Bay of Bengal is a platform for regional cooperation and competition

Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies (BIPSS), in collaboration with the British High Commission Dhaka, hosted an expert roundtable titled "Maritime Security in the Bay of Bengal" on 27 May. The event took place at the British High Commissioner's residence in Dhaka, with key maritime security experts, policymakers, and representatives from both Bangladesh and the United Kingdom.

Major General ANM Muniruzzaman, ndc, psc, (retd), President of BIPSS, moderated the discussion, highlighting the Bay of Bengal's critical role in regional and global geopolitics. Distinguished guests included Jamie Moncrieff, Maritime Security Specialist and Spiro Marcandonatos, Maritime Security Consultant from the UK. Maritime experts from Bangladesh participated as expert panelists, enriching the dialogue with their insights and perspectives.

Jamie Moncrieff focused on UK’s maritime security in his opening remarks. He emphasized the UK's evolving approach to maritime security, particularly in integrating and collaborating with global partners. He underscored the importance of joint efforts between the Royal Navy and the Bangladesh Navy, recognizing the unique challenges and opportunities in the region. He also expressed the UK's eagerness to deepen partnerships in the Indo-Pacific region, acknowledging the strategic significance of the Bay of Bengal in maintaining regional stability and security.

Spiro Marcandonatos highlighted the geopolitical significance of Bangladesh in his opening remarks. He highlighted Bangladesh's strategic location between China and India, stressing its importance in the broader geopolitical landscape. He noted the country's pivotal role in regional maritime dynamics.

Moderator of the discussion Major General ANM Muniruzzaman provided a comprehensive overview of the Bay of Bengal, the largest bay in the world, and its strategic importance. He emphasized its crucial role in regional power balance, with major powers like India and China vying for influence. He detailed the bay's economic, strategic, environmental, and geopolitical importance for Bangladesh. ‘The bay is vital for natural resources, trade, and connectivity, underpinning Bangladesh's blue economy aspirations,’ he said. Strategically, it is significant for maritime security amid naval expansions by emerging powers. Environmentally, the bay faces climate change and environmental protection challenges. Geopolitically, it is a platform for regional cooperation and competition.

Rear Admiral ASM A Awal, (retd) discussed the strategic significance of the Bay of Bengal within the Indian Ocean region. He emphasized the need for substantial investment and a comprehensive restructuring approach to harness the blue economy's potential.

In his remarks, Shafqat Munir, Senior Fellow at BIPSS, highlighted that Bangladesh is increasingly developing its identity as a maritime nation. He provided some examples of historical cooperation between the United Kingdom and Bangladesh in the realm of security and the ties that existed between the Bangladesh Armed forces and the UK armed forces. He also mentioned that there is an urgent need for capability development to address Bangladesh’s emerging maritime security needs and the United Kingdom could be an important partner in that regard. He also talked about the increasing geostrategic competition in the maritime domain and Bangladesh’s growing importance as a maritime player.

Commodore Syed Misbah Uddin Ahmed, Director General of BIMRAD, underscored that maritime security and strategy are interconnected with land-based operations. He also talked about the external influence in the Bay of Bengal. The Bay is also important for implementation of Chinese BRI corridor. Therefore the potential for entrance into the bay from other areas have got to be understood.

Dr. Manzur Haque, honorary advisor to Bangladesh Institute of Maritime Research and Development (BIMRAD) discussed the challenges faced in constructing the Matarbari deep sea port and the implications of Chinese presence in Hambantota. Group Captain Zahidul Islam Khan (retd) emphasized the importance of governance in the Bay of Bengal and the necessity of having Western-origin hardware to build governance capacity. And Parvez Karim Abbasi focused on Bangladesh's vulnerabilities in maritime security. He stressed the need for resources and partnerships with like-minded countries to fulfill the aspiration of becoming a net security provider.

Ayesha Kabir, Head of Prothom Alo English Web, highlighted non-traditional security issues in the bay, including climate change, natural disasters, terrorism, refugees, narcotics, piracy, unregulated fishing, rising sea levels, and salinity.

Strengthening the Bangladesh Navy and Coast Guard, improving surveillance and intelligence capabilities, and fostering international naval cooperation were highlighted as critical steps in this direction. Moreover, fostering regional cooperation was deemed pivotal for achieving both security and economic aspirations.

Tanvir Habib, lecturer from the University of Dhaka elaborated on the interests of major powers such as India, China, Japan, France, and Russia in the region. He noted India's particular understanding and strategic approach to the Bay of Bengal.

The moderator added to that the Bay of Bengal serves as a critical space for Indian naval operations, influencing both India's security and regional stability. He also highlighted about China's increasing interest in the bay and the Indian Ocean and the consequent geopolitical tensions.

Marjuka Binte Afzal, a lecturer from Bangladesh University of Professionals (BUP), discussed traditional security concerns in the Bay of Bengal and highlighted Bangladesh's absence from naval exercises in the bay. She emphasized the importance of information sharing.

While questioning the health of the Bay of Bengal, the moderator pointed out the many ways the marine space is being polluted through plastic pollution, acidification and excessive heating of the sea. Rear Admiral Awal recognized the ecological aspect of the bay as a huge challenge. The Bay of Bengal has a rich marine eco-system. In order to protect the diverse biodiversity of the Bay of Bengal and its surroundings we need specific action, collaboration and huge investment.

The roundtable concluded with a unanimous recognition of Bangladesh as a maritime nation, a crucial acknowledgment of the country's extensive coastline and significant maritime resources. This recognition is not merely symbolic; it reflects the deep-seated realities of Bangladesh’s geography, economy, and strategic imperatives. The discussions underscored the necessity for Bangladesh to adopt a maritime-centric approach in its policy-making and strategic planning. This approach involves prioritizing maritime issues in national agendas, investing in the maritime sector, and enhancing naval capabilities to protect and leverage maritime resources effectively. Enhancing maritime security was identified as a cornerstone for maintaining stability in the Bay of Bengal.

The experts emphasized that robust maritime security measures are essential to safeguard against a range of threats. Strengthening the Bangladesh Navy and Coast Guard, improving surveillance and intelligence capabilities, and fostering international naval cooperation were highlighted as critical steps in this direction. Moreover, fostering regional cooperation was deemed pivotal for achieving both security and economic aspirations. These cooperative efforts could take the form of joint naval exercises, information sharing, and coordinated responses to maritime challenges. By adopting a maritime-centric policy approach, enhancing security, and fostering regional cooperation, Bangladesh can ensure a stable and prosperous future, leveraging its maritime heritage to drive national development and regional stability.