The Bay of Bengal has always been of significant importance down the ages and its strategic significance today is now perhaps more vital than ever before, given the escalation of global developments in recent times. It has increasingly become the focus of regional and global powers and calls for the attention of strategic thinkers. With these considerations in mind, the Dhaka Tribune and Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Strategic Studies (BIPSS) jointly organised a roundtable, ‘Strategic Significance of the Bay of Bengal and the Role of Bangladesh’ on Monday, 28 February, at the Westin in the capital.

Speakers at the event deliberated on the economic, political, security and multifarious aspects that has made the Bay of Bengal one of the most significant regions in present times. Moderated by Maj Gen ANM Muniruzzaman (retd), president of BIPSS, the panel of experts at the roundtable included Brig Gen Shahedul Anam Khan (retd), former associate editor of The Daily Star, Rear Admiral Kazi Sarwar Hossain (retd), former ambassador and DG of Bangladesh Coast Guard, and Parvez Karim Abbasi, assistant professor of economics at East West University.

India has treated it like its backwaters so long, but now the rising and existing powers around the world are making it clear that the Indian Ocean is not India’s Ocean
Maj Gen ANM Muniruzzaman (retd), president, BIPSS

Highlighting the importance of the Bay of Bengal, Maj Gen ANM Muniruzzaman (retd) said it was one of the busiest shipping lanes today, used by 50,000 vessels every year. Importantly, the bay was located between two key economic and political regions of SAARC and ASEAN. It was increasingly becoming the focus of several powers including China, India, the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan and more.

“Unfortunately,” the BIPSS president pointed out, “the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and the Bay of Bengal has no security infrastructure and so becomes a playground of the regional and global powers. India has treated it like its backwaters so long, but now the rising and existing powers around the world are making it clear that the Indian Ocean is not India’s Ocean.” He also noted that Bangladesh was a key strategic partner in the IOR and Bay of Bengal region.

“The rapid militarization of this maritime space is a cause of worry for Bangladesh,” ANM Muniruzzaman observed, “with major naval exercises taking place in the Bay.” These included the Malabar series involving the US, India and Japan and recently Australia as well. Then there is the naval drill of China, Russia and Iran. “Bangladesh must take initiative now so this militarization halts. We want the Bay of Bengal to be a region of peace,” he added.

China sees the Bay of Bengal as a panacea to its Malacca Straits dilemma
Shahedul Anam Khan, former associate editor of The Daily Star

Brig Gen Shahedul Anam Khan (retd) observed that while the bay had been a region of unity in ancient times, it has now become an area of disintegration rather than integration. “The focus of the West has turned East because of the economic trajectory in the region,” he said, elaborating that it was the area of 1.5 billion people which was one of the strengths behind its economic clout. Ninety per cent of Bangladesh’s freight trade was seaborne and so the country had immense dependence on the sea, he said.

The former associate editor of The Daily Star pointed out that the strategic significance of the Bay of Bengal was because it oversees major trade routes, it connects South Asia, South East Asia and the Middle East and had importance like the South China Sea. He pointed out that while neither the US nor China were resident powers, they were perhaps more interested in the area than others. What China saw as its proactive diplomacy in the region, the US termed as China’s predatory economics.

“The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) by the Chinese president Xi Jinping and the Look East policy taken up by former US presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, gradually emerged and mutated into the Indo Pacific initiatives. One perhaps generated each other,” Shahedul Anam Khan said, elaborating that the US came up with the Indo Pacific Strategy to counter China’s growing footprint in Asia, Africa and even Europe. “China sees the Bay of Bengal as a panacea to its Malacca Straits dilemma as it offers it alternative sea routes.”

Former ambassador Rear Admiral Kazi Sarwar Hossain (retd), said maritime connectivity, trade and commerce, and critical infrastructure were three principal factors of the Bay of Bengal that required attention. In maritime connectivity, this was an important trade route and the economic highway of the world.

In trade and commerce, there was the rapid industrialization and development of East Asian countries including China, and the raw materials and other cargo related manufacturing was brought in through the Bay of Bengal. Referring to the critical infrastructure factor, he mentioned the added tensions in strategic context of the Bay of Bengal and the convergence of interests of the various powers.

“China is a key player,” the former DG of the Coast Guard Kazi Sarwar Hossain said, pointing out that the Malacca dilemma challenge stepped up China’s quest for the Bay of Bengal. India was also out to counter China and both the countries viewed the Bay of Bengal as a crucial frontier or competition. “The US has a lot at stake in the Bay of Bengal,” the retired rear admiral went on to say, adding that Japan and Australia had also turned their attention here.

Speaking of the militarization of the bay, he said India plans to acquire more than 160 ships, 28 conventional and a few nuclear powered submarines, and more, ramping up its military power in the Bay of Bengal. He pointed out that India had increased its naval cooperation with Myanmar as well as Bangladesh.

“China has the largest naval fleet in the world,” he continued, “with sophisticated submarines, including 12 nuclear powered ones. Chinese submarines have been increasingly visiting the Bay of Bengal.”

Kazi Sarwar Hossain also deliberated on the effects of climate change in the Bay of Bengal which was leading to rising temperatures and rising sea levels. He predicted that Bangladesh would see 30 million of its people becoming climate refugees when large areas of the land went under water. The increased frequency in cyclonic storms, floods and drought were effect of climate change.

Assistant professor of economics at East West University, Parvez Karim Abbasi, said the tragedy of Bangladesh was that though it was a maritime nation, it was almost resigned to the fate of being a landlubber. “Even Myanmar has beaten Bangladesh in taking advantage of the Bay of Bengal. We must develop a capable and modern navy,” he said adding that the government has been taking initiatives in that regard in recent times.

Bangladesh has started the maritime race late,” the professor said, “but it doesn’t need to remain behind.
Parvez Karim Abbasi, assistant professor of economics at East West University

About the blue growth in the region, he referred to aquaculture and maritime technology, saying that proper resource management was needed. “The Bay of Bengal was three well-defined basins,” he said, “and the Bengal Basin was the second most resourceful, but the least exploited.” About deep sea hydrocarbon mining, he said the blocks were being leased out to foreign companies. BAPEX needed capacity building. There was needed for technology transfer.

Parvez Karim Abbasi spoke of Bangladesh’s need to further develop its blue economy in fishing, aquaculture, tourism and other sectors. Bangladesh has only 42 registered ships, he pointed out, with a freight volume not exceeding 10 per cent of the total. Bangladesh can tie up with other countries like Australia, the UK, India, to expand these horizons, he suggested, adding that the capacity of Chittagong Port must be increased.

He also spoke of exploiting the fishing industry. “We fish in the deep sea only at a depth of 40m, but the actual bulk of fishery resources are at 50m, so this capacity must be expanded too,” he said, adding that mineral resources was another neglected area. Bangladesh had access to huge resources of sea salt and could be a hub of salt extraction. Beach material was also a profitable prospect in zircon, garnets, zinc sulfate, monazite which is used on nuclear reactors and so had strategic importance, manganese and even uranium.

“Bangladesh has started the maritime race late,” the professor said, “but it doesn’t need to remain behind.”

After a lively question and answer session, Maj Gen Muniruzzaman summed up the discussions, saying that Bangladesh as a key maritime member of the Bay of Bengal, hasn’t been playing a relevant role. He highlighted the climate change impact on the region, saying, “Climate change should be a high priority agenda.” He concluded by saying that Bangladesh must leverage its importance as a member of the maritime community.

The event was attended by high ranking foreign diplomats, retired civil and military bureaucrats, academics, journalists, students, researchers and others.