Event ReportsPublished on Apr 02, 2019
Significance of the Bay of Bengal: India, Japan and Southeast Asia

As traditional geographies are getting morphed into new ones the Bay of Bengal is re-gaining centrality in the wider Indo-Pacific arena. As a natural corollary the views of India, Japan and Southeast Asian countries are becoming relatively convergent and a need is being felt amongst them to engage together more substantively. This was noted during the Keynote Address of the International Conference on Significance of the Bay of Bengal: India, Japan and Southeast Asia organized by Observer Research Foundation (ORF), Kolkata in collaboration with the Consulate-General of Japan in Kolkata and the Centre for South and South East Asian Studies, University of Calcutta on 25-26 March 2019.

In the inaugural session eminent speakers, representing the key stakeholders in the region, noted that the Bay is now subject to multiple policy initiatives such as China’s ‘Belt and Road Initiative’, Japan’s ‘Free and Open Indo Pacific’, India’s ‘Look/Act East Policy’ and Indonesia’s ‘Global Maritime Fulcrum’ among others. Japan particularly with its supply chains across the Bay is intent on strengthening the region’s economic integration.  Consequently the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) is coming back in focus amongst regional stakeholders.The Bay of Bengal is thus emerging, once again, as the  platform for dialogue and policy making aimed at ensuring stability in the region. The inaugural session concluded with the signing of an MoU between ORF and the Asia Centre, Thailand.

The following day, the three business sessions of the Conference were focused on the geo- economic, geo-physical and the geo-strategic dimensions of   this region. Accordingly, the first business session delved into “Maritime Commerce and Logistics”. It was noted that the changing profile of India’s economic priorities and engagements has gained attention and the country’s Look/Act East policies have opened for it new business vistas.  Prospects of collaboration with ASEAN economies, the progress of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, and Japan’s ‘Bay of Bengal Industrial Growth Belt’ have motivated India to strengthen her engagements with the region. At present, while India shares strong maritime links with Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia its ties with Thailand are less developed. The possibility of trade wars with practices such as Blue Economy gaining popularity amongst the littorals sharing overlapping Exclusive Economic Zones also has to be handled.

The second session attended to the critical issue of ‘Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Management’ in the Bay of Bengal region. As disasters are the products of both natural and human factors, threats range from Tsunamis to the issues of oil spill. But as man-made disasters are potentially avoidable, they demand appropriate regulations and strict control by all powers operating in the Bay waters. Natural calamities, on the other hand, are unavoidable. The onus is thus on developing efficient early warning systems and taking steps in advance to effectively mitigate its impact. In this regard the Andaman and Nicobar Islands can be developed as the first point of response especially for the Indonesian archipelago given the geographic proximity and shared vulnerability. As the existing turbulence of the Bay aggravates with climate change the Bay littorals in consortium with extra-regional powers are already conducting bilateral and multilateral disaster management exercises. It is desirable that regional platforms like ASEAN and BIMSTEC promote collaboration in disaster management. But Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief must on all occasions be provided with the consent of the affected country given the littoral’s sensitivity to sovereignty.

 The third session dealt with “Strategic Convergences and Divergences” which have intensified across the Bay of Bengal due to the resource concerns of Bay littorals, competing maritime presence of extra-regional powers and the preponderance of non-traditional security threats. The ensuing discussions underlined the importance of promoting good order at sea, people-to-people engagement between India and ASEAN and the structural challenges in South and Southeast Asian countries such as the politicization of capacity building assistance often hindering multilateral cooperation. Analysing the case of Rohingya crisis it was argued that India, China and ASEAN’s reluctance to restrain Myanmar from inflicting statelessness on the Rohingyas can be seen in the perspective of Gramscian concept of hegemony in the international order as states appear to be reluctant to report on human rights violations in other states to avoid getting involved in their internal affairs. Hence there is a need to bring about interaction between civil societies within states so as to enhance cooperative commitment of all stakeholders in addressing regional security concerns.

As the Conference drew to a close, the Valedictory Address reminded the audience that the on-going dynamics of the Bay of Bengal will in the long run affect the landscape of the Indo-Pacific.Connectivity initiatives must therefore be regarded as important instruments to transform this fragmented maritime space into a more integrated and economically dynamic region. Existing vulnerabilities in the region such as weak domestic institutions and shortage of infrastructure will have to be addressed. Most importantly the culture of regional collaboration will have to be cultivated in the Bay. However, in doing so two important considerations must be kept in mind. Firstly, as the Bay of Bengal is emerging against the backdrop of major power competition it requires a stable security structure. The new bilateral and multilateral security partnerships that are being forged to respond to the changing security environments are therefore important. Secondly, and contrary to the conventional view, one must look beyond US-China relations for the future of the region will be defined not by US-China relations but by the way in which the countries in the region are becoming resilient internally and externally. Connectivity initiatives must therefore be widened to include human resource development and institutional reform.

This event report has been compiled by Sohini Bose, Research Assistant, ORF Kolkata with contributions from Jaya Thakur and MihirBhonsale, Junior Fellows, ORF Kolkata, and Sreeparna Banerjee, SohiniNayak and Roshan Saha, Research Assistants, ORF, Kolkata.

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