Asia Time Online - Daily News
Asia Times Chinese
AT Chinese

    South Asia
     Jan 25, 2005
The emerging Bay of Bengal
By Donald L Berlin

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

The Bay of Bengal basin, the Indian Ocean zone most ravaged by December's tsunami, is fast becoming a more integrated and well-defined strategic and economic arena.

The tsunami contributed to this by causing India to reach across the bay to help its neighbors. Operating partly from a Unified Relief Command in the Andaman Islands, New Delhi sent a hospital ship and other help to Indonesia in Operation Gambhir and a larger flotilla and helicopters to Sri Lanka in Operation Rainbow.

Apart from this humanitarian effort, there have been several striking economic initiatives of late that also are knitting the region together and blurring the boundary between South and Southeast Asia.

Most recent were agreements this past month among India, Bangladesh and Myanmar affirming their intention to cooperate in natural gas exploration and to build a gas pipeline, the "Eastern Corridor Pipeline", from India, through Bangladesh, to Myanmar. A parallel India-Bangladesh press statement, an Indian quid pro quo, affirmed New Delhi's willingness to: 1) Allow the increased transit of commodities between Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh through India (ie via the strategic Siliguri Corridor); 2) Allow the transmission of hydro-electricity from Nepal and Bhutan through India to Bangladesh; and 3) Undertake greater efforts to reduce the trade imbalance (presumably through the removal of trade barriers) between it and Bangladesh. These agreements, if implemented, constitute a striking advance in the normally quite sour relationship between Dhaka and New Delhi.

These agreements come immediately after a transportation initiative of another kind: the first annual India-ASEAN car rally. The event, which sent a caravan of vehicles in a drive from Assam through Myanmar and other countries to Indonesia's Batam island in November and December, was intended to underscore the growing integration of the Bay of Bengal region and the importance of the highway complex that India is building between Kolkata and Bangkok. So far, New Delhi has built and maintains about 160 kilometers of road just east of the India-Myanmar frontier. This will be followed by Indian construction of other road segments in Myanmar. India also has extended a US$56 million line of credit to Myanmar to modernize the Mandalay-Yangon railroad.

South Asian nations also have concluded several broad pacts with their Southeast Asian neighbors, once again tying together the states of the Bay of Bengal. Most recent were a number of landmark agreements concluded between India and the 10 ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) countries at the 10th ASEAN summit in Vientiane in November. Key here was a long-term plan committing India to creating a free-trade area by 2011 with five ASEAN members - Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore - and by 2016 with the rest - the Philippines, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam.

This free-trade area agreement comes in the wake of a February 2004 free-trade pact achieved by India and five other countries of a group called the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC). This pact commits the three most advanced members, India, Sri Lanka and Thailand, to trade liberalization by 2012, with the others following within five years.

These multilateral economic initiatives parallel others that are bilateral and that increasingly will connect the South Asian and Southeast Asian economies of the Bay of Bengal. Of equal or greater importance, these lands also are becoming more intertwined, for better or worse, in the security realm.

Two main factors are promoting this process. One is the growth of mainly bilateral security ties. The other is a recent increase in strategic interest, and power projection capability, by Bay of Bengal states near the western mouth of the Malacca Strait.

The deepening bilateral interaction, with India usually in the lead, has been reflected in a variety of recent developments.

Closest to home, India recently expressed an increased commitment to Sri Lanka's territorial integrity. New Delhi also will soon sign a Defense Cooperation Agreement to expand Indian training programs for Sri Lankan troops, strengthen intelligence sharing, and provide defense supplies, including transport helicopters and the refit of a Sri Lankan warship. These states also conducted their first combined military exercise when the Indian Coast Guard and Sri Lankan navy met for Exercise Eksath last month.

With Myanmar, security ties were advanced most recently when strongman Khin Nyunt, known for his pro-China inclinations, was deposed in October. Less than a week later, Than Shwe, head of Myanmar's ruling military junta, visited India and signed three agreements, including a "Memorandum of Understanding on Cooperation in the Field of Non-Traditional Security Issues", including terrorism, arms smuggling, money laundering, drug trafficking, organized crime, international economic crime and cyber crime. The general, the first Myanmar head of state to visit India in several decades, also assured the Indian leadership that Myanmar would not permit its territory to be used by any hostile element for harming Indian interests. Soon thereafter, India and Myanmar launched coordinated military operations against rebels operating along the India-Myanmar frontier.

With Singapore, India forged a pact in 2003 in which the two nations extended their existing program of combined naval exercises to encompass air- and ground-force maneuvers and to initiate a high-level security dialogue and intelligence exchange. Last March, the two states conducted the first of these regular conversations on security. They also followed through with their first combined air exercise this past October, and will exercise their armies together from February to April this year in India. New Delhi also has stated its willingness - in principle - to allow the Singaporean air force to use Indian ranges on an extended basis.

India also registered less dramatic, but also significant, advances in security ties with Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia - with which India initiated regular patrols of the Six Degree Channel, the strategic shipping route immediately west of the Malacca Strait.

This zone is significant in that it is here, at the western mouth of the Malacca Strait, that the second factor is at work knitting the region together strategically. Here, India, Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia all have been strengthening their capacities to affect military outcomes, motivated by concerns about each other - or China - and by anxieties about terrorism, piracy and other transnational problems.

Concerns about Beijing's intentions here recently increased after Chinese President Hu Jintao said his country faces a "Malacca dilemma" - the vulnerability of its oil supply lines from the Middle East and Africa to disruption - and after the Indian navy and coastguard seized two alleged Chinese spy ships in this area in November. China also is considering funding construction of a $20 billion canal across the Kra Isthmus that would allow ships to bypass the Strait of Malacca. The canal project would give China port facilities, warehouses and other infrastructure in Thailand aimed at enhancing Chinese influence in the region.

Based on such concerns, India created a unified military command here, the Andamans and Nicobar Command, several years ago. Most recently, it was planning to station Su-30 MKI long-range fighter/bomber aircraft on Car Nicobar beginning this month. The effort likely was intended to complement a similar deployment of Su-30s, also undertaken with China in mind, to Bareilly Air Base near the China-India border. While the Car Nicobar deployment now has been aborted because of the December tsunami, India's air force chief says the deployment will proceed within six months. The tsunami disaster also forced the cancellation of the India's biennial MILAN naval exercise, in which most Bay of Bengal navies would have exercised together next month.

Malaysia, also concerned about the Andaman Sea and nearby Malacca Strait, recently built a series of radar stations along the west coast of the peninsula to oversee traffic in the strait. Malaysia is also acquiring a variety of new naval platforms. Perhaps more importantly, the Malaysian navy is building new bases to strengthen its hand in the strait and the Andaman Sea, including facilities at Langkawi island and Sitiawan. Langkawi, Kuala Lumpur's only port directly fronting the Indian Ocean, will house the navy's Area Three Headquarters and will be a staging point for the deployment and management of soon to be acquired submarines. The Sitiawan facility, on the other hand, is part of a larger plan to equip Malaysia's naval air component, for the first time, with fixed-wing aircraft. Key here is Kuala Lumpur's agreement to buy 18 Russian-made Su-30MKM fighter jets. With a range of some 2,700 kilometers, they will be armed with supersonic X-31A missiles designed to strike sea-based targets.

The rise of India and China is a powerful phenomenon that is influencing economics and security globally, but also regionally in places like the Bay of Bengal. New Delhi, partly because it is determined to be a powerful regional actor, and partly because it is acting to contain China, is proceeding in a manner that constitutes a powerful prod to the gradual integration of the Bay of Bengal. Its economic and military initiatives, and those of its neighbors, will shorten distances and connect the various lands of the bay - a process that will be good economically but worrisome strategically as it will be harder to buffer relations among these armed powers. While this is a region with a long way to go toward regional integration, the interaction among the lands of the bay now is greater than at any point since World War II.

Dr Donald L Berlin is a professor of international relations at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu. He focuses on strategic issues in the Indian Ocean region. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent official positions of the US government or any of its agencies.

(Copyright Donald L Berlin 2005.)

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

India finds gas and friends to the east
(Jan 20, '05)

China to Europe via a new Burma road
(Sep 23, '04)

Malacca Strait: Target for terror 
(Aug 11, '04)


All material on this website is copyright and may not be republished in any form without written permission.
Copyright 1999 - 2005 Asia Times Online Ltd.
Head Office: Rm 202, Hau Fook Mansion, No. 8 Hau Fook St., Kowloon, Hong Kong
Thailand Bureau: 11/13 Petchkasem Road, Hua Hin, Prachuab Kirikhan, Thailand 77110

Asian Sex Gazette  South Asian Sex News