For centuries, the Bay of Bengal has been the space for commercial and cultural interactions among its littorals, especially between the eastern seaboard of India and the land of Suvarnabhumi (continental Southeast Asia), and Suvarnadvipa (maritime Southeast Asia). The ancient ‘Maritime Silk Route’, or the ‘Spice Route’, was one of the most important sea trading passages that connected the eastern part of the Indian subcontinent with its Southeast Asian neighbours. With the influx of the European powers, competition for building colonies grew. Apart from the British Raj, the French and the Dutch masters also ruled around the Bay. Commerce expanded as the colonial rulers became large exporters of raw materials and agricultural products. As a result, the colonial period intensified inter-Bay connectivity. However, following the First World War, decolonisation and emerging nationalism immersed the Bay littorals. Consequently, the newly independent countries were interested in prioritising their own political and economic agendas, gradually making the Bay a ‘strategic backwater’.
Spread across 2,173,000 square km, the Bay of Bengal is now gaining in importance again as part of a strategic maritime space. The Bay’s rich repository of vast hydrocarbon reserves and the vital shipping routes for trade in oil and natural gas passing through this region have transformed this marine space into a geostrategic, geopolitical, and geoeconomic hotspot. As a quest for seamless energy and aspirations of states to fulfil their national interests loom large, the Bay has become a theatre of conflicts and collaborations for its littorals and extraregional actors. Under the circumstances, how to treat the Bay as a common strategic space and an area of resource-sharing between the powers involved remains a crucial point of consideration. Undoubtedly, the huge repository of the Bay’s vital resources has contributed to the regional powers’ ability to influence this area. These changing dynamics are particularly relevant for India and China, whose rising economies are dependent on the steady flow of resources, most importantly oil.
Geographically, the Bay of Bengal appears as an offshoot of the Indian Ocean, a buffer zone between South and Southeast Asia, home to nearly 22 percent of the world’s population (nearly 1.5 billion people) and a combined GDP of US$2.7 trillion. The region is situated at the heart of the Indo-Pacific, a new geostrategic construct combining the wide marine space of the Indian and Pacific oceans. First proposed as a regional alliance in 2007 between Japan, India, Australia, and the US, the Indo-Pacific gained momentum after the then Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, launched the ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ (FOIP) initiative in 2016. To develop the Indo-Pacific as a region of shared prosperity, FOIP has become increasingly significant for global powers to fulfil national interests and aspirations. However, different nations interpret the territorial demarcation and strategic significance of the Indo-Pacific differently. Over the years, the Indo-Pacific has become a part of US national strategy and received strong support from Australia. Major stakeholders operating in the Indian Ocean Region interested in maintaining stability in the region, such as the US, Japan and Australia, have also begun to perceive India as an emerging power in the area and have encouraged its prominent role, given its geographic centrality in the Indian Ocean.
The Indo-Pacific region comprises a massive market: 38 countries, with 60 percent of the global population, 60 percent of the world’s GDP, and 50 percent of the world’s merchandise trade. The region is also a potential source and destination of foreign direct investments. However, for this market to be optimally utilised, there is a need for greater connectivity and freedom of navigation, including ensuring safety and security from maritime threats. At this juncture, the importance of the Bay looms large. In recent years, the Bay littoral states (and the extraregional states in collaboration with the littorals) have made several initiatives to cultivate greater solidarity in the Bay of Bengal and, thereby, in the wider Indo-Pacific, by developing ties with Southeast Asian countries and other key powers. This is done by nurturing logistical linkages, enhancing supply chain mobility, extending maritime domain awareness, exploring joint military exercises, strengthening humanitarian assistance and disaster relief activities, and promoting dialogue and diplomacy to attain collaborative growth.
ASEAN centrality is the core concern for the wider Indo-Pacific as the region possesses vital sea lanes of communications (SLOCs) and checkpoints. It is, therefore, important to understand the region’s perception of the Indo-Pacific. As far as foreign policy objectives are concerned, most Southeast Asian countries look towards the ASEAN for direction and leadership. The ‘ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific’ (2019) declares the aim of “promoting cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region, with ASEAN-led mechanisms, such as the East Asia Summit (EAS), as platforms for dialogue and implementation of the Indo–Pacific cooperation to ensure a rules-based order following international law, transparency, inclusivity, openness and a commitment to promote economic engagements in the region”. The Outlook complements India’s vision for an inclusive Indo-Pacific, and it envisions the expansion of cooperation with the Indian Ocean Rim Association and the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), .
The primary traditional security concern in the Bay is protecting freedom of navigation along the SLOCs that are critical for trading energy and other resources. Many of these routes are straddled by the Andaman and Nicobar Islands chain. Notably, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, the East-West shipping route, is just eight nautical miles below the southern tip of this archipelago before flowing into the Strait of Malacca. Therefore, protecting these trade routes is important for the Bay littorals and the other stakeholders in the region. Indeed, China’s assertive presence in this maritime space has raised apprehensions among the regional countries and the major powers over the Bay’s stability and militarisation. Nonetheless, most of the littorals depend on China for trade and investments and would not be willing to get involved in overtly political-military activities that could annoy Beijing. Notably, BIMSTEC has espoused “non-interference in internal affairs” since its inception, a stance that was re-endorsed by the BIMSTEC Charter (adopted at the 5th Summit in 2022), which does not provide any conflict resolution mechanism but rather leaves it to the member states to settle disputes.
The Bay also encounters several other non-traditional maritime threats, including maritime piracy, human and drug trafficking, undocumented and unregulated fishing, marine pollution, sea level rise, natural disasters, and pandemic-like health crises. These concerns are transnational in nature, and the shared destinies of the people in the Bay region demand a comprehensive sustainable approach. The sustainable use of marine resources through seamless and integrated spatial planning (as part of the ‘blue economy’) has emerged as a key collaboration area in the Bay region. The blue economy tries to transform ocean resources into development instruments, but a basic requirement for this is information sharing in the issue-based maritime domain. Realising the benefits of shared economic prosperity, the Bay littorals are trying to collaborate to mitigate the non-traditional security threats. As such, BIMSTEC’s mandate is purely non-traditional security.
Notably, at the 17th BIMSTEC Ministerial Meeting in November 2021, the grouping streamlined its priority sectors from 14 to seven, with each country designated as a lead: trade, investment, and development (Bangladesh); environment and climate change (Bhutan); security (India); agriculture and food security (Myanmar); people-to-people contact (Nepal); science, technology, and innovation (Sri Lanka); and connectivity (Thailand). Cooperation on security at BIMSTEC comprises three sub-sectors: counterterrorism and transnational crime, energy, and disaster management. India’s responsibility to lead the ‘security’ sector aligns with its vision of ‘security and growth for all in the region’ (SAGAR), an important pillar of its foreign policy. Indeed, India has announced its Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative (based on SAGAR) to support the building of a rules-based regional architecture.
Considering these factors, a common understanding and cooperation among the Bay littorals is necessary for the sustainable growth of the region. It is needed not only to ensure improved security but also to strengthen regional connectivity (physical, commercial, digital, and people-to-people). As such, there is a need to engage Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore (the Bay littorals but not the official members of BIMSTEC) in the region’s development discourse.
The pandemic has disrupted global supply chains and taught an important lesson about nurturing ties with one’s neighbours. Intra-regional trade, therefore, needs to flourish, which is a fundamental requisite to identify other sectors with comparative advantages, explore regional value chains, enable conditions for investment, conduct business, and have low transaction costs. Neither security nor trade (including investment) can be successfully operationalised without seamless connectivity. Multimodal networks form the bedrock of the Bay of Bengal region and must be well developed for its prosperity.
On realising its full potential, the Bay can act as a bridge between the two geopolitical blocs of South and Southeast Asia, thereby gaining prominence as a major maritime space for cooperation and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific. It is for this reason that several major powers are interested in the Bay and are investing in its littorals. A free and open Indo-Pacific is, therefore, a necessity for the Bay’s well-rounded growth.
Anchoring the Bay of Bengal in a Free and Open Indo-Pacific is conceptualised to explore the multifaceted dynamics of the Bay of Bengal within the evolving Indo-Pacific realm. The compendium will further knowledge of the Bay of Bengal, and will be an interesting study for students, researchers, and policymakers. It is divided into four major sections comprising 13 essays.
The first section, ‘Securing the Bay: Awareness, Arrangements, Action’, discusses several security concerns in the Bay region that must be mitigated to ensure commercial prosperity and hassle-free maritime connectivity under the purview of dynamic cooperative mechanisms. In this context, the emphasis is on maritime domain awareness, at the heart of which lies information collection. Abhijit Singh argues that since the Bay is a dynamic space, there is a need for quality information sharing, fusion, and dissemination. Therefore, an effective partnership among the Bay littorals is necessary, along with establishing a rules-based order and a common vision for the development and security of the region. Gilang Kembara focuses on Indonesia and analyses to what extent the country has realised that the Bay of Bengal could serve as a catalyst of growth, not just for it but also between the Southeast Asian region and the Bay of Bengal ‘sub-region’. While accounting for a constructive format of cooperation based on reciprocal partnerships, Pratnashree Basu emphasises Japan’s proactive role in the region. She also argues that the Bay has gained strategic salience recently mainly because of two geopolitical factors: first, China’s increasing presence in the Bay littorals; and second, Bay littorals’ initiatives coupled with the engagements of the extraregional actors of the wider Indo-Pacific, such as Japan and the US, to establish functional cooperation mechanisms. Next, Satoru Nagao tries to answer three fundamental questions in the purview of regional security: What is the current security situation in the Bay of Bengal? What are the features of China’s activities? And how should the Quad respond to China?
The second section, ‘Rewiring Connectivity for a Bay of Bengal Community’, explores several aspects of connectivity in the Bay of Bengal region. In the modern interdependent world, certain links need to be in place to develop a functioning and fruitful system of interactions. These connections may be in the form of infrastructural links, diplomatic and political exchanges, people-to-people contact, and, importantly, trade ties. Srabani Roy Choudhury aims to delineate Japan's new FOIP vision and analyse how infrastructure is an important tool to fulfil the country’s vision of connectivity and security in the Bay region. She explores the role of the aid programme disbursed by the Japan International Cooperation Agency in achieving these objectives. Her paper concentrates on mapping developments in India's Northeast, where Japan is heavily engaged in infrastructural development. In their joint essay, Sohini Bose and Anasua Basu Ray Chaudhury focus on the increasing importance of ports and ports-led development in enhancing maritime connectivity across the Bay. They seek to estimate major challenges to the efficiency of key ports in the Bay and analyse the challenges faced by specific deep-sea ports in the BIMSTEC countries. Next, Takashi Suzuki examines the economic potential of the Bay of Bengal region by focusing on the activities of Japanese companies. He also analyses the potential for regional development through improved linkages and connectivity between Northeast India and Bangladesh.
Given the importance of economic connectivity for the overall benefit of the Bay of Bengal, the third section. ‘Seamless Commercial Connectivity: Bedrock for Regional Development’ explores several concerns and opportunities in hassle-free commercial activities across the Bay. Sineenat Sermcheep focuses on Thailand and argues that BIMSTEC presents an opportunity for the country to accelerate its post-pandemic economic recovery. She examines Thailand’s digital trade, particularly cross-border e-commerce, with the Bay of Bengal in general and especially with India, the region’s largest digital market, and evaluates the potential role of cross-border e-commerce in fostering regional integration. In her chapter, Aparna Sawhney highlights the significance of recent regional connectivity initiatives for boosting trade in goods and services in the Bay, particularly that of grid connectivity, in pursuing sustainable development. Easing cross-border electricity trade is critical in harvesting renewable energy efficiently and transitioning to net zero for the Bay nations. The last essay of this section, by Soumya Bhowmick and Debosmita Sarkar, argues that, as geoeconomic and geopolitical disruptions call into question the feasibility of a globalised economy, the localisation of goods and services gains importance in meeting regional economic needs. The essay examines India’s strategic position to create an alternative to China in the global economic landscape and emerge as the growth pole of the Bay of Bengal region.
The last section, the ‘Blue Economy in the Bay of Bengal: Riding the Waves of Sustainability’, deals with multiple aspects of the blue economy. Punyasloke Bhaduri and Nilanjan Ghosh argue that sustainability concerns should be a built-in phenomenon in terms of its accepted definition. While dealing with various opportunities and challenges associated with the blue economy in the Bay region, the paper ends with some recommendations to manage these challenges. Moutusi Islam focuses on Bangladesh’s blue economy initiative and its approach to balance development and conservation. Yoji Natori discusses the adaptive capacity to climate change of five Bay countries (Maldives, Bangladesh, Indonesia, India, and Sri Lanka) that are among the most vulnerable worldwide to climate impacts.
 Suchandra Ghosh, “Crossings and Contacts Across the Bay of Bengal: A Connected History of Ports in Early South and Southeast Asia,” Journal of the Indian Ocean Region 15, no. 2 (2019).
 Anasua Basu Ray Chaudhury, Pratnashree Basu, and Sohini Bose, “Exploring India’s Maritime Connectivity in the Extended Bay of Bengal,” Observer Research Foundation, 2019.
 Anasua Basu Ray Chaudhury and Rakhhari Chattaerji, “Maritime Order and Connectivity in the Indian Ocean: The Renewed Significance of the Bay of Bengal,” Journal of the Indian Ocean Region 15, no. 2 (2019).
 Sohini Bose, Anasua Basu Ray Chaudhury, and Harsh V. Pant, “BIMSTEC on the Cusp: Regional Security in Focus,” ORF Issue Brief No. 563, July 2022, Observer Research Foundation.
 “India to Emerge as Third Largest Global Economy by 2027: Finance Minister,” The Hindu, November 15, 2023.
 The BIMSTEC, created in 1997, is the exclusive institutional platform for the Bay region. Its members are Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Thailand
 Anasua Basu Ray Chaudhury, “The Indo- Pacific Counter Narrative” in Mapping the Belt and Road Initiative Reach, Implications, Consequences, ed. Harsh V. Pant and Premesha Saha (Observer Research Foundation: New Delhi, 2021), 126–27.
 Bose, Basu Ray Chaudhury, and Pant, “BIMSTEC on the Cusp: Regional Security in Focus”
 “BIMSTEC Purposes”; Bose, Basu Ray Chaudhury, and Pant, “BIMSTEC on the Cusp”
 Basu Ray Chaudhury, Basu, and Bose, “Exploring India’s Maritime Connectivity in the Extended Bay of Bengal”
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Anasua Basu Ray Chaudhury is Senior Fellow with ORF’s Neighbourhood Initiative. She is the Editor, ORF Bangla. She specialises in regional and sub-regional cooperation in ...Read More +
Professor Harsh V. Pant is Vice President – Studies and Foreign Policy at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. He is a Professor of International Relations ...Read More +