There is clear evidence that the Indo-Pacific is resonating among smaller countries too. They are deliberating how this new formulation fits into their national interests given that it is widely seen through the prism of Quad or the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD) comprising of Australia, India, Japan and the United States which Beijing apprehends is targeted against it. These are natural apprehensions because many smaller countries have good relations with both China and the QSD members, and would not like to be pushed into a situation where they have to choose between either of them. Consequently these countries have chosen to announce their engagements with the Indo-Pacific in the form of ‘vision’, ‘outlook’ and ‘approach’ that pivots on economic growth and development. Though wishful, they prefer an Indo-Pacific that is bereft of geopolitical-geostrategic-geoeconomics contestations, which is a pragmatic approach.
The most recent announcement about embracing the Indo-Pacific comes from Bangladesh through a document titled “Bangladesher Indo-Pacific Ruprekha” or the Indo-Pacific Outlook (IPO). Dr. AK Abdul Momen, the Foreign Minister categorically stated that his country is “not following anyone” and that the IPO is “independent.” Furthermore, Dhaka “envisions a free, open, peaceful, secure, and inclusive Indo-Pacific for the shared prosperity for all” given that the region’s “collective share in global GDP, preponderance in international trade, enhanced climate action and growing technological dynamism can be key determinants for ensuring Bangladesh’s long-term resilience and prosperity.” Perhaps what is more significant is that Dhaka has linked the Indo-Pacific with its “Vision 2041”, a 20 year long perspective plan that seeks to build a knowledge-based developed country.
Dhaka’s IPO envisions “a free, open, peaceful, secure, and inclusive Indo-Pacific for the shared prosperity for all,” and it spells out four guiding policies: (a) ‘Friendship towards all, malice toward none’ a foreign policy dictum proclaimed by Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the Father of the Nation; (b) conduct international relations based on the “principles of respect for national sovereignty and equality, political independence, non-interference in internal affairs, peaceful settlement of international disputes, as well as respect for international law and the principles enunciated in the United Nations Charter; and striving for renunciation of the use of force in international relations and for general and complete disarmament”; (c) Adherence to relevant UN treaties and international conventions, and upholding the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) which is the bedrock of its Territorial Waters and Maritime Zones (Amendment) Act, 2021; and (d) Constructive regional and international cooperation for sustainable development, international peace and security, humanitarian action, and fundamental rights and freedoms. The above policy guidelines have fifteen objectives.
Earlier in 2019, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the Indo Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI), an “open global initiative” which “draws on existing regional cooperation architecture and mechanisms to focus on seven central pillars conceived around Maritime Security; Maritime Ecology; Maritime Resources; Capacity Building and Resource Sharing; Disaster Risk Reduction and Management; Science, Technology and Academic Cooperation; and Trade Connectivity and Maritime Transport.” The IPOI’s focus is on “creating partnerships” among interested countries.
Bangladesh’s IPO and India’s IPOI have numerous convergences, and Bay of Bengal is the contiguous geography where both countries can potentially explore cooperation as envisaged under Objective 14 of the IPO i.e. “Collaboration with sub-regional partners and relevant organisations towards bolstering regional cooperation and enhancing mutually beneficial complementarities”. While the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) and the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) are the natural multilateral bodies for cooperation, a sub-regional road map built around complementarities in IPO and IPOI for cooperation in the Bay of Bengal is a distinct opportunity.
Finally, Bangladesh has catapulted the oceans and seas high on its national agenda and the Bay of Bengal is fast emerging as the major hub for the development of Blue Economy. In 2017 it set up the “Blue Economy Cell” under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) to coordinate Blue Economy projects among Sectoral ministries. As many as 26 sectors were identified by the government including “coastal protection, maritime safety, and surveillance for the expansion of Bangladesh’s blue economy”.
Likewise, India has announced robust plans to harness the wealth of the oceans in a sustainable manner. The contribution of Blue Economy to the country’s GDP currently stands at approximately four per cent and the national policy aims to increase it to double digits by 2047.
In order to support and achieve collective growth targets of 2041 for Bangladesh and 2047 for India, a coordinated road map for ‘blue growth’ for development of Blue Economy in the Bay of Bengal is conceivable for which the IPO and IPOI can be the catalysts.
Views expressed by the author are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of the Centre for Public Policy Research.
Dr Vijay Sakhuja is Honorary Distinguished Fellow with CPPR and associated with our Centre for Strategic Studies. Dr. Sakhuja, a former Indian Navy officer, is also former Director, National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi. He earned his MPhil and PhD from the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He specializes in issues of national security and public policy, particularly in the context of ocean affairs, geopolitics, Climate Change, Arctic, Blue Economy and 4th Industrial Revolution Technologies.