On June 6 this year, the Bay of Bengal Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), the regional organisation exclusive to the Bay, celebrated its 25th anniversary in Sri Lanka

The past months have been a flurry of activity for the organisation with it adopting a Charter for the first time at its fifth Summit Meeting and also rationalising its 14 sectors of cooperation into seven broad areas for better functionality. One of these seven areas is ‘Security’, which houses the erstwhile independent sectors of ‘Counter-Terrorism and Trans-national Crime’, ‘Disaster Management’ and ‘Energy’, all under India’s lead.

However, for any security framework to work, there is a need for information or awareness about the ongoing activities in that domain. As the theatre of security cooperation in the Bay of Bengal region is largely the Bay itself, Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) is the need of the hour for BIMSTEC.

According to the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), MDA is defined as “The effective understanding of any activity associated with the maritime environment that could impact upon the security, safety, economy or environment.”

It is, therefore, knowledge about any undertaking that is affecting or taking place within the maritime domain which essentially refers to “all areas and things of, on, under, relating to, adjacent to, or bordering on a sea, ocean, or other navigable waterways, including all maritime-related activities, infrastructure, people, cargo, ships, and other conveyances.” As the Indian Navy puts it, MDA is intrinsic to the Information-Decision-Action cycle. It allows any country to assess threats to their security, economy or environment across their oceanic spaces. Accordingly, for the BIMSTEC countries, information about activities in the Bay of Bengal is essential for their own as well as the region’s security.

Security Challenges In The Bay

In the Bay of Bengal, security challenges can be categorised under traditional threats or those which originate from States and non-traditional threats meaning those which emanate from non-State-centric sources. In a future riddled with competition for energy resources, the Bay of Bengal has returned to the limelight of strategic attention with its important shipping routes that are important for energy trade and its fabled wealth of hydrocarbon reserves.

Giving rise to traditional security concerns, China’s quest for energy has led to its assertive rise in these waters, casting a shadow of apprehension over the continued freedom of navigation along the shipping routes. As other stakeholder countries gather to counter the apprehended monopolisation and preserve the autonomy of the shipping routes as well as further their interests, resource politics combines with geopolitical ambitions in the Bay, making it a theatre for strategic cooperation, competition, and potential conflict.

Complicating matters are several non-traditional security challenges which also abound in the Bay. These may be divided into man-made and environmental concerns. Illegal activities in the Bay include terrorism, trade of narcotics, sea piracy, illegal and undocumented migration and human trafficking. All the BIMSTEC countries are either victims of terror attacks or are terrorist breeding grounds.

The terrorists’ networks are intrinsically connected with money laundering, drug trade, and the trade of illegal arms. According to the Global Terrorism Index of 2022, all the BIMSTEC member countries rank within the first 100. It must also be remembered that Pakistan and Afghanistan share land borders with India whilst Indonesia shares maritime boundaries with India and Thailand. As these countries rank high on the terrorist index, it aggravates the vulnerability of these BIMSTEC members to terror attacks. Meanwhile, piracy, armed robbery and kidnapping of fishermen for ransom exist in some pockets of the Bay region, such as the Chittagong anchorages of Bangladesh and the Sundarbans mangroves.

In the Bay itself, Illegal, Unregulated and Unreported (IUU) fishing is a rising threat particularly in the Palk Strait, acting as an irritant in India-Sri Lanka bilateral relations. It is also prevalent around the Andaman and Nicobar Islands (ANI) and is a potential hindrance to India–Bangladesh relations along the Bengal coast of the Bay. The problem of illegal and undocumented migration is also a raging concern, as the Rohingya Muslims flee Myanmar to escape State persecution. Whilst some have crossed the border into Bangladesh, others undertook journeys across the Bay, falling victim to deadly diseases and in the worst cases, to trafficking. The increase, in particular, women and children is an urgent concern for the countries of BIMSTEC.

Regarding environmental concerns, the Bay is infamous for its turbulence which causes frequent cyclones and intermittent tsunamis wreaking havoc on the lives of people who live and work along the Bay’s coastline. Between 1891 and 2018, the Bay of Bengal region was hit by 41 severe cyclonic storms and 21 cyclonic storms and from 1996 to 2015 alone, the Bay littorals lost 317,000 lives to disasters.

Off these concerns, BIMSTEC’s Foundational Principle of “non-interference in internal affairs,” and the heavy reliance of its members on China for trade, withholds it from looking into the traditional security threat to freedom of navigation. Rather it focuses on the non-traditional concerns under its ambit of ‘Security.’

As these threats are transnational, they require collaborative action for their redress or management. Such collaborations are especially necessary in a maritime space such as the Bay of Bengal because of its semi-enclosed formation, due to which its littoral countries share contiguous and at times, even overlapping Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs). Therefore, almost 80 percent of the Bay is EEZs whilst only 20 percent make up for the high seas. However, although the littorals have such significant EEZs they have limited surveillance capacity by comparison.

A better and collaborative MDA would allow for continuous surveillance and help identify prevailing threats. There is thus a need for holistic and comprehensive MDA.

India's Role

As the lead country for ‘Security’ under BIMSTEC, India is well-poised to cultivate MDA at the regional level. Since the 26/11 terror attacks in Mumbai, the country has been trying to develop its MDA capabilities through projects such as the National Maritime Domain Awareness (NMDA) which strives to link all maritime agencies, coastal states, and Union Territories into one network, and pools data through “interfaces with additional data sources, such as from the shipping and fisheries sectors.”

In cultivating MDA in the Bay, India also has the advantage of the Andaman Nicobar Islands. The ANI is often referred to as one of the most strategically located island chains of the world, due to the series of chokepoints it creates by straddling important SLOCs and due to its proximity to the Strait of Malacca, has the potential to amp regional surveillance capabilities.

Bilaterally, India has White Shipping agreements with Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka which allow an exchange of information on commercial shipping to create a better awareness picture. A similar agreement with Thailand is also on the cards. India is also assisting Thailand to establish an advanced navigation system and Myanmar with Radar and Sonar equipment for better surveillance capabilities. For surveillance, India also engages in coordinated patrols with all BIMSTEC countries except Sri Lanka, with which it hosts naval exercises.

The other BIMSTEC countries are yet to undertake such initiatives. In 2018, the Indian Navy also established the Information Fusion Centre-Indian Ocean Region (IFC-IOR) to promote maritime security in the region, by tracking shipping traffic and critical developments under a collaborative framework with select countries. It is interesting to note that despite all BIMSTEC countries being part of the Indian Ocean Region, it is only Myanmar which belongs to this cohort.

Multilaterally, given BIMSTEC’s institutional dormancy, lean funding, and dearth of initiatives from its Member Countries, the need to cultivate a MDA has not featured in discussions until recently. Owing to the strategic momentum in the Bay which has caused its littorals to reengage with each other to protect their interests, this multilateral forum has gained traction, especially in the light of security.

Consequently, in the past decade, BIMSTEC has begun working more actively, trying to move beyond signing conventions on security cooperation. It established the Centre for Weather and Climate Change in 2014 for research and has recently begun hosting joint disaster management exercises whilst also constituting several sub-groups under its ‘Security’ Sector, each designed to look after a specific aspect.

Although MDA does not find an explicit mention in these sub-groups, it is interesting to note that one of the sub-groups is on intelligence sharing, with Sri Lanka as the lead shepherd. It has held four meetings so far. To deepen cooperation, it is also on BIMSTEC’s agenda to expedite the implementation of the BIMSTEC Information Sharing Centre (BISC). It is, therefore, proof that BIMSTEC members realise the value of a MDA, given the threats that they seek to address. Their efforts to implement it, however, must be expedited as meaningful and effective security cooperation cannot progress without a foundational base of information exchange and threat assessment. Above all, with the Bay of Bengal as its principal stage, a MDA is essential for BIMSTEC’s workings, not only in terms of security but also in terms of development.