assisted Bangladesh in 2007 during Cyclone Sidr and is the only navy permitted by Myanmar government to relieve the 2008 Cyclone Nargis before opening to international aid. The IN also participates in Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HA/DR) exercises with the regional navies under the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium framework.
The Bay of Bengal is also witnessing advances by extra-regional powers such as China causing apprehensions in New Delhi. China’s plans to construct deep water ports in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar without taking regional actors into confidence by alleviating their strategic concerns has the potential to upset stability in the region.
In addition, India’s Bay of Bengal coastline hosting strategic installations has also come under China’s surveillance. In 2011, the Indian Navy (IN) intercepted a Chinese fishing trawlertrying to eavesdroptelemetry signals off Balasore. China also attempted to install signals intelligence sensors on Myanmar’s Coco Islands to eavesdrop on India’s Andaman and Nicobar Command.
Given these challenges, it is welcoming to note that the BIMSTEC NSA level meeting has stressed,“the Bay of Bengal as a common security space and agreed to work out collective strategies for common responses.”The meeting also decided to establish a Track 1.5 BIMSTEC Security Dialogue Forum to discuss the security challenges and invite suggestions on countermeasures.
The political atmosphere within the BIMSTEC grouping is encouraging, particularly when compared to the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, allowing resolutions to be passed on regional connectivity, infrastructure development and terrorism. India and Bangladesh are also set to conclude a defence cooperation agreement in the coming days that will establish a streamlined architecture for meeting the security challenges in the Bay of Bengal.
The IN with the assistance of shore and space based assets have proven their strengths at intercepting terrorism, efficient HA/DR operations in India’s immediate and extended neighbourhoods, safeguarding the sea lines of communication and maintaining strategic stability in the Indian Ocean region. The IN has established service to service relations with a host of Indian Ocean countries and conducts routine training and coordinated patrols in the EEZs.
The strategic thinking and technological modernisation efforts of the IN and ICG should begin to lay emphasis also on the emerging economic and security threats potential of the Bay of Bengal. Both the services can build on the trust and mutual confidence of the BIMSTEC countries to deepen relations with their counterparts. The political administration could also consider capacity-building programmes in the Bay of Bengal neighbourhood for mitigating the security challenges.The security confidence of BIMSTEC countries isof paramount importance if this grouping is to succeed in itseconomic and developmental objectives.
(* Mr Vidya Sagar Reddy is a research assistant at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. These are his personal views and do not reflect the view of his organisation concerned)