While British India absolutely dominated the Bay of Bengal in the days of the Raj, India’s security role was severely curtailed after 1947. An independent India was certainly not averse to intervening in its neighbours (in Bangladesh in 1971 and in Sri Lanka 1983-90), but it saw its role primarily in defensive terms of keeping other powers out of the Bay. While that view endures, it’s now increasingly expressed in more constructive ways.
Indeed, the Bay is strategically crucial for India. It’s a key defensive theatre against threats that may emanate through the Southeast Asian archipelago. Control over the sea lines of communication that cross the Bay and pass through the Malacca Strait also provide India with considerable strategic leverage against rival powers. And the area suffers from numerous security issues that may directly threaten India’s interests, including piracy and smuggling, maritime terrorism and numerous separatist movements.
India is in the process of reinforcing its military capabilities in the region. In recent years there has been an effective ‘rebalancing’ of India’s naval resources towards the Bay, reflecting its relatively increased threat perceptions in relation to China as compared with Pakistan to the west. That includes the construction of a major new base for India’s Eastern Fleet, with capacity for aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines. India is also developing extensive military assets in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, which run north-south through the Andaman Sea, including port facilities and bases for surveillance and strike aircraft. The operational radius of aircraft based in, or staging through, the islands encompasses the Malacca Strait and large portions of the South China Sea.
The Indian Navy has made considerable efforts to prove itself to be a provider of public goods to the Bay region against piracy, smuggling and other maritime crime. India has also demonstrated its capabilities to provide humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, including following the 2004 tsunami, which affected much of the Bay, the 2007 Cyclone Sidr in Bangladesh and 2008 Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar. But while the Indian Navy engages in symbolic joint naval patrols, bilateral exercises and hosts the biennial MILAN ‘gathering’ of regional navies at Port Blair in the Andaman Islands, overall operational cooperation among those navies remains thin.
In 2013, India’s former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced that India would henceforth act as a net security provider to its region and New Delhi is now focusing on developing its security relationships in the Bay as a corollary to its Look East Policy. The area represents both major economic opportunities for India and significant threats. The most immediate concerns relate to China and perceptions that it’s developing its security presence in the Bay. Delhi is also aware that any increased Chinese presence would likely invite an increased US military presence in the Bay which, if not representing a military threat, is considered highly undesirable. India simply doesn’t want to see any extra-regional military presence in the Bay of Bengal.
In March 2014, the Indian National Security Advisor, Shivshankar Menon signalled that India was hoping to develop a maritime security grouping in the Bay. While Indian thinking about that remains nascent and largely aspirational, Bangladesh and Myanmar have been identified as potential regional partners. The initial focus of any such arrangement would likely be on capacity building, the provision of training and perhaps enhanced cooperation in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, search and rescue, and maritime policing activities. India also hopes to develop a shared system of maritime domain awareness (MDA) as it has done with some small Indian Ocean island states, but that prospect seems a long way off.
The Indian Navy has cordial relations with the navy of Myanmar, which it hopes to operationalise down the track. India’s influence in Bangladesh also appears to be growing in comparison to China’s. In November 2014, Bangladesh cancelled the planned acquisition of two Chinese Ming-class submarines, which had caused considerable heartburn for Indian defence planners, announcing that it would instead acquire Russian-built submarines. Delhi is also placing considerable pressure on Bangladesh not to award the construction and operation of a new port at Sonadia to China.
Although the recent settlement of longstanding maritime boundary disputes among Bangladesh, India and Myanmar has led to a significant change in atmosphere in the region, there remains a long history of distrust between the three countries that will take time and effort to overcome. Both Bangladesh and Myanmar are highly sensitive about their national independence and sovereignty and would therefore likely bridle at overt suggestions that India was acting as a security provider to them. India would need to approach any such arrangement with considerable sensitivity.
Australia should see the development of India’s role as a security provider in the Bay in positive terms. Although Australia has largely refrained from developing any security presence in the area (with the notable exception of maritime-reconnaissance activities run through Butterworth in Malaysia), it has a considerable interest in the security and stability of the Bay as part of greater Southeast Asia. More broadly, the assumption by India of regional security responsibilities should be seen as representing a further step in developing a cooperative security architecture for the states of the Indian Ocean region.
David Brewster is a Fellow with the Australia India Institute and a Visiting Fellow with the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University. He is the author of India’s Ocean: the Story of India’s bid for regional leadership. His research on the Bay of Bengal was funded by a grant from the Australia India Council. Image courtesy of Flickr user Ari Moore.