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Leadership in the Bay of Bengal

  • Published at 06:09 pm September 9th, 2018
BIMSTEC
The picture of strong leadership? REUTERS

For regional stability, we cannot leave any topic go undiscussed

In the United Nations Charter, the “resort to regional agencies and arrangements” is specified by article 33 as a means to achieve the peaceful settlement of disputes between sovereign states.

The recently concluded BIMSTEC summit in Nepal glaringly ignored the most pressing humanitarian and security issue in the region: The crisis in Rakhine state and the refugee exodus to Bangladesh.

The secretary general of BIMSTEC, who is a diplomat from Bangladesh, explained that: “From the vantage point of the secretariat, we feel that Bangladesh and Myanmar have shown diplomatic maturity by not raising the issue when the organization is not ready to deal with an issue such as this.”

Indeed, the mandate of BIMSTEC involves technical and economic cooperation in sectors such as agriculture, energy, technology, transport, tourism, fisheries, culture, environment and disaster management, climate change, people-to-people contacts, counter-terrorism, and trans-border crime.

Most of these sectors depend on stability in member states. Stability requires the rule of law and respect for universal human rights. Two members of BIMSTEC -- Myanmar and Thailand -- are currently ruled under a quasi-military regime and military junta, respectively. Ironically, the second-largest democratic country bordering the Bay of Bengal, Indonesia, is not a member of BIMSTEC. 

There are several inter-governmental groupings centered on sea and ocean basins, including Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), the Union for the Mediterranean, and Black Sea Economic Cooperation. 

Despite the enthusiasm shown for BIMSTEC, its permanent secretariat in Dhaka remains severely under-funded and under-staffed. Constantino Xavier, a fellow of the Brookings Institution, believes the lack of funding and human resources is the main barrier to BIMSTEC. It is difficult for the organization to implement even its existing mandate with the lack of finance and manpower.

Xavier, who has engaged in research on the future of the organization, believes the Bay of Bengal can be revived as a hub of maritime industry, keeping in mind the strategic interests of littoral countries.

Sunil Amrith, a Professor of South Asian Studies at Harvard, has documented that, between the mid-19th and mid-20th centuries, the coasts of the Bay of Bengal were highly economically integrated. In my own opinion, BIMSTEC should have already enacted regional agreements for coastal shipping and open skies.

However, the Rohingya crisis has challenged the regional architecture in South and Southeast Asia. SAARC, BIMSTEC, and ASEAN have failed to mobilize to address the crisis. 

Contrast the Asian situation with Africa. The Peace and Security Council of the African Union has an African Standby Force to promote peace, security, and stability in Africa.

The council has deployed multi-national troops to several conflict-prone regions, including Darfur, the Central African Republic, Somalia, and Uganda. The council often acts with the approval of the UN Security Council. 

In the field of non-traditional security, Asian regions also lack an enduring mechanism for coordination. In contrast, the Caribbean Community in the Americas has formed the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency to cope with natural calamities. 

For Bangladesh, the Bay of Bengal is our principal maritime gateway to the rest of the world. It also has significant deposits of natural gas. Ensuring security in the bay should be a priority for the country.

The Rohingya crisis has struck at the heart of stability in the Bay of Bengal region. Given the reticence of BIMSTEC in addressing the crisis, Bangladeshi commentators have dwelled on a harder strategy, including sanctions and withdrawal from any regional initiative that involves Myanmar.

A former foreign secretary recently wrote that “Bangladesh should indicate clearly that she is not in a position to embark on any collaborative or cooperative venture that involves Myanmar as a partner,” arguing that “when the going gets tough, the tough get going.”

Bangladesh can explore the prospect of alternative initiatives in the bay in partnership with democratic powers, including the US, the UK, Australia, Japan, France, Germany, and India. Many of these powers are already engaged in joint freedom of navigation patrols in the South China Sea.

Similar patrols can be done in the Bay of Bengal under a formal partnership. 

Moreover, in order to develop the offshore energy sector, Bangladesh must lessen regulation. For example, restrictions on the export of natural gas only serve to deprive the government of much-needed revenue.

A level playing field should exist for energy companies from both Bangladesh and abroad, instead of a preference for state-owned firms. The strategic vision of the Bay of Bengal must be as a secure space for democracies and free enterprise.

Umran Chowdhury is a student of the Sorbonne-Assas International Law School.