Strategic Significance Of ‘Bay Of Bengal’ And Bangladesh’s Act Of ‘Balancing Capability’ – OpEd


The name ‘Bay of Bengal’ is a book of pride for Bengalis! Large cities like Madras (Chennai), Hyderabad, Bhubaneswar in all areas or states, are located on the shores of the Bay of Bengal, but the sea is not named after them. Again, it was not named after a region like the Arabian Sea, but after Bengal or Bengal. That is why the world has to remember the name of Bengal from time to time. In the middle of Myanmar, Andaman Islands, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and the vast territory of South India, the reservoir of 21 lakh 62 thousand square kilometers is named after Bengal. It is known in the world as the Bay of Bengal. 

The Bay of Bengal has now become the center of international politics due to its economic and strategic importance but in fact it extends to the bottom of Sri Lanka. It is the busiest international shipping route in the world. About 40,000 ships ply this route each year. Half of the world’s goods and fuel vessels use this route.

Looking at the picture of the Bay of Bengal, it is clear that its all-northern boundary has formed a parallel belt. It is as if a country has a water map in its taxpayer and has extended its exterior. The two sides on the outside have gradually increased and ended in Orissa, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. On the other side, the Andaman Islands merge with Sumatra from Myanmar and turn right to join Sri Lanka. Cox’s Bazar, the largest beach in the world, the Sundarbans, the largest uninterrupted mangrove forest, and one of the world’s most delicious fish species, the habitat of hilsa is linked and associated with Bay of Bengal.

The ports on the shores of the Bay of Bengal bear the imprint of political, religious and economic tensions over the centuries. From ancient times to the Middle Ages, Arab traders and missionaries flocked to the port on the shores of the Bay of Bengal via the Arabian Sea. After the discovery of the Bay of Bengal by Vasco-da Gama, Portuguese, French, Danish, Dutch and English companies started coming from Europe. They built their company’s offices and forts on the shores of the Bay of Bengal. From this time the conflict between the European merchants and the Indian kings began. Towards the end of this conflict, the British East India Company built their two and a half hundred-year empire in India. 

Now, Bay of Bengal gets attention from world powers. US, UK, China, India, Japan has focused their attention to ‘Bay of Bengal’. That is the strategy. US has shifted its policy from ‘Asia Pacific’ towards ‘Indo Pacific’ to counter the China’s ‘BRI’. Both parties want Bangladesh into their respective blocks. In this regard, Bangladesh is handling this issue tactically. It avoids its involvement with the blocs directly. Having request from US for years, Bangladesh didn’t show any interest to sign ACSA (Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement) and GSOMIA (General Security of Military Information Agreement) agreement with US. On the other hands, When Chinese Envoy to Bangladesh commented that Bangladesh shouldn’t join IPS this year, Bangladesh strongly protested against the remarks uttered by Chinese envoy saying Bangladesh is capable to form its own national policy. This is the capability of Bangladesh. Basically, Bangladesh doesn’t like any controversy with anyone. Its aim is very simple and clear which is friendship to all, malice to none. Bangladesh wants and likes to go ahead with all regional and global actors.

Bangladesh policy is not towards bi-partisan international politics. Bangladesh was an active member of ‘Non-Aligned Movement’. Bangladesh has no intention and interest to join any block. But Bangladesh has intention to be benefitted from the blocks. Bangladesh wants and believes peaceful coexistence in the region. It always avoids any kind of clash with any actor. Despite having the provocation from Myanmar during the Rohingya refugee crisis in 2017, it was abstained from using any kind of force. Bangladesh knows the Strategy. Bangladesh is balancing successfully with ‘BRI’ and ‘IPS’. Bangladesh has been exploiting ‘the strategic significance of Bay of Bengal’. Bangladesh 

Whether Bangladesh is involved in the US-led Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS) or the Chinese-led Belt and Road (BRI), it must maintain peace and the rule of law in the maritime region to reap the maximum economic benefits from the Bay of Bengal. Bangladesh needs to acquire natural resources as well as the ability to catch fish from the deep sea. If it is possible, it will open the way for Bangladesh to earn huge amount of foreign exchange just like fish and mineral garments.

The port plays an important role for connectivity. Bangladesh has three seaports. But due to depth constraints, large vessels (mother vessels) are still unable to accommodate. The establishment of a deep seaport at Matarbari in Cox’s bazar in collaboration with Japan will solve this problem as well as reduce the cost of transporting goods. According to the reports of Bangladeshi media outlets, Bangladesh trades about 9 thousand crore dollars a year by sea. Four and a half thousand foreign ships transport these imported and exported goods to Bangladesh. And Bangladesh has to pay about 900 crore dollars every year for the charter of these ships. Bangladesh has only 60 ships to transport goods at sea. In this case, Bangladesh has a serious shortage of capacity. Bangladesh needs to increase its capability.

The sea border of Bangladesh is 1 lakh 18 thousand square kilometers. On the other hand, if all the rivers and haors (some kind of pond originated from and connected with rivers) of Bangladesh are added, it stands at 15,000 kilometers. Bangladesh needs training, education and infrastructure to increase its ability to extract resources from this vast ocean. At present Bangladesh has Maritime University, Oceanographic Department and Oceanographic Research Center. These institutions should also come forward to expand education in this sector.

Drug smuggling, piracy in the Malacca Strait, pollution from ships or land are destroying the marine environment. Effective steps can be taken to address these crises jointly through BIMSTEC, SAARC and ASEAN. Bangladesh has made changes in the Maritime Act of 1974. Marine Economy Cell has been formed. Besides, maritime economy action plan has been adopted. Bangladesh wants to join ‘Colombo Security Conclave’ now. Its aim is to tackle the maritime threat.

Japan attaches great importance to a free and open Indo-Pacific region. Bangladesh is one of the partners of Japan’s Big-B initiative around the Bay of Bengal. Under this, Matarbari in Maheshkhali will be turned into a hub for import and export of electricity and energy, industry and sea. The Rohingya crisis could lead to instability in the region. So, Japan should can play a significant role in case of the repatriation of Rohingya, which is a sustainable solution to this crisis.

The Bay of Bengal was historically important. Due to geopolitics, its importance has increased since the last 80’s. Bangladesh is an important player in these geopolitics. The present government was pursuing a policy of maintaining good relations with all Indo-Pacific countries, avoiding conflict. And because of the balance, Bangladesh is an active partner of the US IPS as well as China’s BRI. Basically, Bangladesh shows the rest of the countries in the region how to balance with big powers simultaneously. Its balancing capability is really praiseworthy and exemplary for many countries.

The US-Japan-Australia-India formed ‘QUAD’ to counter China’s ‘BRI’. Despite competition over geopolitics, the United States and China are each other’s biggest trading partners. Bangladesh knows and understands this issue. Bangladesh should and must balance with these. Bangladesh needs America and China both for ensuring its business interest. Strategic significance of Bay of Bengal will make Bangladesh more prosperous in the region.

Pathik Hasan

Pathik Hasan is a Dhaka-based NGO activist, researcher and freelance writer on contemporary international issues whose work has been published in many local and international publications. Academic background: BSS (Peace and Conflict Studies) and MSS (International Relations) under the University of Dhaka. He can be reached at [email protected].

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