OPINION | India and The Bay of Bengal

As part of the greater Indian Ocean Region (IOR), the Bay of Bengal (BoB) has historically been regarded as India’s sphere of influence. However, until recently it was treated as backwaters, and it was only after external actors started showing interest in the region that India realized the importance of protecting this geo-strategic area situated right above one of the world’s busiest Sea Lanes of Communications (SLOCs).

By Mohammad Humayun Kabir and Amamah Ahmad 

As part of the greater Indian Ocean Region (IOR), the Bay of Bengal (BoB) has historically been regarded as India’s sphere of influence. However, until recently it was treated as backwaters, and it was only after external actors started showing interest in the region that India realized the importance of protecting this geo-strategic area situated right above one of the world’s busiest Sea Lanes of Communications (SLOCs).

OPINION | India and The Bay of Bengal

In terms of its foreign policy and strategy, India has adopted a ‘Look East’ approach. The nation is also showing interest in building what it calls the “Bay of Bengal community”, where it envisages greater security cooperation amongst the littoral nations. As a result, India may focus on strengthening security ties with countries like Bangladesh and Myanmar. In other frameworks, such as the BCIM, the three countries and China are collectively cooperating.

However, this time, India may opt for cooperation that does not include China as a reaction to China’s assertiveness in the BoB region. The significance of the BoB to India’s economy is immense. In 2013, 95% of India’s foreign trade by volume and 75% by value were conducted by sea; and more than 75% of its oil was imported by sea (Hughes 2014). With India’s economic growth, the importance of its Navy also grew. As part of its maritime strategy, India states explicitly that it will strive to ensure the safety of the Ocean’s SLOCs as being critical for economic growth, for itself and for the global community.

It is also cognizant of the fact that smaller nations in its neighbourhood, as well as nations that depend on the waters of the BoB for their trade and energy supplies, have come to expect that the Indian Navy will ensure stability and tranquility in the waters around its shores (HCSS 2010).

Between 1980 and 2009, the Indian Navy progressed from being a “brown-water” to almost a “blue-water” force. The country’s economic rise fueled its defence budget and strengthened its position in the IOR. The Navy is also involved in other activities such as providing critical training and equipment to numerous Indian Ocean countries, and its MILAN exercise now includes sixteen Asian and African navies and coast guards (Samaranayake 2014).

Furthermore, Prime Minister Modi asserted that he had accorded the highest priority to the modernization of defence forces, as strong security was necessary for an atmosphere of peace, amity and harmony in the country. Consequently, India’s new maritime doctrine includes new policies such as Counter-Terrorism and Anti-Piracy missions. Since the country cannot match China’s force-for-force, it needs to seek bilateral alliances, maritime domain awareness, and network-centric operations. In that regard, enhancing the security of small island states is an integral part of that strategy (Vines 2012).

An additional reason behind strengthening its naval power is India’s “Hormuz dilemma”; it refers to its dependence on imports through the Strait, close to the shores of Pakistan, where the Chinese are helping the Pakistanis develop deep-water ports. India’s objectives are hence to gain “strategic autonomy”. This policy is aligned with the Indian goal of achieving superpower status and it is in this context that we see India opposing the presence of extra-regional powers in the BoB and the IOR in general (Stratrisk 2014).

Delhi’s naval modernization may also be the outcome of a perceived maritime threat posed by China’s naval growth. In reaction, India is simultaneously developing relationships with states in Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific, causing some in China to question its motives. There is fear in Delhi that Beijing may be outrunning them and strengthening its strategic position in the Bay. China’s investment in infrastructure and financial aid to the littoral countries could pose a serious threat to India which, up until now, remained the most important partner for many of these nations. Now, Delhi is re-focusing on the Bay of Bengal Initiative through a Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), with emphasis on improving transport connectivity across the southern Asian littoral. It is also sponsoring the construction of new road and river connections between its land-locked northeast states and the BoB through new port facilities at Sittwe in Myanmar, to be completed by 2015.

Additionally, Indian officials have welcomed the US re-balancing to Asia but made it clear that its “Look East Policy” is separate from the US re-balancing and driven by Indian and not US interests, thus the interests are not synonymous. Nonetheless, a number of counter-terrorism and anti-piracy efforts have been conducted in coordination with American forces. US interest in countering the threat of terrorism in South Asia has pushed India and the United States towards more substantive military cooperation.

India’s economic and political links across the BoB are growing, accompanied by an expansion of India’s regional security role. The nation has long aspired to be recognized as the predominant power in the BoB and to assume a greater strategic role in Southeast Asia. These ambitions are consistent with the perspectives of many ASEAN states which generally perceive India as a positive factor in the regional balance of power, in contrast with China (Brewster 2014).

The China Factor:

Historical mistrust between China and India has encouraged mutual suspicion regarding each other’s intentions. India and China both view the BoB as a crucial frontier in their competition over energy resources, shipping lanes, and cultural influence. The competition stemming from the two countries expanding their regional sphere of influence in each other’s backyards may result in skirmishes over energy, SLOCs or maritime issues.

Up until now, the strongest manifestation of Sino-Indian rivalry in the BoB was in Myanmar where they both connect through Myanmar to their economically weaker regions, namely India’s Northeast and China’s Yunnan province. However, since 2011 Myanmar opened its economy to the Western world after the US and Europe lifted sanctions (BBC 2014), creating more partnership options as the reforms attracted a wave of foreign investors. This in turn reduced Sino-Indian competition by making space for new actors and creating more balance in the previously polarized scenario.

Another major aspect of the rivalry lies in the so-called String of Pearls Strategy that China allegedly pursues. However, although there is competition, there is little evidence that the Chinese are planning an encirclement of India with their naval facilities stretching from southern China across the Indian Ocean. Their strategy appears benign, seeking agreements, allowing access to facilities for resupply, etc. The Chinese are here not for bases but for access. Bases would involve huge amounts of investment and would have political implications. It is not just the Chinese Navy that seeks access, the Indian Navy pursues access facilities too but follows a different strategy from that of the Chinese. While the Chinese provide aid in infrastructure building, the Indians create small pockets of bilateral naval exercises (Agnihotri 2014).

In an attempt to reduce suspicion, China has recently invited India to join the country’s efforts of building a wide network of new silk roads on land and sea with the aim of increasing global connectivity (Time of India 2014). Another challenge for China may be India’s military reaction making Chinese sea lines more vulnerable; Beijing is already worried about the Malacca dilemma, and now the Andaman and Nicobar (A&N) Command will put India’s naval and air power in a position to control access to the Strait of Malacca (McDevitt 2013). Whether it is the US or India, whoever controls the Strait, will have a stronghold on Beijing’s energy access, which constitutes a serious concern for China.

About The Authors:

Mohammad Humayun Kabir is Senior Research Director at the Bangladesh Enterprise Institute in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and head of its Foreign Policy and Security Studies Division. He studied International Law in Kiev State University, Ukraine, and International Relations at Oxford University, UK.

Amamah Ahmad is a Research Associate at the Bangladesh Enterprise Institute in Dhaka, Bangladesh. She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Social Science and a Master of Arts in Political Science from the University of Lausanne in Switzerland. She has research interests in Geopolitics, International Security and Transboundary issues.

Publication Details

Citation Information: Croatian International Relations Review. Volume 21, Issue 72, Pages 199–238, ISSN (Online) 1848-5782, DOI: 10.1515/cirr-2015-0007, March 2015.

© 2015. This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 3.0 License. (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

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IndraStra Global: OPINION | India and The Bay of Bengal
OPINION | India and The Bay of Bengal
As part of the greater Indian Ocean Region (IOR), the Bay of Bengal (BoB) has historically been regarded as India’s sphere of influence. However, until recently it was treated as backwaters, and it was only after external actors started showing interest in the region that India realized the importance of protecting this geo-strategic area situated right above one of the world’s busiest Sea Lanes of Communications (SLOCs).
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