Discussion on maritime order and connectivity in the Indian Ocean: The renewed significance of the Bay of Bengal
14th February, 2021
A discussion on the recently released Special Issue of the Journal of the Indian Ocean Region, Vol. 15, Issue 3 titled Maritime Order and Connectivity in the Indian Ocean: The Renewed Significance of the Bay of Bengal was organized at ORF Kolkata on 7 February 2020. The inaugural session was chaired by Nilanjan Ghosh, Director, ORF, Kolkata, and began with an emphasis on the Bay of Bengal (BoB) region as an intersection of various political dynamics and economic forces that requires a comprehensive and holistic understanding. The Guest Editors of the Special Issue of the Journal – Anasua Basu Ray Chaudhury, Senior Fellow, ORF, Kolkata and Rakhahari Chatterji, Advisor, ORF, Kolkata highlighted the critical importance of connectivity in the BoB and adaptation to climate change and the fact that most discussions on geo-politics and geo-economics have often ignored the threats of climate change.
Reiterating the multi-dimensional attributes of the region, Sanjay Chaturvedi, Professor and Dean, Faculty of Social Sciences, Department of International Relations, South Asian University, New Delhi stated during his special address that the Indian Ocean can be a very effective and interesting social science laboratory where the vocabulary of the dominant concepts of International Relations theory – order, anarchy, maritime security, sovereignty – can be applied, tested, and argued. The discussion further underlined that matters maritime have garnered new interest which have been comprehensively addressed in the present volume of the journal. Bearing the evolving dynamics of the BoB region, the issue of the journal focused on two salient factors – interests of international, regional and local powers, and the conflict over threats of exploitation of resources.
The keynote address delivered by David Brewster, Senior Research Fellow with the National Security College, Australian National University, Canberra, began with reference to the evolution of the region as a strategic space, as a complex mix of cooperation, conflict and rivalry that also involves non-state actors and non-conventional threats in the region. The address attempted to perceive the region in ‘Strategic Thinking’, in terms of a strategic trend and its impact in the bay, competition in infrastructure building amongst the major actors and the evolving intra-regional dynamics that is marked by challenges emanating from ethnic and religious conflicts and climate change. The argument of imagining BoB region in ‘Strategic Thinking’ set the tone for the next session which was on ‘Connectivity and Bay of Bengal’.
This first session on ‘Connectivity and the Bay of Bengal’ was chaired by Pradeep K. Chatterji Vice Admiral (Retd) who in his opening remarks outlined the vitality of Bay of Bengal not only for India but the rest of the world and that a disruption in the Bay, will have global ramifications. He suggested that a free and open Bay of Bengal and freedom of navigation are essential for peace and prosperity in the region. Chatterji also said that, the Bay is suffering from fault-lines of energy security aspirations of China and Japan and it is important, how do the bay littorals use resources at sea.
Panellists in this session included P.V. Rao, ICSSR, National Fellow, New Delhi; Nitin Agarwala, Captain, Indian Navy; and Pratnashree Basu, Associate Fellow and Sohini Bose, Junior Fellow, ORF Kolkata with G. Padmaja, Former Director, National Maritime Foundation, Vishakhapatnam and current a Research Scholar at Gitam University, Vishakhapatnaman as the discussant. Discussions in the session looked at development through connectivity through the lens of India’s maritime narrative by enquiring into the ways Bay of Bengal littorals can leverage resources including surface, shore and sub-sea level for their overall development, whether the Bay is regaining its lost importance and the crucial strategic and HADR role that the Andaman and Nicobar islands (ANI) have the potential for playing the BoB region. It was highlighted that the region as a whole has yet to see on ground collaboration for addressing development concerns.
Three primary reasons for the renewed significance for the Bay were pointed out. The first being maritime trade where 66 percent of world’s trade and 35 percent of world’s cargo passes from this region. The second is the non-traditional security threats in the Bay region including impacts of climate change and third being the growing interests of China and its quest for energy security have pushed the littorals to resort to regional cooperation. The strategic advantages of the ANI in terms of enhancing India’s Maritime Domain Awareness and maintaining a forward presence in the Bay were underscored. Given that the Bay is prone to natural disasters such as cyclones and tsunamis, the potential of the Islands for playing a critical role in times of through disaster management and by extending disaster relief responses was discussed.
While connecting the bay has always been one of the major priority areas, the impending threat of climate change and its effects have received scant attention. The second session ‘Adaptation to Climate Change in the Bay of Bengal’ focussed on effects of climate change on the Bay as a whole and especially on the littoral nations and the adaptation strategies which can be applied by policy makers.
The session was chaired by Jayanta Bandhopadhyay, Visiting Distinguished Fellow, ORF, Kolkata and panellists included Simi Mehta, CEO and Editorial Director IMPRI, New Delhi; and Anamitra Anurag Danda, Visiting Senior Fellow, ORF, Kolkata and Sanjay Chaturvedi, Professor and Dean, Faculty of Social Sciences, South Asian University, New Delhi as the discussant. The session began with a grim reminder of large-scale submergence of littoral areas in Bangladesh and India under business as usual scenario. Furthermore, it was highlighted that forced migration due to a multitude of hazards like riverine floods, cyclones during post-monsoon period etc. would become a common occurrence aggravating crises like ‘messy urbanization’ in vertical and horizontal scales and reduced food grain availability which would further downgrade the littoral nations in the Global Hunger Index. Consequently, the need to take up renewables and form a corpus fund and an additional environmental program to mitigate emerging challenges like agricultural transitions in the region, enabling river water sharing was stressed.
Acknowledging that adaptation was the best suited option for the emerging situation of sea-level rise and submergence in the Sundarbans, a strategy of planned retreat of people from the vulnerable areas for allowing the ecosystem to regenerate while reducing the losses was put forward. As the situation applies for both India and Bangladesh, the need for a multi-party collaborative governance institution that goes beyond sovereign states and includes subnational levels of government, local communities, the independent scientific community, key economic actors, and NGOs was highlighted. Up-scaling or downscaling of policy will have to be carried out for the mitigation of these issues looking at the larger question of sustainability and climate change and reimagining the trajectory of development in the global south.
Both the panels on Connectivity and Climate Change highlighted that the way out lies in developing methods of mitigation and adaptation. One has to be far sighted when talking about connectivity and climate change issues in the context of the Bay of Bengal. It is vital to look beyond traditional indigenous knowledge in dealing with these global “irregular” events since these events are relatively new, and knowledge systems have to evolve in dealing with them. In conclusion, the day long discussion noted that ‘development’ per se is a flow process and is not a stock of events and that BoB region should strive to find ways in which contemporary challenges can be turned into opportunities for all the stakeholders.