The Bay of Bengal: the Indo-Pacific’s new zone of competition
2 Dec 2014|

The Bay of Bengal is fast becoming a key area of economic and strategic competition in the Indo-Pacific. It’s the largest bay in the world and forms an important, if neglected, part of southern Asia. Bookended by India on its western side and Thailand to its east, with Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sri Lanka in between,  this part of the Asian littoral hosts a huge population and is passed by some of the world’s most important trading routes. But the area has long been ignored by Australia. Countries such as Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Myanmar missed out on the great economic boom experienced by the East Asian tigers during the latter part of the twentieth century and so trade with Australia is relatively meagre. The Bay is not given the strategic attention lavished on East Asia, West Asia or the Middle East. Nor has it seen the hype given to India as an emerging regional power. Indeed, much of the Bay has been of little interest to the world, other than in terms of poverty, natural disasters and political instability.

Few now even perceive the Bay as constituting a ‘region’.  Since the end of World War II, geographers, academics and diplomats preferred to cut the Bay in two, drawing a sharp line between what came to be called ‘Southeast Asia’ and ‘South Asia’.  As a result, specialists on Southeast Asia tend to know little about South Asia and vice versa. Those mental maps and divisions may have made more sense in the last century, but they make much less now as deep historical interconnections across the Bay reassert themselves and the area grows in economic and strategic importance.

The area’s likely to gain much greater prominence in coming years and may even be poised to become a new cockpit of economic development in Asia.  Countries around the Bay of Bengal, including Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Myanmar, are experiencing high growth rates. They’re now liberalising their economies and aspiring towards the development achieved among the wealthier ASEAN states.

Much of that economic growth is currently being driven by internal reforms and remains fragile. But the region’s long-term economic prospects will likely be driven by the ability of countries such as Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Myanmar to take advantage of the opportunities presented by their huge neighbours, India and China.  A rising India is looking towards much greater economic interaction with its eastern neighbours. China is also aggressively pushing to create new connections between its landlocked southern provinces and the Indian Ocean.

Indeed, we’re now witnessing a scramble by China, India and Japan to build ‘connectivity’ throughout the region—meaning tens of billions of dollars are being invested in new ports, roads, pipelines and railways.  Some of those projects are intended to stitch the region together while others will better connect the region to the world. Those new linkages between southern China and India through the Bay of Bengal could have a transformative impact on the region and quite possibly on the entire Indo-Pacific.

The Bay is also assuming a new strategic importance. It’s located close to the geographic centre of the Indo-Pacific region at the intersection of the expanding zones of strategic interest of China and India. The Bay of Bengal (like its Pacific ‘twin’, the South China Sea) is also a key transit zone between the Indian and Pacific Oceans and the main route for trade in energy to East Asia. The region’s strategic centrality, just as much as its good economic prospects, drives the unprecedented jostle for influence by the major powers, including China, India, Japan, the United States and even Russia.

Despite its seemingly good economic prospects, the region still suffers from an array of security issues, many of which are transnational in nature. Those include political instability, separatist insurgencies and communal and religious conflicts with cross-border implications and maritime security problems such as piracy, gun-running and people-smuggling. The region also suffers from considerable environmental security problems—not least the possible inundation of large parts of the littoral by rising sea levels that could lead to the displacement of millions.

All that means that the Bay of Bengal will likely assume increasing importance for Australia in coming decades. Australia has considerable economic complementarities with the region and our economic linkages with India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Myanmar could come to rival many of our existing economic links in East Asia. Given the region’s strategic centrality in the broader Indo-Pacific region, Australia will have a significant interest in mitigating strategic competition among the major powers there and in ensuring the unimpeded maritime trade flows. Australia will also have a keen interest in large population movements in the region that could be triggered by civil conflicts or environmental problems.

This post is the first in a series looking at developments in the Bay of Bengal and their impact on Australia. The next post will examine prospects for the region to become a new locus for economic development in Asia and the scramble to develop infrastructure around the Bay. Subsequent posts will look at China’s security relationships in the area, India’s growing role as a security provider and religious fault-lines in the 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 the Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection, University of Texas.