G Parthasarathy assesses how India is managing the challenges to stability and cooperation across the Bay of Bengal
The bulk of the world’s sea-borne oil supplies move across the Indian Ocean, from the Straits of Hormuz to the Straits of Malacca. The security of these oil supply routes is crucial for economic growth in what is now alluded to as the Indo-Pacific Region. India is located at the crossroads of this region. While its west coast focuses on trade and investment ties with the oil-rich Gulf Arab States and Iran, its east coast is focused on strengthening ties with the fast growing economies of Southeast and East Asia.
What India now calls its ‘Look East’ policies primarily involves closer economic integration with ASEAN member states, together with Japan, China and South Korea. India has Free Trade agreements with all members of ASEAN and ‘Comprehensive Economic Partnerships’ with Japan and South Korea. These are reinforced by progressively expanding military ties. Moreover, a Regional Cooperative Economic Partnership (RCEP) for promoting free trade and investment across India’s entire eastern neighbourhood, including China, is currently under negotiation.
One of India’s most important diplomatic achievements has been that it has settled its maritime boundaries with all its eastern neighbours. This was done not only through bilateral agreements with Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Indonesia and Bangladesh, but also tripartite agreements to determine tri-junctions with Myanmar, Thailand and Indonesia. A similar trilateral agreement is in place with Sri Lanka and the Maldives. India’s eastern neighbourhood is, however, also marked by tensions arising from China’s differences regarding its maritime boundaries with virtually all its maritime neighbours. These differences of perspective also extend to countries close to the Straits of Malacca such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei
Concerns that India’s maritime neighbours located adjacent to the Straits of Malacca have about their maritime boundaries with China have regional security implications, especially in Indonesia. There have been a number of skirmishes over China’s territorial claims to the Natuna Islands. Indonesia has also recently opened a military base in one of its islands in this region and deployed over 1000 military personnel there. Moreover, following a visit to Indonesia in May 2018, Prime Minister Modi and Indonesian President Joko Widodoagreed that India and Indonesia would jointly develop the Indonesian port of Sabang, adjacent to the northern end of the Malacca Straits. This was followed by a ceremonial welcome accorded by Indonesia to an Indian warship in Sabang. Indonesia is now acquiring new submarines to augment its maritime capabilities.
India and its eastern maritime neighbours are now endeavouring to build a new architecture for cooperation, to ensure that navigation across the Straits of Malacca isnot affected by rivalries of extra-regional powers. ASEAN members like Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and Brunei already have institutionalised security links. New Delhi is now placing increasing emphasis on expanding regional economic and military ties across its eastern shores, to include all members of the BIMSTEC grouping, comprising Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, India, Myanmar and Thailand. Negotiations are underway to conclude a Free Trade Agreement and improve maritime and road connectivity in BIMSTEC. India’s objective is to achieve closer economic and security cooperation across its entire eastern neighbourhood, extending to the Straits of Malacca.
New Delhi is pleased that successful national elections have been held recently in two important eastern neighbours, Bangladesh and Indonesia. Sheikh Hasina has been swept back to power in Bangladesh with a resounding victory in Parliamentary elections on December 30 last year. She has skilfully developed relations with China, India and Arab States like Saudi Arabia, while enjoying understanding in Washington. Bangladesh has also shown resilience and skill by its rapid economic growth and impressive social development indicators. Likewise, in Indonesia, President Joko Widodo won re-election decisively, in elections held on April 17.
While Aung San Suu Kyi has adroitly managed relations with Myanmar’s powerful Army leadership, which enjoys vast constitutionally mandated powers, the country is still beset with problems of ethnic unrest, particularly in provinces bordering China. Powerful armed groups of ethnic minorities like the United Wa State Army and the Kachin Independence Army continue to operate from across China’s Yunnan Province. There is also considerable ethnic unrest arising from environmental concerns over some Chinese aided projects. But China does provide substantial assistance to Myanmar in building ports, roads, bridges and industrial corridors. Interestingly, China and India have built ports in Myanmar, in the Bay of Bengal, at Sittwe and Kyaukpyu, which are located quite close to each other.
Also of interest is the similarity in China and India’s responses to the Rohingya refugee crisis in Myanmar. Both countries have avoided any critical statements about Myanmar’s policies –this despite the fact that India is today sheltering over 40,000 Rohingya refugees. India’s main concern is that a prolonged stay of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh would inevitably lead to the emergence of radical Islamic outfits there, ostensibly to back the Rohingya cause. It is only after a long struggle that Sheikh Hasina has been able to end terrorism sponsored by extremist Islamist groups like the Jamat ul Mujahideen in Bangladesh.
Any prolonged stay of over one million Rohingyas in Bangladesh could lead to a revival of radical Islamic groups bent on responding with violence in Myanmar, while challenging the writ of Sheikh Hasina’s government. The activities of such groups could well spread into India too. While Western countries have financially contributed to refugee relief in Myanmar, their current policies of seeking to censure and impose sanctions on the country would be counterproductive. Countries such as China, Japan and India have been trying to contribute by providing housing and relief for returning refugees. A regional effort to arrange for the return of the refugees by China, India, Japan and neighbouring ASEAN countries including Indonesia needs to be undertaken soon,to help Myanmar to resolve this issue. Cooperation by the US, EU, World Bank, the Asian Development bank and International Organisations like the Red Cross would help significantly in reinforcing this effort.