In expanding maritime connectivity and cooperation with Dhaka, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has begun to devote the kind of strategic attention the Bay of Bengal has long deserved. While the waters to India’s east have steadily gained salience in China’s calculus, New Delhi’s interest in the bay has tended to be limited and episodic. For China, the Bay of Bengal is significant for both economic and geopolitical reasons. As China sought to develop its southwestern regions, including Tibet and Yunnan, gaining access to the bay became an important objective.
The Bay of Bengal also funnels China’s growing volumes of sea-borne trade with the Middle East, Africa and Europe, in and out of the narrow Straits of Malacca that connect the Indian and Pacific Oceans. The fear of potential threats to its vital sea lines of communication has encouraged Beijing to develop alternative overland transport corridors between the bay and southwestern China through Myanmar. China is also raising its maritime profile in the bay to secure its growing interests in the Indian Ocean.
India’s inward economic orientation and preoccupation with the troubled land borders in the north and northwest resulted in Delhi neglecting its maritime frontiers. The Look East policy of the 1990s resulted in Delhi taking a fresh look at the Bay of Bengal. The rapid growth of China’s maritime influence in the Indian Ocean has reinforced Delhi’s strategic interest in the bay. But there was a problem that persisted — a lot of handwringing over the new geopolitical trends, but too few sensible economic actions. Modi has begun to change that.
In Dhaka, Modi unveiled a number of steps that seek to build on India’s natural economic advantages in the Bay of Bengal. One was the agreement to initiate coastal shipping between the two countries. This should help reduce the time and costs involved in moving goods between the two, which currently reach their destination through distant third-country ports.
The agreement is also expected to improve the throughput of the trans-shipment ports in the two countries and reduce the burden on the heavily congested road transportation between India and Bangladesh. If coastal shipping was long overdue, Delhi and Dhaka have agreed to develop a forward-looking agenda for maritime cooperation.
Expressing satisfaction at the resolution of the maritime boundary dispute between the two countries last year, Modi and his counterpart Sheikh Hasina “agreed to work closely on the development of ocean-based Blue Economy and Maritime Cooperation in the Bay of Bengal and chart out ways for future cooperation”. India has also agreed to assist Bangladesh in developing its maritime research capabilities through an agreement for collaboration between the National Institute of Oceanography in Goa and the University of Dhaka. Maritime cooperation could be extended eventually to other countries in the littoral, including Myanmar, Thailand, Indonesia and Sri Lanka.
Delhi had no reason to frame its cooperation with Dhaka on overland and maritime connectivity in opposition to China. While India has opposed the China-Pakistan economic corridor through PoK, it has been talking to Beijing about similar initiatives in the eastern subcontinent.
Modi and Hasina have made positive references to China’s Southern Silk Road initiative. For a couple of years now, officials from India, China, Bangladesh and Myanmar have been studying ways to build on Beijing’s proposals to develop connectivity between the four countries. Modi and Hasina expressed confidence that the study group’s conclusions would “allow decision-making with regard to several projects envisaged under this framework, particularly the Kolkata-to-Kunming highway project”. The two leaders also welcomed the role of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank China has set up to promote regional economic integration.
Modi’s readiness for regional cooperation with China in partnership with Bangladesh is an important departure from Delhi’s foreign policy tradition. In the past, India would object to Beijing’s regional initiatives but would offer none of its own. Modi is unveiling a very different approach. He is actively promoting India’s bilateral connectivity with neighbours and is open to working with third parties like China, Japan and the US when there is a convergence of interests.
The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’