Monday, 23 May, 2022

Strategic Significance of Bay of Bengal and Bangladesh’s Balancing Capability

Pathik Hasan

The name 'Bay of Bengal' is a matter of pride for Bengalis! Large cities like Madras (Chennai), Hyderabad, Bhubaneswar in all areas or states, are located on the shores of the Bay of Bengal, but the sea is not named after them. Again, it was not named after a region like the Arabian Sea, but after Bengal. That is why the world has to remember the name of Bengal from time to time. In the middle of Myanmar, Andaman Islands, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and the vast territory of South India, the reservoir of 21 lakh 62 thousand square kilometres is named after Bengal. It is known in the world as the Bay of Bengal.

The Bay of Bengal has now become the center of international politics due to its economic and strategic importance but in fact it extends to the bottom of Sri Lanka. It is one of the busiest international shipping routes in the world. About 40,000 ships ply this route each year. Half of the world's goods and fuel vessels use this route.

The ports on the shores of the Bay of Bengal bear the imprint of political, religious and economic tensions over the centuries. From ancient times to the Middle Ages, Arab traders and missionaries flocked to the ports on the shores of the Bay of Bengal via the Arabian Sea. After the discovery of the Bay of Bengal by Vasco-da Gama, Portuguese, French, Danish, Dutch and English companies started coming from Europe. They built their company offices and forts on the shores of the Bay of Bengal. From this time the conflict between the European merchants and the Indian kings began. Towards the end of this conflict, the British East India Company established its hegemony over India.

Now, Bay of Bengal gets attention from world powers. US, UK, China, India and Japan have focused their attention to this. US has shifted its policy from ‘Asia Pacific’ towards ‘Indo Pacific’ to counter China’s ‘BRI’. Both parties want Bangladesh into their respective blocks. In this regard, Bangladesh is handling this issue carefully. It avoids its involvement with the blocs directly. Having request from US for years, Bangladesh didn’t show any interest to sign ACSA (Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement) and GSOMIA (General Security of Military Information Agreement) with US. On the other hands, when Chinese envoy to Bangladesh commented that Bangladesh shouldn’t join IPS this year, Bangladesh made it clear that it is capable to formulate its own policy. This is the capability of Bangladesh. Basically, Bangladesh doesn’t like any controversy with anyone. Its aim is very simple and clear which is friendship to all and malice to none. Bangladesh wants and likes to go ahead with all regional and global actors.

Bangladesh policy is not to get involved in bi-partisan international politics. This country was an active member of ‘Non-Aligned Movement’. It has no intention and interest to join any block. But Bangladesh intends to be benefitted from all. Bangladesh wants and believes peaceful coexistence in the region. It always avoids any kind of clash with any actor. Despite having the provocation from Myanmar during the Rohingya refugee crisis in 2017, it refrained from using any kind of force. Bangladesh is balancing successfully with all. Bangladesh has been exploiting ‘the strategic significance of Bay of Bengal’.

Irrespective of whether Bangladesh is involved or not in any of the blocs, it must maintain peace in the maritime region to reap the maximum economic benefits from the Bay of Bengal. Bangladesh must acquire the ability to harvest the resources from the deep sea. If possible, it will open the way for Bangladesh to earn huge amount of foreign exchange just like fish and mineral resources.

Ports always play an important role in connectivity. Bangladesh has three seaports. But due to depth constraints, large vessels (mother vessels) are still unable to accommodate. The establishment of a deep seaport at Matarbariin Cox’s bazar in collaboration with Japan will solve this problem as well as reduce the cost of transporting goods. According to the reports of Bangladeshi media outlets, Bangladesh trades about 9,000 crore dollars a year by sea. Four and a half thousand foreign ships transport these imported and exported goods to and from Bangladesh. And Bangladesh has to pay about 900 crore dollars every year for the charter of these ships. Bangladesh has only 60 ships to transport goods at sea. In this case, Bangladesh has a serious shortage of capacity. Bangladesh needs to increase its shipping capability.

The sea area of Bangladesh is 1 lakh 18 thousand square kilometres. On the other hand, if all the rivers and haors (some kind of large open water bodies) of Bangladesh are calculated, it stands at 15,000 kilometres. Bangladesh needs training, education and infrastructure to increase its ability to extract resources from this vast ocean. At present Bangladesh has a Maritime University, Oceanographic Department and Oceanographic Research Center. These institutions should also come forward to expand education in this sector.

Drug smuggling, piracy in the Malacca Strait, pollution from ships or land are destroying the marine environment. Effective steps can be taken to address these crises jointly through BIMSTEC, SAARC and ASEAN. Bangladesh has made changes in the Maritime Act of 1974. Marine Economy Cell has been formed. Besides, maritime economy action plan has been adopted. Bangladesh wants to join ‘Colombo Security Conclave’ now. Its aim is to tackle maritime threats.

Japan attaches great importance to a free and open Indo-Pacific region. Bangladesh is one of the partners of Japan's Big-B initiative around the Bay of Bengal. Under this, Matarbari in Maheshkhali will be turned into a hub for import and export and generation of electricity.

The Bay of Bengal was historically important. Due to geopolitics, its importance has increased since the last 80's. Bangladesh is an important player in this geopolitics. The present government has been pursuing a policy of maintaining good relations with all Indo-Pacific countries, avoiding conflict. Basically, Bangladesh shows the rest of the countries in the region how to balance with big powers simultaneously. Its balancing capability is really praiseworthy and exemplary for many countries.

The US-Japan-Australia-India formed ‘QUAD’ to counter China's ‘BRI’. Despite competition over geopolitics, the United States and China are each other's biggest trading partners. Bangladesh knows and understands this issue. Bangladesh should and must balance with these. Bangladesh needs America and China both for ensuring its business interest. Strategic significance of Bay of Bengal will make Bangladesh more prosperous in the region.


The writer is an analyst.