Author: Troy Lee-Brown, UWA
The year 2022 marks the 30th anniversary of the strategic partnership between ASEAN and India, 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 organisation supporting economic cooperation between seven South Asian and Southeast Asian nations — India, and the littoral states of the Bay of Bengal.
The Bay of Bengal is the largest bay in the world. As it continues to grow in strategic importance, Southeast Asian states should look and act to their immediate west to help bolster regional maritime security and governance. Maritime security issues in Southeast Asia often focus on the east of Malacca, but other maritime areas further west warrant the same level of attention. With growing strategic linkages between the South China Sea and the Bay of Bengal, these two important sub-regions should be viewed as a coherent whole.
The Bay of Bengal is home to around 1.4 billion people. Its littoral states host more than one quarter of the global population, while its strategic geography is increasingly important to some of the world’s great powers. While India has cast itself as a ‘net security provider’ in the Indian Ocean, China has multiple economic and security interests in the region, and Japan, Australia and the United States are intently focussed on the maritime area.
The ‘Indo-Pacific’ is a strategic region that envisages a union between the Indian and Pacific oceans. Complementing the continental ‘belt’ in Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, there is a maritime ‘silk road’ sea route linking China’s coast with Southeast Asia, South Asia and beyond.
Maritime competition between a more expansive China and India is converging on the Bay of Bengal. China has numerous strategic interests in the littoral 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 to Yangon in Myanmar. India is developing closer security ties with South China Sea states, including the recent supply of patrol vessels to Vietnam and the sale of the Brahmos missile system to the Philippines.
The non-traditional maritime security challenges faced by states in the South China Sea could equally 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 interrelated in the Bay of Bengal and the South China Sea.
Environmentally driven maritime security concerns will be increasingly difficult to distinguish in the coming years. Climate-induced disasters and the availability of disaster recovery resources warrant a connected maritime space in which states can cooperate to meet shared challenges.
Institutional changes can help navigate some of these issues. BIMSTEC is a regional organisation with overlap between Southeast and South Asia and a membership including Myanmar and Thailand. The expansion of BIMSTEC to include other Bay of Bengal states such as Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia would help the forum address issues across the entire bay.
BIMSTEC could also expand its remit to strengthen its focus on maritime security. India has taken the lead on the grouping’s security pillar while seeking to improve maritime security in the broader Indian Ocean Region. It has also invested significant effort in bolstering maritime domain awareness (MDA) capabilities. MDA is an essential enabler of maritime security operations, and recent efforts by India include the expansion of operational platforms, improved littoral infrastructure and increased cooperation in regional information-sharing.
There is further scope for Southeast Asian states to strengthen their cooperation with Indian-led maritime security initiatives. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has stressed the centrality of ASEAN to 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 individual Southeast Asian states.
The 28 October 2021 announcement of cooperation between India’s Indo-Pacific Ocean’s Initiative (IPOI) and ASEAN’s Outlook on the Indo-Pacific is encouraging, but deepening this institutional relationship is the next and most important step. Singapore and Indonesia already engage with the Indo-Pacific Ocean Initiative’s pillars, with Vietnam and the Philippines also showing interest.
Southeast Asian states can bolster maritime security by improving cooperation with India and other Bay of Bengal states. The India–Indonesia Coordinated Patrol — a joint naval patrol by the Indian and Indonesian navies that has been held regularly since 2002 — provides a credible blueprint for how to conduct bilateral maritime security cooperation across the region.
Trilateral patrols between Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines have shown some initial signs of success in the Sulu and Sulawesi Seas, so a similar maritime-focussed 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 need to be plotted across the straits.
Troy Lee-Brown is Research Fellow at the Defence & Security Institute, University of Western Australia.
Disclaimer: This article is part of the ‘Blue Security’ project led by La Trobe Asia, University of Western Australia Defence and Security Institute, Griffith Asia Institute and UNSW Canberra. Views expressed are solely of its authors and not representative of the Maritime Exchange, the Australian Government, or collaboration partner country government.
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