By Rupak Bhattacharjee*
India, which remained preoccupied with safeguarding its land frontiers for many years, can no longer disregard its maritime security, particularly in view of China’s fresh inroads into the Greater Indian Ocean Region (GIOR). Beijing’s latest attempts to build ports in Pakistan’s Gwadar and Bangladesh’s Sonadia Islands poses a direct threat to India’s security as New Delhi’s policy makers believe that China is actually seeking a naval base for greater access to the GIOR.
China has also been making concerted efforts to promote its commercial interests in the maritime zone. It is eyeing Bangladesh’s estimated 15.51 trillion cubic feet of oil and gas reserves in the Bay of Bengal.
China’s increasing footprints in the regional waters prompted India to enhance maritime cooperation with the littoral states. Among them, Bangladesh figures prominently in India’s strategic calculus due to its central position in the Bay region. Realising the emerging threats, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government shifted India’s traditional emphasis from territorial to maritime issues and economic prospects during the recent bilateral summit in Dhaka.
In order to harness the Bay of Bengal’s vast resources, promote maritime connectivity and trade, assist Bangladesh in its maritime capacity-building initiatives, and ensure security in the GIOR, New Delhi has been broadening maritime and naval cooperation with Dhaka for the last few years.
To realise the potentials of the marine sector, both the sides have decided to work closely for the development of “ocean-based blue economy and maritime cooperation” in the Bay and devise future course of action. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi noted that the agreement on the blue economy “opens a new era of economic cooperation” between the two South Asian nations.
Important pacts related to maritime trade, connectivity and cooperation, and development of blue economy inked between the two countries during Modi’s visit included: agreement on coastal shipping, memorandum of understanding (MoU) between Coast Guards, MoU on blue economy and maritime cooperation in the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean, MoU on the use of Chittagong and Mongla ports, and MoU between University of Dhaka and India’s Council of Scientific and Industrial Research for Joint Research on Oceanography in the Bay of Bengal.
Bangladesh considers the Bay as its “third neighbour” and the region has assumed greater significance after the peaceful settlement of maritime disputes with Myanmar and India. The successive UN tribunal awards have established Bangladesh’s sovereign rights on more than 118,000 sq km of maritime territory, 200 nautical miles (NM) of Exclusive Economic Zone and 354 NM of Continental Shelf. Dhaka has also obtained sovereign rights over all living and mineral resources of the Continental Shelf extending up to 354 NM taking Chittagong coast as the baseline.
The economic prospects of the Bay area have increased manifold following the demarcation of maritime boundary between Bangladesh and its neighbours and the recent discovery of massive oil and gas deposits in the region. The Awami League (AL) government has made the development of blue economy a major foreign policy plank.
However, the country lacks skilled manpower, requisite technology and also faces budgetary constraints to tap its large marine resources. This propelled the government to look for partnership with foreign nations to develop a blue economy. The agreement signed between Dhaka University and the Indian research institute was the first such initiative in this direction.
There has been an increasing awareness in Bangladesh about the potential of marine sector and many consider that blue economy could provide sustainable development and eradicate poverty. Reports say nearly 30 million people are directly involved in marine activities like fisheries and commercial transportation in Bangladesh.
Some Bangladeshi economists maintain that development of blue economy will play a vital role in the country’s endeavours to reach middle income status by 2021. The Bangladeshi business leaders and experts urged the AL government to formulate necessary policies and develop skilled manpower to make full utilisation of abundant marine resources in an important discussion held on May 23 in Dhaka this year. The AL government is seeking larger Indian participation in Bangladesh’s development endeavours.
The greater interaction between the security personnel of the two neighbouring nations is another positive development. In April 2015, Coast Guards of both the nations held a high-level meeting in Kolkata where some issues like ensuring safety of fishermen in distress at sea, protection of maritime environment, training of Bangladesh Coast Guard personnel and containing maritime crimes were discussed. Both the sides agreed to step up maritime cooperation to ensure safe and secure seas and exchange real time intelligence on shipping in the region.
To strengthen maritime security in the Bay and further consolidate defence relations between the two countries, India’s Chief of Naval Staff Admiral R.K. Dhowan undertook a state visit to Bangladesh on February 23-26, 2015. Bangladesh’s fleets also participated in joint exercises with their Indian counterparts. Bangladesh is crucial to the Indian Navy’s plans to secure the Bay and neutralise any attempt by the Chinese Navy to gain foothold in this strategic zone.
China reportedly approached Bangladesh to sign a deal on blue economy and maritime cooperation barely a week after India had inked a similar agreement. The Chinese policy makers shifted their focus to the Bay region for a number of geo-strategic and economic reasons. Beijing has decided to build a deep sea port in Bangladesh’s Sonadia Islands — located about 7 km from Cox’s Bazar.
The Chinese government recently approved the project and had been consistently engaged with Bangladesh, initiating proactive measures to start actual construction work. Dhaka urged China’s assistance in the maritime sector and insisted that it immediately requires a deep- sea port to facilitate Bangladesh’s growing external trade and improve regional transit facilities.
For the last one decade or so, China had been the major supplier of Bangladesh’s military hardware, especially it’s navy. Reports suggest that Beijing assisted Bangladesh to set up a missile launch pad near Chittagong port in 2008 and delivered two Ming class submarines in 2014. China sees Bangladesh as a natural partner and has gradually intensified defence ties with Dhaka.
India’s defence establishment is deeply concerned over the security and strategic implications of the Chinese efforts to build maritime infrastructure at its backyard. China’s larger objective is to set up a naval base in the Bay as part of its “String of Pearls” policy to encircle India. The security experts say the Chinese intrusion into the Bay may push India to reorient its strategic plans and “readjust naval deployment pattern” in the area. Modi’s Dhaka visit was viewed as India’s attempt to counter-balance China’s growing influence and presence in its immediate neighbourhood.
The NDA government has decided to expand India’s defence cooperation with Bangladesh, particularly its Navy and Coast Guard, to develop their surveillance and response capabilities to tackle criminal activities and various security challenges in the Bay. So far, India’s defence engagement with Bangladesh had been confined to territorial forces and anti-terrorism. As part of maritime cooperation, both the nations may now organise more bilateral or multilateral naval or Coast Guard exercises.
Some analysts suggest that the NDA government under its “Make in India” drive may even explore the possibility of signing deal to construct vessels for Bangladesh’s Navy and Coast Guard in its shipyard. The state-owned ONGC also stands a good chance to win lucrative contracts in Bangladeshi offshore oil and gas fields. Moreover, both the nations could boost cooperation in the conservation of the rich bio-diversity of the Sunderbans and encourage tourism in the region. India has to calibrate efforts to protect its security, strategic and economic interests in the maritime zone.
*Dr. Rupak Bhattacharjee is an independent analyst based in Delhi. He can be reached at email@example.com