Event ReportsPublished on May 22, 2017
Need to recognise Bay of Bengal as a geo-political entity

The Bay of Bengal region has once again gained prominence over the last few years and the renewed emphasis on the Bay has resulted in a strategic jostling which presents both challenges as well as opportunities for the littorals of the region, according to Vice Admiral HCS Bisht, the chief of the Eastern Naval Command, Visakhapatnam. Vice Admiral Bisht was delivering the inaugural address at the one and a half day International Consultative Workshop on ‘India's Maritime Connectivity: Importance of the Bay of Bengal’, organised by ORF Kolkata in the city on May 15 &16, 2017. He said though the region has again gained prominence because of its abundance of marine resources, housing of the most important shipping routes for maritime commerce and it bordering some of the fastest growing economies in the word today, still the full potential of the Bay is yet to be realised. The inaugural address was followed by a panel discussion on the theme: ‘Contextualising the Bay: Harnessing the Strengths of Maritime Connectivity.’ Three focal aspects were underscored in this session -- the strategic value of Bay of Bengal in contemporary times, the foreign policy position and constraints of the Indian government in this context and the ensuing policy recommendations for the same. It was pointed out that Indian activism in the Bay of Bengal region pre-dated Chinese engagement but after years of following a continental policy there has been resurgence of Indian interest in this area primarily as a reaction to Chinese maneuvers and as a part of its Look East/Act East Policy. It was highlighted that apart from conventional strategic concerns, security issues also demand urgent attention. It is in the interest of all littoral countries that port regulations be standardised and Public-Private Partnership (PPP) area be explored properly in addition to harmonisation of rules and procedures between and among the littoral states. Speakers said India must have a grand vision that does not overlook minor details, establishes seamless and efficient means of transport, visualises greater infrastructural development through submarine cable connectors, energy exploitation and reduced tariffs. The discussion also emphasised that since political harmony is the bedrock of maritime diplomacy and security, not only big powers but all littoral states in the region must have a major geo-strategic role to play. The second day of the workshop was divided into three business sessions, the first of which was on ‘Port Logistics: The Bedrock of Connectivity.’ In this session, the port infrastructure and associated capabilities of India, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sri Lanka were discussed. Challenges such as declining volume of transit traffic in Bangladesh, the need for adequate road and rail connectivity with ports in India, and so on were discussed. The importance of developing country specific Logistics Performance Index (LPI) was stressed as those developed by the WTO are generic and may not always offer an accurate picture of a country’s performance. The importance of the Colombo Port in Sri Lanka, the need for up-gradation of overall infrastructure and intra-development and inter-development of ports were also pointed out. The following business session looked at ‘Linking India’s North-east with the Bay: Importance of Inland Waterways.’ Given that Inland waterways in India are inadequately developed for handling sufficient volumes of cargo, the government has renewed its emphasis on the development of waterways as an effective means of transportation of goods. National Waterway 1 running from Varanasi to Haldia and onwards to Bangladesh connecting the northeastern States of India has high connectivity and economic potential and therefore requires major investments from the government to expand it to Nepal and Bhutan via the Ghagra, Gandak and Kosi rivers. It was highlighted that 30% of the Look East Policy was hinged upon inland waterways and in this respect, focusing on the proper utilization of the Brahmaputra river would l enable us to have better access to Southeast Asian markets and sea-ports. Thus a holistic and integrated approach keeping in mind the fishbone model has to be evolved for both the banks of the Brahmaputra. There is also a need for a people-centric approach for sustainable development of inland waterways. Cross border coordination in water diplomacy therefore calls for urgent attention. The final session deliberated on ‘The Way Forward: Strategic Convergences and Divergences.’ In this session, the important role that the east coast of India has played since the expansion of the Royal Indian Navy at the start of World War II was mentioned. From naval operations to humanitarian assistance to peace operations like Operation Pawan, the importance of the east coast cannot be exaggerated, it was pointed out. The vitality of the geo-strategic location of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands was also part of the discussion. In this regard the proposed locations for a free port in these islands and related infrastructural requirements like banking facilities, regulatory bodies and so on were deliberated. It was highlighted that the Bay should be recognised as a geo-political entity and that there should be demonstrable national advantage for littorals of the Bay to invest in the region. Therefore, institutional architecture needs to be energised, maritime security organs need to be strengthened and a grand maritime vision needs to be envisaged. The fact is that oceans will always provide the best form of connectivity and it is therefore imperative to ensure maritime security and safety.

This report was prepared by Pratnashree Basu, Junior Fellow, ORF Kolkata

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