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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.
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 continued…