Is the Bay of Bengal the next strategic locus for Sino-Indian strategic competition?

Prominent strategic commentator Raja Mohan recently lamented that India was on the point of 'losing' the Bay of Bengal to China. The occasion of his complaint was the attendance by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at the summit of BIMSTEC, the Bay of Bengal regional grouping, held in Myanmar.

According to Mohan, BIMSTEC represents a 'huge opportunity' for India to break out of the 'stagnant regionalism' of the Indian subcontinent. But India has failed to capitalise. Mohan claims India's sluggishness in developing regional infrastructure is allowing China, with its characteristic efficiency, to grab opportunities. This includes road links and gas and oil pipelines from southern China through Myanmar, and possibly high speed rail links to Thailand. These are being built while India talks. According to Mohan, New Delhi's dithering means India will be further marginalised in the region.

Well, yes and no.

Certainly the BIMSTEC grouping has had few concrete achievements to date. To a significant extent this reflects the domestic turmoil and violent insurgencies that have kept key members such as Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Thailand internally focused for years. India is also very good at looking gift horses in the mouth. New Delhi recently allowed the West Bengal state government to block a deal that would have resolved many differences with Bangladesh and paved the way for crucial transit rights for Indian trade across Bangladesh. Plans for the development of road infrastructure connecting major manufacturing areas in eastern India with Bangladesh, Myanmar and Thailand have been under discussion for years.

But Mohan's lament does not take into account India's advantages that make it the natural power in the Bay of Bengal.

New Delhi is in fact giving renewed focus to BIMSTEC members, with emphasis on improving transport connectivity across the southern Asian littoral. India is also sponsoring the construction of new road and river connections between its virtually land-locked northeast states and the Bay of Bengal through new port facilities in Sittwe, Myanmar. This should be completed next year.

India's economic and political links across the Bay of Bengal are growing, and they have been accompanied by an expansion of India's regional security role. India has long aspired to be recognised as the predominant power in the Bay of Bengal and to assume a greater strategic role in Southeast Asia. These ambitions are broadly consistent with the perspectives of many ASEAN states. They generally see India as a positive factor in the regional balance of power — largely in contrast with China.

The region would probably benefit from an expansion of India's security role. The Bay of Bengal is beset by many security problems, including concerns over trade through the Malacca Strait, maritime boundary disputes involving access to energy resources, separatist insurgencies, widespread piracy and smuggling, and environmental security problems including the possible inundation of large parts of the littoral by rising sea levels.

India sees itself as a net security provider to the Bay of Bengal region. For decades, India has developed its military presence in the Andaman Islands that run north-south through the Bay. While this caused some unease among regional states during the Cold War, India's presence is now seen in positive terms.

India has growing security relationships with all of its Bay of Bengal neighbours and has conducted symbolic coordinated naval patrols with the Indonesian and Thai navies for some years. India has been keen to demonstrate its credentials as a provider of public goods in such areas as maritime policing, counter-terrorism and humanitarian and disaster relief.

For years, India has hosted its premier multilateral naval exercise, Exercise MILAN, out of the Andamans. This year's event, held in early February, was the largest ever, with 16 guest navies represented, including all Bay of Bengal states and other navies from the Pacific to Africa. As I mentioned in a recent post, the cooperative and multilateral nature of India's Exercise MILAN stands in stark contrast to China's unilateral naval demonstrations in the eastern Indian Ocean only a few days prior.

India's implicit security role throughout the Bay of Bengal could soon be formalised. On 7 March, India's National Security Advisor, Shiv Shankar Menon, announced that the Indian Ocean island states of Seychelles and Mauritius had joined India's existing naval arrangement with Sri Lanka and the Maldives in a new maritime security grouping covering those island states. Menon also foreshadowed that the arrangement may be expanded to encompass the Bay of Bengal or that a similar arrangement may replicated with Bay of Bengal states.

Menon's comments may well have been primarily intended for Beijing's consumption, as a response to the Chinese naval exercises. However, the development of a multilateral maritime security arrangement in the Bay of Bengal would be a highly significant, and many would say positive, step for the security architecture of the eastern Indian Ocean. India has not 'lost' the Bay of Bengal quite yet.