BIMSTEC Cooperation on Security: Awareness of Maritime Security

The emergence of security issues in the Bay of Bengal has created a need to create awareness about the overall maritime security.

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The Silver Jubilee of the Bay of Bengal Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation  (BIMSTEC), established for the purpose of technical and economic cooperation in various fields in the Bay of Bengal , was celebrated on 6th June. This organization works for the Bay of Bengal region. 

Important decisions were taken in BIMSTEC on the occasion of its 25th anniversary. The charter for this organization was made for the first time on the occasion of the fifth conference of the organization. In order to improve the functioning of the organization, it was decided to cooperate in seven broad areas on 14 issues. 

Leadership to India 

One of these seven broad issues is security. India is in the forefront of counter-terrorism and international crime prevention, as well as disaster management and energy. In terms of security, there is a need to get information about what is happening in the Bay of Bengal and to create awareness about it. 

There is a need for security cooperation in the Bay of Bengal. That is why marine awareness has become a priority for BIMSTEC.

According to the definition given by the International Maritime Organization, in order to know the impact on the maritime sector in terms of safety, economy or environment, it is necessary to have an effective awareness of what is happening in the region. 

This is why we need to be aware of what is happening in the Bay of Bengal. Everything that happens in the seas and oceans, along the coast or underwater is related to the ocean area. Awareness about the structure, transportation, shipping, ships and all the systems that depend on it is meant here. According to the Indian Navy , the MDA method-decision-action cycle is inherent. The MDA system gives the right to know whether any country poses a threat to maritime security or economic and environmental issues. Similarly, BIMSTEC countries need to be aware of what is happening in the Bay of Bengal for their security.  

Dangers in the Bay of Bengal region

In the near future, the competition for energy resources will become more intense and complex. This further underscores the strategic importance of the Bay of Bengal. The ocean will be used for trade in terms of energy supply and for shipping in terms of hydrocarbon reserves.

China has taken an aggressive stance in the Bay of Bengal because of its energy ambitions. China is also considering traditional security issues. China's aggressive stance is undermining the freedom of navigation.

Countries in the Bay of Bengal have rallied to oppose such maritime monopolies. These countries are striving to maintain the autonomy and rights of maritime routes.

Competition for natural resource rights and geopolitical ambitions have combined to make the region more marvelous. In a sense, the Bay of Bengal has become a battleground because of the spirit of cooperation, competition and the possibility of future conflicts.

At the same time, new security challenges have added to the complexity of the sector. Some of these problems are man-made while some are environmental problems. 

Illegal activities, terrorism, drug trafficking, piracy, illegal migration and human trafficking are all rampant in the region.

All BIMSTEC member countries have either been the target of such acts of terrorism or in some countries such acts are being fueled.  Terrorist groups are involved in money laundering, drug trafficking, and the illicit arms trade. According to the Global Terrorism Index 2022, all BIMSTEC countries rank around 100 in this ranking. 

The threat of Pakistan

It should not be forgotten that Pakistan and Afghanistan share a border with India. In addition, Indonesia shares maritime borders with India and Thailand. These countries rank high in the index of terrorist acts and that is why BIMSTEC countries are more likely to be the target of such terrorist attacks. Piracy, armed robbery and kidnapping of fishermen for ransom are rampant in some parts of the Bay of Bengal. It is more prevalent in Chittagong Anchorage and Sunderbans Mangroves in Bangladesh. 

Uncontrolled overfishing in the Bay of Bengal is a major threat to the Palk Strait between India and Sri Lanka. This fishing is not recorded anywhere. The same thing happens around the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. This could be a major obstacle in India-Bangladesh relations along the Bay of Bengal. 

Illegal migration is also a major problem in the area. The Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar had fled to escape persecution. At that time, the issue came to the fore.

Some of them crossed the border into Myanmar and entered Bangladesh, while others escaped by sea. These people had to deal with life threatening diseases. At the same time, there were cases of human trafficking.  

In such cases, the first victims are women and children. That is why BIMSTEC countries are concerned about the safety of their women and children.

Considering the environmental problems in the Bay of Bengal, the region is prone to frequent cyclones and intermittent tsunamis. Such natural disasters wreak havoc on the coast. Between 1891 and 2018, there were 41 severe and 21 moderate cyclones in the Bay of Bengal. Between 1996 and 2015, 3 lakh 17 thousand people were killed in such natural calamities. 

The basic principle of BIMSTEC is not to interfere in the internal affairs of the member countries . These member countries rely heavily on China for trade. For these reasons, issues such as security and freedom of communication are left behind.  

New challenges in the Bay of Bengal 

BIMSTEC member De Shani is now focusing on new security issues.  These threats are not limited to the borders of countries. Therefore, mutual cooperation is required to overcome it or to manage such issues.

Such cooperation is desperately needed in areas like the Bay of Bengal. If you look at the map of this area, you will notice that the structure of this area is semi-enclosed. The shores of the countries in this region are connected to each other. At the same time, the special economic parts of these countries are intertwined.

About 80 per cent of the bay is a special economic area, while 20 per cent is at sea level.  Although the coastal region is an important exclusive economic zone , these countries have relatively limited oversight of the area. 

Against this backdrop, there is a need for a modified and collaborative MDA , a method-decision-making mechanism. Such a system will continuously monitor the area and identify security threats. This requires a comprehensive and complete MDA system for all these countries. 

The potential and regional strength of the country at the top

India leads the BIMSTEC group of countries in terms of security. Therefore, India has the potential to create such a system at the regional level.

In the wake of the 26/11 terror attacks , India has undertaken important projects in terms of maritime security. Under the National Maritime Awareness Project, the maritime system, the coastal states and the Union Territories are all under the supervision of one such system. For this, information from the fields of shipping and fisheries is also used. 

India will also benefit from the Andaman and Nicobar Islands for implementing such an MDA system in the Bay of Bengal.

Andaman and Nicobar Islands are the most strategically important islands in the chain of islands in the world. The SLOC is a chain of checkpoints built for important transportation routes , the Sea Lines of Communication, and is located near the Strait of Malacca.

Agreements of India with neighboring countries

According to India's bilateral agreements with Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sri Lanka, these countries can share all information about merchant shipping. This can make the picture in this area clearer.

India wants to make a similar agreement with Thailand. India is also helping Thailand to build a state-of-the-art shipping system. India is also providing equipment to Myanmar to monitor underwater movements through radar and sound waves. India has set up a monitoring mechanism in collaboration with all BIMSTEC countries except Sri Lanka. India's joint exercises with the Sri Lankan Army continue.

The Indian Ocean region is also important
India wants to start such cooperation with the rest of the BIMSTEC countries. In 2018, the Indian Navy set up a fusion center for information exchange in the Indian Ocean region. The system provides information on maritime security, shipping and other important developments in the region. All BIMSTEC countries also fall in the Indian Ocean region. At the same time, it should be noted that Myanmar is also in this group.   

Given the growing strategic importance of the Bay of Bengal, it has become imperative for all BIMSTEC member countries to come together for their benefit. All these member countries have to cooperate with each other at various levels in terms of security. 

BIMSTEC in the spotlight again

The BIMSTEC organization was somewhat dormant until now. Member countries were not actively involved in developing any mechanism. There was not enough funding for this. Therefore, the MDA system at this level of method-decision-action did not exist. Now, due to the growing developments in the maritime sector, these countries have been connected to each other in the coastal areas to protect their interests. BIMSTEC has once again come to the  fore on the important issue of security.

As a result, BIMSTEC has become more active. These countries have agreed to enter into agreements with each other on security issues.

As part of this, BIMSTEC established the Center for Environmental Protection and Climate Change Studies in 2014. Recently, these countries have launched a joint exercise for disaster management. At the same time, several sub-groups have been set up under the security sector. These groups are designed to monitor specific aspects of security. 

The growing need for MDA

Although there is no explicit mention of MDA in these subdivisions of BIMSTEC , these subgroups focus on sharing the knowledge we have with other countries in terms of security. It is led by Sri Lanka and the group has held four meetings so far. 

One of the important objectives of BIMSTEC is to expedite the implementation of the Information Exchange Center to enhance cooperation between the member countries . To achieve this, BIMSTEC countries will need the help of MDA. 

For this, these countries need to make more efforts. Economic and security cooperation between these countries cannot be sustained unless the exchange of information and the assessment of threats to member countries have laid the groundwork. The key step in this is to bring about key reforms in the Bay of Bengal and the MDA system is essential   not only for security but also for the development of BIMSTEC countries.

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