An international tribunal’s award last week on the maritime territorial dispute between India and Bangladesh and its acceptance by Delhi and Dhaka should set the stage for substantive regional maritime cooperation in the Bay of Bengal. India and Bangladesh, in partnership with Myanmar, are now in a position to take the destiny of Bay of Bengal into their own hands at a time when the strategic significance of its waters is drawing the attention of great powers.
The judgement of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague brings to a close one of the subcontinent’s long festering territorial disputes. The partition of the subcontinent and China’s entry into Tibet in the middle of the last century left India with multiple territorial disputes on its land frontiers. Nearly seven decades later, India’s land borders with Pakistan, China, Bangladesh and Nepal remain to be settled.
India’s record on the maritime front has been a little better. Over the years, India has delimited its maritime boundaries with Maldives, Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand and Indonesia. The Hague verdict now settles the maritime boundary with Bangladesh. That leaves the maritime boundary with Pakistan the only one to be sorted out.
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It is tempting for many in both Delhi and Dhaka to define the verdict in terms of what each side has “won” and “lost”. The subcontinent has the tragic tradition of ignoring the opportunity costs of letting boundary disputes simmer and refusing to find reasonable settlements and move on.
The inability of India and Bangladesh to settle the dispute all these years bilaterally has prevented the fisherfolk of both countries from effectively exploiting the large but disputed waters of the Bay of Bengal. National companies and their international partners could not drill for oil in the bay that has seen the discovery of many new fields in the last few years.
Given the complexity of the issues involved in such cases, there was never going to be a “winner takes all” outcome. As in any arbitration, each side won some, but not all, of their arguments at the Hague. Delhi and Dhaka rightly welcomed the verdict of the tribunal as beneficial for the people of both countries. This break from the “lose-lose” politics of the past reflects the new spirit of friendship between the two countries.
The long overdue settlement of the boundary dispute at the Hague underlines the enduring value of international arbitration in settling bilateral disputes, especially those that do not raise existential national security questions. India has accepted such international involvement in the drafting of the Indus Waters Treaty in 1960 and in resolving some of issues arising from its implementation since then. India also agreed to settle the dispute over the Rann of Kutch with Pakistan through arbitration.
The resolution of the maritime dispute between Delhi and Dhaka in accordance with international law follows a similar settlement between Bangladesh and Myanmar two years ago. This stands in contrast to the escalating maritime territorial disputes in the South China Sea adjoining the Bay of Bengal. China has refused to abide by the principles of international law and has begun to use force to assert its expansive claims over the South China Sea.
The resolution of Dhaka’s maritime territorial disputes with Myanmar and India now opens the door for substantive regional cooperation in the Bay of Bengal littoral. This cooperation is no longer a luxury but a vital strategic necessity. For the Bay of Bengal is no longer a backwater of the Indian Ocean.
The rise of China and its growing maritime interests in the Indian Ocean have made the Bay of Bengal a theatre of critical interest for Beijing. China’s vital sea lines of communication pass through the Bay of Bengal. It is also the closest body of water for many of China’s landlocked south western provinces. China, therefore, is building transport corridors, energy pipelines and new ports in the Bay of Bengal.
To cap it all, China is now promoting the idea of a maritime Silk Road in the Bay of Bengal that connects the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Only the very bold will claim that all these developments pose no long term challenges for India. While Beijing’s initiatives do create the possibilities for economic cooperation, Delhi can’t afford to ignore the strategic consequences of China’s rise for the Bay of Bengal.
A century ago, at the beginning of the First World War, a rising Germany shocked the government of India by having its warship, ‘Emden’, sneak up to Madras and bombard the city. Three decades later, in the Second World War, Delhi was surprised again by the swift Japanese occupation of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
As Beijing eyes a vigorous strategic presence in the Bay of Bengal littoral, the Americans can’t be far behind and are seeking active maritime collaboration with Bangladesh and Myanmar. India has two choices as its quiescent maritime frontiers to the east come alive. Delhi could keep quibbling with its neighbours on minor territorial issues and allow outside powers to play a larger role in the Bay of Bengal and its vast hinterland. Alternatively, it could quickly implement the boundary settlement with Dhaka, boost trilateral
maritime cooperation with Bangladesh and Myanmar, and improve the region’s leverage with the external powers.
In the southern Indian Ocean, Delhi has already embarked on trilateral maritime cooperation with Maldives and Sri Lanka. It is likely to be expanded to include Mauritius and Seychelles. A similar framework for security engagement with Bangladesh and Myanmar should be at the top of Delhi’s agenda in the Bay of Bengal.
Beyond that, there are unlimited possibilities for strengthening maritime cooperation with Bangladesh and Myanmar — ranging from joint scientific research to environmental monitoring and from major trans-border projects to trilateral naval exercises. If Delhi decides to play for small stakes in the Bay of Bengal, it will deal itself out of the emerging great game in the east.
The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi and a contributing editor for The Indian Express