Author: Troy Lee-Brown, UWA
The year 2022 marks the 30th anniversary of the ASEAN-India strategic partnership, but there are new opportunities for mutually beneficial cooperation. Southeast Asian states should strengthen their regional maritime security by cooperating with the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) – an international organization supporting economic cooperation among seven Southeast Asian countries. South and Southeast Asia – India and the coastal states of the Bay of Bengal.
The Bay of Bengal is the largest bay in the world. As its strategic importance continues to grow, Southeast Asian states should look and act to their immediate west to help strengthen regional maritime security and governance. Maritime security issues in Southeast Asia often focus on eastern Malacca, but other maritime areas farther west deserve the same level of attention. With growing strategic links between the South China Sea and the Bay of Bengal, these two important sub-regions should be considered as a cohesive whole.
The Bay of Bengal is home to around 1.4 billion people. Its coastal states are home to more than a quarter of the world’s population, while its strategic geography is increasingly important to some of the world’s major powers. While India has marketed itself as a “network security provider” in the Indian Ocean, China has multiple economic and security interests in the region, and Japan, Australia and the United States concentrate intensely on the maritime area.
The Indo-Pacific is a strategic region that envisions a union between the Indian and Pacific oceans. Complementing the mainland “belt” of the Beijing Belt and Road Initiative, there is a “silk road” maritime route connecting the Chinese coast with Southeast Asia, South Asia and the -of the.
Maritime competition between a more expansive China and India is converging on the Bay of Bengal. China has many strategic interests in the coastal states of the Bay of Bengal, such as port projects in Sri Lanka and a port and rail project linking the Chinese city of Chengdu with Yangon in Myanmar. India is developing closer security ties with South China Sea states, including the recent supply of patrol boats to Vietnam and the sale of the Brahmos missile system to the Philippines.
Non-traditional maritime security challenges facing South China Sea states could also impact states like Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, piracy, terrorism and insurgency, human trafficking, undocumented migration and other transnational crimes are increasingly linked in the Bay of Bengal and the Sea from southern China.
Environmental concerns in maritime safety will be increasingly difficult to distinguish in the years to come. Climate-induced disasters and the availability of disaster recovery resources warrant a connected maritime space in which states can cooperate to address common challenges.
Institutional changes can help navigate some of these issues. BIMSTEC is a regional organization that overlaps between Southeast Asia and South Asia and whose members include Myanmar and Thailand. Expanding BIMSTEC to include other Bay of Bengal states such as Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia would help the forum address Baywide issues.
BIMSTEC could also broaden its remit to strengthen its focus on maritime security. India has taken the lead on the security pillar of the grouping while seeking to improve maritime security in the wider Indian Ocean region. It has also invested considerable effort in building maritime domain awareness (MDA) capabilities. MDA is a critical enabler of maritime security operations, and India’s recent efforts include expanding operational platforms, improving shoreline infrastructure and increasing cooperation in regional information sharing.
Southeast Asian states still have an opportunity to enhance their cooperation with Indian-led maritime security initiatives. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi underscored ASEAN’s central role in India’s Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR) – New Delhi’s vision for the Indian Ocean region – but more Maritime diplomacy, such as increased joint exercises and maritime patrols, can be done to strengthen engagement with Southeast Asian states.
The October 28, 2021 announcement of cooperation between India’s Indo-Pacific Ocean’s Initiative (IPOI) and ASEAN’s outlook on the Indo-Pacific is encouraging, but the deepening of this institutional relationship is the next and most important step. Singapore and Indonesia are already committing to the pillars of the Indo-Pacific Ocean Initiative, with Vietnam and the Philippines also showing interest.
Southeast Asian states can enhance maritime security by improving cooperation with India and other Bay of Bengal states. The India-Indonesia Coordinated Patrol – a joint naval patrol of the Indian and Indonesian navies that has been held regularly since 2002 – provides a credible blueprint on how to conduct bilateral maritime security cooperation in the region.
Trilateral patrols between Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines have shown some early signs of success in the Sulu and Sulawesi seas, so a similar sea-focused minilateral initiative in the Bay of Bengal could be viable. To successfully navigate the growing number of maritime security issues from the South China Sea to the Bay of Bengal, deeper strategic routes must be charted through the strait.
Troy Lee-Brown is a research fellow at the Institute for Defense and Security at the University of Western Australia.
Disclaimer: This article is part of Project Blue Security led by La Trobe Asia, University of Western Australia Institute for Defense and Security, Griffith Asia Institute and UNSW Canberra. The opinions expressed are solely those of its authors and do not represent the Maritime Exchange, the Australian Government or the government of the collaborating partner country.