Organised by ORF Kolkata in collaboration with the Government of Japan
The narrative of “free and open Indo-Pacific” has been instrumental in shaping foreign policies of many countries that compose this geo-strategic realm set across maritime Asia. At the heart of the Indo-Pacific lies the Bay of Bengal, situated at the confluence of the Indian and Pacific Ocean and fringed by countries of both South and Southeast Asia. The Bay’s depths are home to a fabled wealth of vast hydrocarbon reserves and its waves are traversed by a rich tapestry of shipping routes-vital for trade in oil and natural gas. In a future riddled with uncertainty over energy, the lure of the Bay is therefore undeniable for both its littoral as well as extra-regional states.
China’s presence in the Bay has its origin in its quest for energy. The country’s assertive rise has roused the apprehension of multiple major powers such as Japan, USA, UK and Australia, over freedom of navigation, propelling the Bay into the centre stage of strategic power play. India has also outlined her own vision of the Indo-Pacific as natural extension of its immediate geographical region that hosts a vast array of global opportunities and challenges. The Bay of Bengal, and its auxiliary-the Andaman Sea-is India’s geostrategic gateway into the wider waters of the Indo-Pacific. India has launched the Indo-Pacific Oceans’ Initiative (IPOI) to focus on seven central pillars conceived around Maritime Security; Maritime Ecology; Maritime Resources; Capacity Building and Resource Sharing; Disaster Risk Reduction and Management; Science, Technology and Academic Cooperation; and Trade Connectivity and Maritime Transport. The Bay also features in the agenda of collaborative security grouping such as the Quad and AUKUS. Conventional threats are however not isolated concerns but are intertwined with a variety of non-traditional security threats that the Bay faces ranging from maritime piracy and human trafficking to IUU fishing and natural disasters. As all these concerns are transnational in nature, security cooperation is a crucial need in the Bay, a basic requirement for which is information sharing about this maritime domain. Accordingly, the Bay littorals countries are keen to re-engage with one another for better protection of their interests, bilaterally and through BIMSTEC.
However, partnerships in the Bay are not only needed for improved security but also for regional development. The pandemic by disrupting global supply chains, taught an important lesson of nurturing ties with one’s neighbours. Intra-BIMSTEC trade therefore needs to be developed, fundamental to which are identification of sectors where comparative advantages lie, exploiting regional value chains, enabling conditions for investment and conducting business, and low transaction costs. However, neither security nor trade (or for that matter investment and business) can be successfully operationalised without seamless connectivity. Multimodal networks thus form the bedrock of the Bay of Bengal region and must be well developed for the region’s prosperity. Of course, technological modernisation has a key role to play in the seamless functioning of these linkages, especially in the post Covid era. Equally important are the abundant opportunities provided by the Bay’s resources that need to be used sustainably to ensure sustainable and inclusive growth. Cultivating Blue Economy is therefore cardinal in the region.
On realising its full potential, the Bay can act as a bridge between the two geo-political blocs of South and Southeast Asia and thereby gain prominence as a major theatre of cooperation and prosperity within the Indo-Pacific. It is with this idea that several major powers are interested in the Bay and are investing in its littorals. The concept of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific is therefore a necessity for the Bay’s well-rounded growth.
Against this backdrop, Observer Research Foundation, Kolkata Chapter in collaboration with the Government of Japan intends to organise a two- day international conference on “Situating the Bay of Bengal in a Free and Open Indo-Pacific”. The Conference will be divided into 4 Business Sessions, on ‘Rewiring Connectivity for a Bay of Bengal Community’, ‘Localising Globalisation in the Bay of Bengal’, ‘Securing the Bay: Awareness, Arrangements, Action’ and ‘Blue Economy in the Bay of Bengal: Riding the waves of sustainability’.
Business Session 1: Rewiring Connectivity for a Bay of Bengal Community
Infrastructure and connectivity form the cornerstones of the Indo-Pacific’s continued economic prominence. With budgetary needs for Asian infrastructure estimated at close to USD 2 trillion a year, assembling an alliance for building high quality physical infrastructure that can spur trade and regional connectivity in the Bay of Bengal region is the need of the hour. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the tremendous social and economic strains placed on developing societies in the region has only increased this need. A pressing question remains: which players can rise to meet the challenge? With both China and the Quad democracies racing to assemble infrastructure partnerships, the competition for influence in the Bay of Bengal in rests heavily on who draws the connectivity map of the future.
Business Session 2: Localising Globalisation in the Bay of Bengal
In recent times, the centre of gravity for global trade and economic activities has shifted to the Indo-Pacific with the Bay of Bengal economies in focus. Consequently, there is heightened competition between global powers that have stakes in the region. The importance of connectivity has therefore come to the forefront, covering domains like digitisation with interoperable regimes comprising data protection and cyber security, along with cross-border infrastructures that need attention. This pandemic is a strong stimulus to look towards regional groupings such as BIMSTEC, SAARC, ASEAN and other issue-based objectives to make economies self-sufficient - so that there exists a certain level of insulation in the times of crises which will prevent the global economy from sinking. Additionally, the Bay of Bengal economies should be able to sustain short run emergencies and supply chain disruptions without falling apart; and at the same time, countries should also strive toward diminishing their external dependency and increase the efficacy of the domestic production and consumption processes.
Business Session 3: Securing the Bay: Awareness, Arrangements, Action
As an inter-regional arena, the Bay of Bengal reflects security concerns prevailing in the wider Indo-Pacific such as apprehensions over freedom of navigation, terrorism, illegal activities, and environmental challenges. These threats have transnational impacts as almost eighty per cent of the semi-enclosed Bay is a contiguous belt of Exclusive Economic Zones, while twenty per cent qualify as the high seas. Effective security control thus requires collaboration amongst the littoral countries as well as extra-regional stakeholders in threat mapping, assessment, inter-country dialogues and security arrangements such as joint patrols. As a fundamental pillar of any security framework is attaining knowledge or awareness about threats in the concerned domain, collaboration in developing Maritime Domain Awareness or MDA is a cardinal requirement in the Bay. However, the nuance of implementing MDA needs to be analysed if robust systems of intelligence gathering are to be built and functional networks for information exchange are to be designed, to secure the Bay’s future.
Business Session 4: Blue Economy in the Bay of Bengal: Riding the waves of sustainability
Coastal and marine ecosystems in the Bay of Bengal region have emerged as a critical space today. Nearly 1.4 billion people live along its coastlines. With 25 percent of global population inhabiting countries surrounding the Bay, the extensive resources of the region have been a major source of livelihood for these people. In the post-pandemic world, investment in these resources can very well aid economic recovery processes enabling a blue benefits-driven growth for countries in the region and promote their long-term socio-economic development. However, imminent stressors associated with climate change and anthropogenic disruptions are posing a threat to the coastal and marine ecosystems of the region – affecting livelihood security of its people. Increasingly confronted with climate change-induced risks, there is an urgent need for the Bay of Bengal Blue Economies to transition towards Sustainable Ocean Economy that envisage environmental sustainability and conservation of sensitive ecologies as a linchpin for promotion of oceans-based enterprises for societal benefits.