The Fifth BIMSTEC Summit, held virtually on 30 March 2022 under the Chairmanship of the Sri Lankan President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, reaffirmed the commitment of this seven-nation grouping towards adopting a cooperative approach for addressing issues of common interest in the Bay of Bengal region.
The theme of the Conference, “Towards a Resilient Region, Prosperous Economies, Healthy People” did not specifically include security but it was highlighted by Prime Minister Modi in his address where he spoke of enhanced BIMSTEC regional connectivity, cooperation and security. Each of these is intrinsically linked to the maritime domain in the context of the Bay of Bengal’s centricity in this construct. The transnational nature of the maritime domain and its importance had been referred to earlier at a BIMSTEC Coastal Security Workshop held in New Delhi in November 2019 by the then Secretary (East) in India’s Ministry of External Affairs in her keynote address where she highlighted the need to develop a cooperative approach towards ensuring regional security. Maritime security is also specifically discussed by the National Security Advisers at their meetings.
Besides a number of agreements and protocols that were finalised during this Summit, it was also significant for the following three reasons which impact the emerging geopolitical contours of the region:
- 24 years after its inception, a formal BIMSTEC Charter was adopted by the members which now includes a symbol and a flag. This formally institutionalises this construct and further consolidates the commitment of its member nations.
- Myanmar’s participation, represented by its Foreign Minister, despite pressure from the west to exclude it that reportedly included a diplomatic demarche to India from the United States of America. India’s response that participation in the Summit was at the discretion of the Chairman conveyed a very significant message.
- Successful conduct of the Summit with tangible outcomes despite this period of global and regional uncertainty with the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict and nearer home, the internal turmoil in Sri Lanka, the political volatility in Myanmar and the social and economic fall-out of the Covid-19 pandemic. In fact, this Summit was a timely reminder of the need for an inclusive and cooperative approach towards addressing common challenges.
BIMSTEC has come a long way since its inception on 06 June 1997 at Bangkok as a quadrilateral grouping comprising Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka and Thailand called BIST-EC (Economic Cooperation). It was renamed as BIMSTEC with the addition of Myanmar on 22 December 1997 with each letter representing a country. The addition of Nepal and Bhutan in February 2004 led to its present name being adopted though the acronym remained the same. In its early years, BIMSTEC did not get its due attention as India, its largest member was focussing its attention on the development of SAARC (The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation). However, SAARC’s downward spiral because of the continuing trust deficit between its members widening by the day that even Prime Minister Modi’s effort of inviting all the SAARC Heads of Government to his swearing-in ceremony as Prime Minister in May 2014 could not salvage, has led to its marginalisation. This also coincided with the transformation of India’s Look East Policy into its ‘Act East’ policy and combined with its ‘Neighbourhood First’ Policy, it was BIMSTEC that began to get more attention. India signalled its commitment to taking BIMSTEC by inviting the Heads of Government of the member countries to Prime Minister Modi’s swearing in ceremony in May 2019. The process of revitalising BIMSTEC that began in 2014 was now getting the momentum it required.
The shift in the global geopolitical and geo-economic centre of gravity to the Indo-Pacific and its emergence as a single strategic entity also brought this region into focus and enhanced the strategic importance of BIMSTEC as an important mechanism to improve connectivity between the littorals of these two contiguous ocean spaces. Economically too, this region could not be ignored with 21.7 percent of global population calling it home and generating a GDP in excess of USD 4 trillion with a combined growth rate of 6.1 percent .
At the recent Summit, BIMSTEC established seven main sectors of cooperation; these have been reduced from the earlier 14 to improve cohesiveness and efficiency. Each of these seven is led by one of the members. India is the lead country for Security which includes Counter-Terrorism and Transnational Crime (CTTC), Disaster Management and Energy.
Maritime Security per se does not find specific mention mainly because the wide-ranging definition of the term is intrinsic to most activities and sectors of cooperation in this predominantly maritime centric construct. Its recognition as a ‘common security space’ was highlighted by India at the 4th Summit in Nepal and requires ‘collective strategies for common responses’. Maritime security is a regular topic of discussion amongst the National Security Advisers of BIMSTEC at their formal interaction and a Comprehensive Plan of Action to enhance maritime security cooperation amongst the member states is under preparation.
The importance of the maritime sector for the socio-economic development and future sustenance of the region was highlighted by Prime Minister Modi, when addressing the 4th BIMSTEC Summit held at Kathmandu in 2018 where he said ,“ the geographical location of our region is linked to the global maritime trade routes, and Blue Economy also has a special significance in all our economies”.
The scale and scope of maritime security in contemporary times, driven by globalisation, connectivity and trade dependencies across geographies has extended much beyond the traditional concept of state-on-state conflict at sea and as solely a function of navies and coast guards. It now includes a much wider spectrum of traditional, non-traditional, transnational and economic challenges across the strategic, operational, tactical and sub-conventional domains. The hazards posed by climate change, natural disasters and humanitarian crises has further widened the scope of this term. Addressing these in the oceanic spaces which transcend conventional borders and sovereign maritime jurisdictions therefore requires a cohesive regional approach. As humankind turns increasingly to the sea for its sustenance and development, cooperation and contestation will characterise this domain.
The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is the guiding document for ocean governance and most nations develop their own approach under its overall framework but divergences on interpretation remain. A recent example was India’s objection to the USS John Paul Jones carrying out a Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP) within India’s EEZ in the Arabian Sea. While India stated that it was in contravention of India’s Maritime Zones of India Act, the USA insisted that it was compliant with international law. While disputes amongst nations over economic and territorial claims will continue to occur as will maritime crime on the high seas and coastal waters, a common understanding of its long-term implications underscored by legal provisions will mitigate the threat to a considerable extent.
The Bay of Bengal, which washes the shores of five BIMSTEC members and is the economic lifeline for the two landlocked ones has its own share of bilateral and multilateral maritime security challenges which include disputes over sovereign jurisdictions and a wide spectrum of non-traditional threats including piracy and armed robbery, human trafficking, arms and narcotics smuggling, Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing(IUU), amongst others. The spectre of maritime terrorism is omnipresent and natural disasters strike this region with amazing regularity. The existential threat due to the warming of the oceans and the consequent rise in sea levels is a real and present danger as many coastal communities in the region are facing inundation and the loss of livelihoods. Maritime security, which underpins all the seven sectors of cooperation either directly or indirectly, extends beyond regular security structures and therefore, requires a comprehensive all-of-government approach which includes diplomacy, socio-economic factors, Blue Economy initiatives, cooperative capability and capacity building, Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) and a robust regulatory and legal framework, amongst others.
The Extra-Regional Challenge.
The growing strategic importance of the Bay of Bengal, its centrality in the BIMSTEC construct and the emerging great power rivalry in the Indo-Pacific is drawing the attention of extra-regional powers and is posing a growing challenge to maritime security in the region. The Bay of Bengal offers trade connectivity over land and sea from the Indian Ocean to South-East Asia and the western Pacific. Countries located east of the Malacca Straits are dependent on the safe passage of their trade and energy through this region with more than 70,000 ships transiting this waterway annually. In 2019, China, the world’s largest importer of crude oil sourced more than 55% of its crude oil from OPEC countries (with 16% from Saudi Arabia and 11% from Iraq alone) and substantial quantities from Brazil, Oman, UK etc , all of which passes through these waters as does a major portion of its trade. Ensuring its safe passage through the narrow waterways linking the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea which are straddled by the Bay of Bengal is critical to fuel its superpower ambitions. It is acutely aware of the fact that it is presently disadvantaged as India has the strategic upper hand west of the Malacca Straits. This is often referred to as China’s Malacca Dilemma. It is seeking to mitigate this vulnerability by creating direct access from its mainland to the Indian Ocean. In the Arabian Sea it is establishing the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor connecting Xinjiang to Gwadar and in the Bay of Bengal it is developing the deep-sea port and Special Economic Zone (SEZ) at Kyaukphyu in Myanmar to connect its mainland to the Bay of Bengal.
On 11 April 2022, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Yebin announced China’s new international Land-Sea Trade Corridor as the first direct trade link from mainland China to the Indian Ocean. Freight on this land-sea corridor along the Yangste river from Chongqing to Yangon will take 10-14 days to transit. There is a view that this land connectivity is economically unviable as estimates suggest that it would take about 25,000 tankers to transport just one shipload of crude oil across thousands of miles by road or rail over inhospitable terrain to reach the Chinese mainland. While this may be true, but if China has seen merit in making these strategic multi-billion-dollar investment, it cannot be ignored and has to be factored into the regional security matrix in the Bay of Bengal.
The vulnerability of Chinese trade transit to the mainland either through the narrow straits or the Bay of Bengal Road/rail connectivity projects will continue till India has the strategic advantage of being the largest resident naval presence in the region. Ensuring its security will provide China the justification to position a sizeable PLA Navy presence in the Bay of Bengal. China is aware of its present naval limitations and it is no coincidence that despite the continuing standoff along the LAC and the dangerous brinkmanship over the last two years, it has steered clear of provoking India in the maritime domain. To address this limitation, it is not only expanding its navy at a breathtaking pace and adding large blue water capable platforms but is simultaneously developing a support infrastructure to enable long term deployment of its ships and submarines in the Indian Ocean and expand its naval footprint in the region, including the Bay of Bengal.
The Belt and Road Initiative, unprecedented in scope and ambition is as much about China’s strategic intent as it is about economic gains. The connectivity projects from mainland China to Europe over land and sea have already ensnared some of India’s neighbours in an inextricable debt trap with the consequent impact on regional political and economic stability. The present political crises in Sri Lanka and Pakistan are two recent examples and more might follow.
China has supplied countries in the Bay of Bengal with substantial military hardware. Other than India and Bhutan, the other five BIMSTEC members are operating Chinese weaponry. In the maritime domain, it has supplied the Bangladesh Navy with two frigates and two Ming class submarines in the last five years. Most of the anti-ship and surface to air missile inventory in the Bangladesh Navy is of Chinese origin including the C-802A anti-ship missile which has a range of about 180 km. The Myanmar Navy has a sizeable Chinese inventory including a Ming class submarine even though Myanmar has been trying to diversify its procurement sources. In a setback to India’s efforts to wean Myanmar away from China with the lease of one of its frontline Kilo class submarines to that country in December 2020, Myanmar also accepted a Ming class submarine from China in December 2021. Thailand has an on-off submarine programme with China. It already has a Type 039 submarine procured from China and while it continues to hesitate on taking two more, China has offered two Ming class submarines to Thailand ‘free of cost’ for training its submarine crews. Sri Lanka, which has been blowing hot and cold between China and India over the last few years also has both Indian and Chinese origin ships in its Navy.
Ming class submarines are of 1960s vintage and have limited war fighting capability. By palming off these submarines which were of little use to the PLA Navy, it has gained valuable political and military leverage in these countries. China is also assisting Bangladesh in setting up a submarine base, BNS Sheikh Hasina, off Cox’s bazaar, which will be equipped with Chinese repair facilities and manned by Chinese technical experts. This extensive submarine cooperation with the Bay of Bengal littorals has provided China the logistic and service support capability to deploy and operate its own diesel attack submarines in the Bay of Bengal and the Eastern approaches to the Indian Ocean thus impacting India’s naval pre-dominance in the region. One of the major limitations with the PLA Navy was its inability to optimally deploy its conventional submarine fleet in the Indian Ocean because of the long transit distance from China, their limited endurance and the likely compromise to their position when transiting through the narrow straits leading to the Indian Ocean. Having a facility to base these in the Bay of Bengal will address all these.
China is severely disadvantaged by an unfavourable maritime geography which restricts its ability to pursue its stated aim of establishing its maritime dominance en-route to its global superpower ambitions. Its emerging great power rivalry with the US and the necessity to contain India requires it to have ample sea room to pursue its objectives. By the end of this decade its navy will have about 450 ships of which over one-third will be blue water capable; of these, a sizeable number will be deployed across the Indian Ocean. Its port support and naval base facilities at strategic locations will enable a sizeable permanent PLAN presence in the Indian Ocean from west to east and is of concern to India.
While the physical Chinese presence in the Bay of Bengal is an emerging challenge, its active support to Nepal and its attempts to create trouble at the China-India-Bhutan tri-junction at Doklam, overlooking the strategic Siliguri Corridor, a 25 km wide ‘Chicken’s Neck’ leading to the North-East, while actively wooing Bhutan is a major cause for concern. Both Nepal and Bhutan, though landlocked, are dependent on the Bay of Bengal for their trade which has to pass through India. As an important confidence building measure and also as a capacity building initiative, BIMSTEC’s maritime members must make the necessary concessions to provide maritime connectivity to both the land-locked members as also assuage bilateral tensions concerning them in the region.
China has also been a major benefactor of Myanmar over the years with its sizable economic and military support. It has actively stoked trouble with its support to militant groups operating in India’s North-East and across the Myanmar-India border. Despite the current political situation and global criticism of the junta, India has continued to engage with Myanmar, but the future of the relationship now has an element of uncertainty.
The Non-Traditional, Transnational Security Challenge
The long term extra regional security concern notwithstanding, it is the multitude of non-traditional and transnational security challenges in the maritime domain that are a constant threat to the delicate calm prevailing in the region. The root cause of these is political instability, economic deprivation, internecine warfare, a disaffected population and inimical external actors seeking to exploit these vulnerabilities. Amongst the many challenges, the most disruptive in the maritime domain are piracy and armed robbery, illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, human trafficking, human migration, narcotics and arms smuggling and maritime terrorism.
Piracy and Armed Robbery
Piracy and armed robbery at sea has been around for as long as seafarers themselves. Incidents on board ships at anchorage are frequently reported off Bangladesh and in the Straits of Malacca, though piracy on the high seas is less prevalent in these waters. However, this is not a local issue and has implications for the entire region. Coordinated patrols frequently undertaken amongst two or more navies in the region are a deterrent but it is a phenomenon that can be contained but not totally eliminated.
Illegal,Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) Fishing
Perhaps the single greatest non-traditional security challenge in the maritime domain is the rising incidence of Illegal Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing. The rapid depletion of fish stocks all over the world, partly because of marine pollution and the damage to the marine habitat, but mainly because of over-fishing with little regard to international law or sovereign considerations is a global concern. The Bay of Bengal is no exception and it is estimated that IUU fishing by foreign fishing vessels in the region is worth USD 3.7-5.2 bn per year which is almost 8% to 16% of the total catch. The BIMSTEC maritime nations including India have large coastal communities dependent, directly or indirectly, on the fisheries sector for their livelihood. Most of these communities still use traditional methods of fishing with limited output and are disadvantaged vis-a-vis modern foreign trawlers using more sophisticated methods. China is perhaps the world’s biggest culprit in IUU fishing. Its large fishing fleets think nothing of encroaching the EEZ of other countries and circumvent AIS identification by going dark (switching off their AIS transponders) during those periods. Besides the considerable economic cost, IUU fishing also impacts the development of the ocean economy, affects ocean governance and encourages organised criminal activity. There is some effort being made individually and collectively to curb this activity and enact better regulation but the lack of coordination is hampering the effort.
The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), through various governance mechanisms like the FAO Agreement on Port State Measures to Prevent, Deter and Eliminate Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing [PSMA] and United Nations Fish Stocks Agreement [UNFSA]) is attempting to integrate regional concerns in a global regulatory framework. Initiatives like the Regional Plan of Action (RPOA) for IUU Fishing (RPOA-IUU) for the four members of the Kolkatta headquartered Bay of Bengal Programme Inter-Governmental Organisation (BOBPIGO) and a National Plan of Action (NPOA) for Combating IUU Fishing (NPOA-IUU), developed for Bangladesh are some of the initiatives being taken in this regard. Local fishermen also indulge in IUU fishing during off-fishing seasons or in regulated fishing areas. This unregulated fishing activity is very harmful to fish stocks in the oceans and also has economic implications. Individual countries have developed their own means to check IUU fishing in their waters. However, this has larger regional implications and therefore requires a cooperative regional response capability, which is both constabulary and regulatory. Capacity building, developing a target-specific and time-bound Plan of Action besides sharing best practices being followed by individual countries are some of the measures to mitigate this threat.
Human trafficking across borders, predominantly of women and children by crime syndicates is an issue of concern. In the BIMSTEC region, human trafficking takes place over land and sea because of the nature of the terrain and the porosity of the borders and the coastline. The exact numbers are not easily available because of varying figures being documented by countries but the gravity of the issue and the magnitude of the problem is well understood.
This region has been a victim of upheavals amongst populations due to political instability and insurgencies which has led to large scale migration of disaffected people. It is estimated that more than one million Rohingya people from the Rakhine region of Myanmar have sought refuge in Bangladesh. Many have also taken to escape via the sea. Instances of people being herded into boats in the most appalling conditions with tremendous risk to life by unscrupulous agents and criminal gangs occur frequently and have also been flagged as a Human Rights issue.
The Bay of Bengal is central to the infamous ‘Golden Triangle’ (Laos, Myanmar and Thailand) with both the maritime states being members of BIMSTEC. This is a major cause for concern for the other countries bordering the Bay as transit routes for these drugs to other parts of the world . Bangladesh has flagged this issue as its maritime area is contiguous to these waters and susceptible to being used by global drug syndicates as has India. At a bilateral meeting with Myanmar in December 2020, the head of India’s Narcotics Control Bureau had flagged drug trafficking through the maritime route in the Bay of Bengal as a ‘new challenge’. This is also borne out by the frequency of drug seizures at sea by the Coast Guard, the Navy and other marine law enforcement agencies either at sea or in ports.
An increase in drug abuse in India’s north-east along the border with Myanmar is also being monitored. India is in the unenviable position of lying between the ‘Golden Crescent’ on its west with Pakistan being one of its biggest protagonists and the Golden Triangle on its east where it shares a border with Myanmar and Bangladesh. There is insufficient data in the open domain on the smuggling of narcotics via the maritime domain but the open expanse of the sea and the relative ease by which the vast coastline can be accessed makes the sea route an attractive option for drug syndicates. The usage of drug money for funding terrorism and exploiting vulnerable coastal populations is a major threat.
The movement of illegal weapons via the sea is a major threat in the region. Besides the coastline, arms are also smuggled through ports with inadequate monitoring mechanisms. On 01 July 2004, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) promulgated the International Ship and Fort Facility (ISPS) Code which has laid down the mandatory protocols and procedures for enhancing port security and monitoring of cargo to address the threat from the maritime domain. While most countries are signatories to this code, the extent of implementation varies. Most large major ports in the region adhere to its guidelines but the many non-major ports which abound in this region have neither the means nor the intent to make the necessary investment to enforce it and lack even the most basic requirements of adequate perimeter security to safeguard their cargo. Inadequate monitoring of containerised cargo facilitates the movement of increasingly lethal and sophisticated illegal weapons which are often funded by drug money and are being used to foment instability in the region. The densely forested coastlines and the large number of uninhabited islands, eg in the Andaman and Nicobar region, provide convenient transit and landing points for illegal arms and offer refuge to insurgents; these are also vulnerable to being used as launch pads for acts of terrorism from the sea.
The tragic events of 26 November 2008 in Mumbai was a defining moment for maritime terrorism as an omnipresent threat in the region. The ease with which Mumbai could be breached from the sea exposed major deficiencies in the coastal security framework and led to a complete overhaul of the existing system. This was not the first act of maritime terrorism on Indian soil; in 1993, Mumbai had been rocked by a series of explosions, caused by explosives that had been landed on the Gujarat coast. Terrorism and low intensity conflict is becoming an effective tool for state and state-supported actors to create political and social instability, cause mayhem and gain international publicity for their cause. It is also being used as an instrument of state policy as it offers an option of plausible deniability while achieving its limited ends.
The first recognised maritime wing of a separatist organisation was the LTTE’s Sea Tigers which became a thorn in the flesh of the Sri Lankan Navy with frequent attacks at sea and used its own ships and watercraft to smuggle arms into the country; The jurisdictional challenge of interdiction at sea was highlighted with the LTTE claiming that the ship was on innocent passage on the high seas beyond Sri Lankan jurisdiction and the Sri Lankan Navy justifying its actions. This highlighted how the vast expanse of the sea and the concept of the global commons can be exploited for nefarious ends with inadequate jurisdictional authority to take effective action. Political instability, insurgent movements, disaffected populations, economic deprivation and ideological messaging which incites, are the perfect breeding grounds for terrorists and there are elements within coastal populations who are vulnerable to the temptation of making a quick buck.
Addressing the Challenge
The BIMSTEC sector on Security Cooperation, led by India is addressing this challenge through six Joint Working Groups (JWG). These are:
- Sub-Group on Narcotic Drugs, Psychotropic Substances and Precursor Chemicals (SGNDPSPC)
- Sub-Group on Intelligence Sharing (SGIS)
- Sub-Group on Legal and Law Enforcement Issues (SGLLEI)
- Sub-Group on Anti-Money Laundering and Combating the Financing of Terrorism (SGAML-CFT)
- Sub-Group on Human Trafficking and Illegal Migration
- Sub-Group on the Cooperation on Countering Radicalisation and Terrorism.
Global warming is a reality that cannot be wished away. The rapid melting of the polar icecaps and the increase in sea levels is likely to inundate large extents of low-lying coastal areas and therefore poses an existential threat to the lives and livelihoods of the communities living there. Despite the ambitious Sustainable Development Goals (SDG 14 refers to the marine sector), a collective effort is lacking. Even limiting the rise of temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius will have a major adversarial effect on the maritime domain in the Bay of Bengal. It will destroy the dense mangroves which could lead to unchecked flooding; it will cause acidification of the sea, destruction of coral growth and the migration of fish to cooler waters. Added to this is the pollution of the seas which directly affects marine life. While on the one hand the importance of the seas for the future of mankind as a medium of clean, safe and economical transportation and a source of revenue through marine tourism and resource exploitation is important, ensuring that this is done responsibly to ensure sustainable development is a challenge that has not been adequately addressed. A mixture of ignorance and indifference among the populace is leading to a rapid depletion of this precious resource. Climate change therefore, has major implications for regional maritime security. Collectively addressing this is an imperative that requires immediate and effective action.
A direct consequence of climate change is the rising incidence of natural disasters in the region. The memories of the devastation caused by the tsunami on Boxing Day 2004 are still fresh in people’s minds; there have been numerous other cyclones and typhoons over the years of varying intensity with calamitous loss of life and property that has devastated communities and caused economic and personal grief. Providing humanitarian assistance and disaster relief to reduce the suffering is a major non-traditional task for navies and coast guards. India has been at the forefront in providing HADR in the region and is creating regional capacity to both predict a possible disaster and also be able to offer the necessary support.
Mitigating the Maritime Security Challenge
BIMSTEC has often been blamed for underperforming which is not entirely unjustified. It was only at the recent Summit, 24 years after it came into existence that its Charter was adopted. The reason for this is a lack of convergence on many political and economic issues amongst its members which has stymied progress on many fronts. It must be said however, that there has been significant progress since 2016; the strategic centrality of the Bay of Bengal as a connectivity hub in the emerging Indo-Pacific power-play, and the economic benefits of collectively addressing issues related to the seven sectors identified at the recent Summit are becoming increasingly obvious. Ensuring a secure maritime environment is central to this. India, as the largest (by far) and most influential member of this group, has to take the lead in creating a shared understanding of the challenges and developing a cohesive approach towards addressing the same.
The key to developing an effective maritime security capability across BIMSTEC lies in inclusive and cooperative capacity building and creating a cohesive network where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Prime Minister Modi’s SAGAR Doctrine (Security And Growth for all in the Region) is driving this effort across the political, social, economic and security domains. India’s SAGARMALA port-led maritime infrastructure development programme to revitalise maritime India is another initiative that can be dovetailed seamlessly into strengthening BIMSTEC and making it self-sufficient in various maritime sectors. The restructuring of the coastal security architecture after the tragic events of 26 November 2008 has led to the coastal radar coverage along India’s 7516 km long coastline getting extended to include Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and even further afield to the Maldives towards developing a robust surveillance capability in the entire region.
The coastal security network in India’s entire maritime neighbourhood is just one of the SAGAR initiatives taken to enhance MDA, which is critical for effective regional maritime security. Sharing best practices and further refining them through joint exercises also contributes substantially to capacity building. In December 2021, a three-day multilateral exercise called PANEX 21 was conducted in Pune which focussed on Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief and was attended by all BIMSTEC members. The recently held biennial MILAN exercise with participation from all countries in the region and beyond which had humble beginnings more than 25 years ago has matured into a major capacity building effort.
Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA)
Effective and continuous surveillance is essential to secure the vast ocean spaces and nip a developing situation in the bud. This is especially relevant in the case of non-traditional and transnational threats. As the pre-eminent Indian Ocean power, India is also a provider of net security in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) for which effective MDA is an imperative. The strategic and economic importance of the Bay of Bengal and its littoral is gaining global attention with many extra regional players keen to engage. It is imperative, therefore, that the region be seen as safe and secure for the passage of trade and for economic investment. Modern technology has enabled surveillance by long range maritime patrol aircraft, satellites, warships, submarines, merchant shipping and even fishing craft. Securing this region will require a coordinated national and multilateral effort by all the littorals. This will include a well-coordinated internal organisation and its ability to coordinate, collate, analyse and disseminate information in a regional framework. Information sharing is an important element of MDA. The setting up of the Indian Ocean Region Information Fusion Centre in Gurugram, a suburb of the national capital in December 2018 has greatly enhanced regional MDA. India has signed White Shipping Agreements with more than 23 countries which enables the sharing of unclassified information on the movement of shipping and is the means to detect any abnormal activity at sea which may warrant attention. Information sharing with similar centres in Singapore and Madagascar (covering the western Indian Ocean) provide a comprehensive maritime picture of the region and its surrounding waters.
Blue Economy Initiatives
Sustainable and responsible exploitation of the oceans is critical for the Bay of Bengal littorals. India is at the forefront of various climate change initiatives. It has pledged its support to the Sustainable Development Goals and has taken the lead in important initiatives like the International Solar Alliance and the Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative. It is also assuming the Presidency of the G-20 this year. During its two-year non-permanent membership of the UN Security Council, it convened a discussion on maritime security. BIMSTEC should leverage India’s prominence on the global stage to focus attention on the hazards of climate change in the Bay of Bengal littoral. Additionally, the Bay of Bengal littorals have to commit themselves to this cause besides educating their populations and emphasising the importance of sustainable exploitation of the maritime domain.
Most of the BIMSTEC nations are also a part of other regional multilateral mechanisms like the Indian Ocean Rim Association, ASEAN, ADMM+ and professional mechanisms like the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) and the Western Pacific Naval Symposium(WPNS) etc. India is also a member of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD). Member countries should leverage these organisations towards enhancing regional maritime security measures and adopting their best practices. India must support these efforts as part of its SAGAR Doctrine and as the security lead in BIMSTEC.
The predominantly maritime construct of BIMSTEC underlines the importance of a robust maritime security framework to address the growing challenge from state and non-state actors to dominate, disrupt and destabilise this region. As BIMSTEC’s strategic importance grows, so will the magnitude of the security challenge. This will require a cooperative capacity and capability building effort to ensure the individual and collective security and economic interests of its members. A coordinated and comprehensive approach to regional development, a potent military and constabulary capability and a robust legal and regulatory framework in conformance with internationally accepted conventions and regulations is the need of the hour. Frequent governmental and non-governmental interaction amongst its members on issues of shared interest must be encouraged at various levels must be encouraged. The adoption of the BIMSTEC Charter is an important step forward in giving purpose and direction to this regionally important construct.
Author Brief Bio:Commodore Anil Jai Singh served in the Navy for over three decades. He is presently the Vice President of the Indian Maritime Foundation and takes keen interest in matters maritime.
 Press Release Prime Minister’s office 5th BIMSTEC Summit 30 March 2022. https://pib.gov.in/PressReleaseIframePage.aspx?PRID=1811269&msclkid=b6a00916bb9d11ecbac41f0ad09d8b08
India remains strongly committed to expand regional cooperation under BIMSTEC: Foreign Secretary – The Economic Times (indiatimes.com)
 https://www.janes.com/defence-news-detail/china-hands-over-two -ex-plan-frigates-to-bangladesh-navy