This article is part of the series — What to Expect from International Relations in 2021.
The Bay of Bengal Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation or BIMSTEC has existed as the regional organisation exclusive to the Bay of Bengal for the past twenty-three years and yet it has never ventured to address conventional security concerns which characterise this maritime space. This seven-member organisation — comprising of all the littoral countries of the Bay — has since its inception in 1997, brought fourteen areas of cooperation
under its ambit ranging from developmental issues to addressing shared concerns namely climate change, disaster management, counter-terrorism and transnational crime.
The concerns identified by BIMSTEC reveal that the organisation restricts itself to engaging in only those security challenges which are non-state centric. This practice may be attributed firstly to its underlying principle of respect for “sovereign equality
, territorial integrity, political independence, no-interference in internal affairs, peaceful co-existence and mutual benefit”; and secondly, to its foundational objective of “harnessing shared and accelerated growth
” which limits its activities to developmental cooperation alone. This posture of BIMSTEC had been suitable as long as the Bay had been a ‘backwater
’ — an offshoot of the Indian Ocean, away from the strategic limelight. However, under present circumstances, such a stance may prove to be inadequate for the sustenance of the organisation.
This posture of BIMSTEC had been suitable as long as the Bay had been a ‘backwater’ — an offshoot of the Indian Ocean, away from the strategic limelight.
In recent years, the assertive presence of China in the Bay (inclusive of the Andaman Sea), has threatened the freedom of navigation along its Sea Lanes of Communications (SLOCs). These shipping routes are important for energy trade and as they converge into the Strait of Malacca
, unhindered navigation in this narrow stretch of water as well as in the wider Bay becomes essential for many countries. Furthermore, located between the Indian and the Pacific Ocean, the Bay is at the very heart of the Indo-Pacific
geo-strategic realm endowed with its opportunities and challenges. Ensuring freedom of navigation has, therefore, become a functional requirement in the Bay to explore its possibilities calling for collective action. For example, the MILAN
multilateral naval exercise hosted by India in the Bay and Andaman Sea has witnessed an increase in participation from four countries in 1995 to 16 countries in 2018. India also conducted the International Fleet Review
in the Bay in 2016 to build trust amongst regional navies with almost 52 countries.
However, with maritime security missing from BIMSTEC’s agenda, the question arises: How far will the organisation continue to be relevant? In the absence of any overwhelming or urgent need for developmental collaboration, BIMSTEC’s present agenda serves only as a confidence-building mechanism among member states although it aspires for regional integration. Apprehensions thus prevail about the seriousness of the commitment of BIMSTEC members in actively pursuing its present agenda — a doubt intensified by the organisation’s continued lack of necessary autonomy and funds
In the absence of any overwhelming or urgent need for developmental collaboration, BIMSTEC’s present agenda serves only as a confidence-building mechanism among member states although it aspires for regional integration.
Nonetheless, some of BIMSTEC’s latest endeavours have been geared towards providing better maritime security, such as the disaster management exercises of 2017
and the Coastal Security Workshop of 2019
. The concern of freedom of navigation along SLOCs however remains unexplored. Only India has proposed advanced cooperation in maritime security in this regard, through its vision of Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR) at the BIMSTEC Think Tank Dialogue of 2018 on Regional Security
. With the largest naval force amongst BIMSTEC countries, India is certainly in a position to lead BIMSTEC’s possible ventures into maintaining freedom of navigation. Indeed, as the ‘net security provider of the region
’, it is India’s aspiration as well as the expectation of several smaller states that India will be instrumental in providing overall security in the region.
While it is true that all BIMSTEC members are economically heavily reliant on China and hence unwilling to undertake any apparent anti-China posture, there is also no guarantee that geopolitical tensions form the adjacent South China Sea will not spill into the Bay, especially as China continues its assertive rise. The direction in which BIMSTEC treads will therefore determine not only its sustenance but will also have wider ramifications for the future of the Bay itself.
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