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The Bay of Bengal Could Be the Key to a Free and Open Indo-Pacific

Over the previous decade or so, with the winds of geopolitical change sweeping Asia, the Indo-Pacific has emerged as a point of interest in world economics, diplomacy, and safety. With its greater than half of the world inhabitants, fast-rising prosperity, and the challenges of rising regional powers, the Indo-Pacific is the prime strategic hub for deciding the future of present world order. To keep the establishment in the area and maintain China’s assertiveness in test, the United States, Japan, and Australia, amongst others, have superior the thought of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific.” Although every of these international locations has its personal imaginative and prescient, the normal aspiration to maintain the area free from coercion and open for all is the benchmark that they share. Within the Indo-Pacific theater, the Bay of Bengal — located at the intersection between South and Southeast Asia — is a divider, a connector, and one of the prime battlegrounds. The tumultuous strategic setting of the Bay — pushed by conventional and nontraditional safety considerations, and a rising economic system primarily powered by infrastructure — suggests this subregion is quick changing into one of the key rising hotspots for the Free and Open Indo-Pacific technique. This, mixed with the undeniable fact that local weather change poses an existential risk to a number of states in the area, calls not solely sustained focus by extraregional powers, but in addition for governance constructions that may facilitate a rules-based order.

The Bay of Bengal in the Indo-Pacific Fulcrum

Roughly three-quarters of the Indo-Pacific area’s total floor is water. Yet other than the South China Sea, the nice majority of geopolitical research concern not these maritime areas — together with the huge Pacific and Indian oceans or vital bays akin to the Bay of Bengal — however quite land areas that cowl a a lot smaller share of the complete.



However, after a long time of being considered a global backwater, the Bay of Bengal is quick changing into a key space of strategic competitors as the Indo-Pacific technique continues to evolve. It is the largest bay in the world, bookended by India on its western aspect and Thailand to its east, with Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka as its outstanding littoral states. Together they host totally one-quarter of the world’s inhabitants with sustained development in its gross home product, which at present is $3 trillion. 1 / 4 of the world’s traded items cross the Bay, together with enormous volumes of Persian Gulf oil and liquefied pure gasoline, offering energy-scarce international locations with a hall to securing assets.

The states round the Bay of Bengal have exhibited a sample of cooperation primarily based on rule of regulation and free from coercion, reinforcing the aspiration of a free and open Indo-Pacific. Two main regional organizations — the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation — lie on the border of the Bay of Bengal. In addition, key nations of the Bay joined in establishing the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation in 1997. In 2012, Bangladesh and Myanmar settled their maritime boundary disputes in the Bay of Bengal by way of the International Tribunal for the Laws of the Sea, setting a precedent of respecting the rule of regulation. In distinction, in the contested South China Sea, China disregarded the tribunal’s verdict when the tribunal overruled Beijing’s territorial claims over the Philippines’ unique financial zone.

Economy at the Center

With the exception of Thailand, international locations surrounding the Bay of Bengal largely missed the financial miracle that befell in Asia in the latter half of the twentieth century. This, nevertheless, is now altering. Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, South Asia had skilled the world’s quickest development of 7.3 p.c on common each year all through the final decade. Low-cost, labor-intensive, export-manufacturing industries akin to clothes, coupled with fast urbanization, have been the driver of this quick development.

Just as industrial economies akin to China, Korea, and Japan moved towards high-tech, capital-intensive development fashions, Bay of Bengal international locations have the potential to profit from offshoring labor-intensive industries from developed international locations. With comparatively younger workforces, for instance — in Bangladesh, 20 p.c of the inhabitants falls between age 15 and 24 — labor-intensive industries will possible proceed to flourish in the coming a long time. An vital consider the rising strategic significance of the space is the comparatively vivid financial prospects of many littoral states.

The Bay of Bengal can be believed to have important gasoline reserves. Some unofficial estimates have put Bangladesh’s reserves alone at 200 trillion cubic ft, which might make it the largest supply of provide in the Asia-Pacific. Another Bay of Bengal state, Myanmar, can be a important natural-gas producer and client. Myanmar has the fourth-largest confirmed natural-gas reserves in the Asia-Pacific, and at present the highest reserves-to-production ratio in the area, at 63 years. It exports petroleum gasoline to each Thailand and China, clients accounting for 75 p.c of its manufacturing.

The two Asian giants, China and India, have change into main customers and are amongst the prime three oil importers in the world. China’s and India’s dependency on oil imports are anticipated to rise to 75 p.c and 95 p.c, respectively, of their complete oil consumption by 2030. Japan and Korea are additionally extremely depending on power imports, notably oil and gasoline — importing primarily throughout sea lanes passing by way of the Bay. In addition to power, the Bay of Bengal area can be vital for industrial delivery routes. About half the world’s container site visitors passes by way of this area, and its ports deal with roughly 33 p.c of world commerce, thus changing into an vital financial freeway.

However, the full financial potential of the area is at present constrained by the low degree of regional financial integration and a dearth of infrastructure, particularly transport connections inside these international locations, to neighboring states and the relaxation of the world. For instance, intraregional commerce in Southeast Asia is 25 p.c of complete commerce, whereas it is just 5 p.c in South Asia. This, nevertheless, creates a window of alternative wherein main powers’ deal with the Indo-Pacific may catalyze infrastructure improvement and connectivity in the Bay of Bengal.

Infrastructure and Connectivity

The ever-growing financial actions round the Bay have prompted efforts to construct new ports, roads, pipelines, and railways all through the area, largely sponsored by China and Japan. These initiatives have been accompanied by appreciable competitors for political and strategic affect over the Bay states as these powers search to set up infrastructure connections and manufacturing chains to profit their very own economies. In broad phrases, this competitors is perhaps seen as reflecting the intersection of rising areas of strategic affect of main powers in Asia: China, Japan, and India, in addition to extraregional powers akin to the United States. This competitors considerations but in addition advantages the infrastructure-hungry international locations round the Bay.

South Asia clearly illustrates the urgent infrastructural wants that financial development is producing inside the Bay, and the potential risks that procuring wanted capital funding can entail. According to an Asian Development Bank report, in South Asia, the hole between present infrastructure investments and the want is $160 billion per yr. These wants embrace bodily infrastructure akin to ports, bridges, highways, railways, airports, in addition to digital infrastructure.

For instance, though Bangladesh has change into the second-largest clothes and attire exporter in the world in recent times, with potential to change into the largest producer, it has but failed to full a single deep-water port in its 50 years of independence. The building of the Sonadia deep seaport was lengthy on the nationwide agenda, however the absence of consensus amongst improvement companions relating to funding sources led the undertaking to be scrapped altogether. Recognizing geopolitical realities, Bangladesh is at present constructing a deep seaport in Matarbari funded by Japan.

Explosive development in China’s Yunnan Province to the northeast is producing demand in Myanmar for transit infrastructure in the pipeline, highway, and rail sectors, with the Kyaukphyu-Kunming gasoline and oil pipelines already accomplished. Meeting these transit wants would considerably deepen Myanmar’s interdependence with China’s southwest, particularly Yunnan. The China-Myanmar Economic Corridor — one of six Belt and Road Initiative financial corridors — is a testimony to this and displays a potential for Bay of Bengal connectivity on a fair larger scale.

The most dynamic areas of infrastructural improvement in the Bay of Bengal over the previous 5 years have belonged to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, unveiled in the fall of 2013. Its particular purposes in the Bay of Bengal area, particularly two vital initiatives in Sri Lanka and Myanmar, and aspiration for a Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor, are vital. All nations bordering the Bay besides India have joined the Belt and Road Initiative, and it holds nice potential to considerably remodel the political economic system of the area — not least by deepening financial interdependence with China. Such a state of affairs warrants America’s proposed Indo-Pacific Economic Framework to embrace extra Bay of Bengal international locations and allocate funding for infrastructure and connectivity to scale back over-reliance on China and guarantee plurality in the area. Investing in infrastructure and connectivity may even assist the United States and its allies to strengthen ties with the international locations in the area, as that is certainly a precedence for these international locations.

A Multilayered Geopolitical Competition

The geopolitical maneuvering of the regional powers and competitors amongst extraregional powers will additional speed up the geostrategic significance of the Bay of Bengal. The competitors will happen in two tiers — each conflicting and converging in nature. The first tier is amongst regional powers — primarily between China and India and amongst the mid-size states of the Bay akin to Bangladesh and Myanmar, whose relations largely stay aggressive and conflictual in nature. The second tier of this competitors can be between and amongst extraregional powers akin to Australia, European international locations, Japan, and the United States. In this tier, competitors is extra complementary with one another, however extra in battle with China. These international locations are constructing new sorts of safety structure akin to the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and AUKUS, and we aresome strengthening of bilateral ties all through the Indo-Pacific area. Under such frameworks, the division between the United States and its mates with China will sharpen additional.

While the United States could appear to be the chief or driver of this competitors, actually, the conventional rivalry between India and China could change into way more outstanding. India is the historically dominant regional energy in the Bay of Bengal. The affect of China, nevertheless, is rising quickly, pushed primarily by the huge monetary assist it affords and its proactive infrastructure packages beneath the Belt and Road Initiative. India and China each view the Bay of Bengal as a essential frontier of their competitors over power assets, delivery lanes, and cultural affect. The competitors stemming from the two international locations increasing their regional spheres of affect in one another’s backyards could lead to skirmishes over power and sea lanes of communications, not to point out confrontation over political affect in the extra fragile states akin to Myanmar and non-Bay of Bengal littoral state Nepal.

So far, the strongest manifestation of Sino-Indian rivalry in the Bay of Bengal has been located in Myanmar, the place each international locations want overland transit to join their economically weaker areas, particularly India’s northeast and China’s Yunnan province, with the Bay of Bengal. However, between 2011 and 2021, Myanmar opened its economic system to the Western world after the United States and Europe lifted sanctions, creating extra partnership choices as the reforms attracted a wave of overseas traders. This in flip decreased Sino-Indian competitors by making area accessible to new actors, creating extra stability in the beforehand polarized state of affairs. However, after final yr’s army coup, the nation has now taken a backslide to the establishment ante as Western traders are leaving and the regime is beneath strict sanctions, leaving Naypyidaw at the mercy of Beijing.

Competition in the safety realm is larger than ever. In current years, the solely multilateral army train of this area, the naval Malabar train held amongst India, Japan, the United States, and extra just lately Australia, has additionally taken place in the Bay a number of occasions. China, the largest provider of army {hardware} to Bangladesh and Myanmar, supplied two Ming-class submarines to Bangladesh’s navy, which goals, beneath its “Forces Goal-2030” plan, to modernize its armed forces. In response, India gave a submarine to Myanmar. Under the rubric of Beijing’s “Look South” technique, the People’s Liberation Army Navy has elevated its deployment of warships in the Bay of Bengal and Chinese vessels have even entered India’s particular financial zone. Chinese submarine patrols in the Indian Ocean have additionally elevated, notably close to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, that are thought of vital to New Delhi’s regional intelligence and monitoring operations. To counter China’s rising presence in the Bay of Bengal area, India is organising coastal surveillance radar techniques in the neighborhood, akin to in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. In brief, China and India are doubling down on their efforts to reshape the strategic safety setting of the Bay of Bengal in their very own favor.

Domestic Politics as Underlying Factors

The home political constraints on Bay of Bengal states akin to political instability, ethno-religious tensions, urbanization, and the coronavirus pandemic may have a knock-on impact on this subregion. To deal with these rising challenges and set up a rules-based order in the area, the United States, together with its regional allies and companions and worldwide organizations, will want to present technical, monetary, and humanitarian help to the Bay international locations. Leadership succession in home politics in each Myanmar and Bangladesh additional complicates the prospect of a sound decision. Sri Lanka poses the highest threat, as it’s at present going through an unprecedented financial disaster as well as to its decadelong ethno-religious and political deadlock. India’s responses have been instrumental in ameliorating the current disaster in Sri Lanka. However, a collective regional response of main Indo-Pacific proponents — India, Japan, and the United States — may change the trajectory of the Bay of Bengal.

The Rohingya subject is a main political drawback for Bangladesh and Myanmar, with spillover results on Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia, and thus has important geopolitical penalties. It can be a humanitarian precedence for the worldwide neighborhood, due to the human struggling concerned, the tensions it provokes between Myanmar and Bangladesh, and the long-term safety implications for the area. Bangladesh hosts thousands and thousands of refugees regardless of its restricted capability, however as the resolution is past its management, there must be robust assist from United Nations Security Council members, particularly from regional international locations that will have some leverage over the Burmese army junta.

China and India are on the prime of that record, however contemplating their very own nationwide pursuits in Myanmar, the position they play in resolving this subject has been quite restricted. Bangladesh additionally had excessive expectations of Japan, its long-time improvement accomplice, however it, too, is prioritizing its personal nationwide curiosity. The United States, Europe, and worldwide organizations, nevertheless, have a vital position to play on this disaster, from offering help to pressuring Myanmar, which resonates with the spirit of the Indo-Pacific imaginative and prescient of establishing a rules-based order for all.

Nontraditional Security — No Less Significant

While conventional safety considerations are largely alongside or round nationwide boundaries, nontraditional safety points pertaining to the Bay akin to local weather change, pure catastrophe, terrorism, refugees, medication, piracy, and unlawful, unreported, and unregulated fishing transect boundaries and have an effect on the area as a complete. The damaging impacts of local weather change, particularly rising sea ranges and an alarming degree of salinity, pose existential threats to a number of Bay states, together with Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Two-thirds of Bangladesh is lower than 5 meters above the sea degree rise. The newest projection says that if there’s a 50-centimeter rise by 2050, 11 p.c of Bangladesh is perhaps underwater, making thousands and thousands homeless. Thus, the subject of potential local weather refugees is extra salient in the Bay of Bengal area than wherever else in the world. This calls for cooperation, in addition to help from Indo-Pacific promoters akin to the United States. This is especially vital as the Biden administration made tackling local weather change a prime precedence — an space the place the Bay of Bengal may play a main position, which might in the end yield stronger ties between Indo-Pacific promoters and the international locations in the area.

While strategic pursuits usually dictate conflicting positions, a consensus over the precept of mare liberum (free seas for everybody) as one of the 4 world commons is required for the safety of marine assets. Since the Indo-Pacific imaginative and prescient aspires to set up worldwide guidelines and norms, these nontraditional safety considerations in the Bay of Bengal may give impetus to different regional organizations, akin to the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation and the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical Economic Cooperation, to deliver international locations to work collectively on widespread challenges.


For a long time, the significance of the Bay of Bengal remained underappreciated due to the absence of nice powers’ curiosity and lack of financial vitality, however this has modified as strategic competitors in the space intensifies in accordance to its personal dynamic. The Bay of Bengal now has appreciable — and rising — strategic significance for Asia, and for the world as a complete. In some ways, the Bay of Bengal lies at the core of the Indo-Pacific area — a centerpiece of the broader Indo-Pacific idea and the place the place the strategic pursuits of the main powers of East and South Asia intersect. As the Bay will change into a take a look at case for a nascent multipolar world order, it’s of the utmost significance to set up governance frameworks that may facilitate the integration of rising powers in regulating this order and upholding the rules of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific.



Anu Anwar is a fellow at the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, an affiliate in analysis at the John Okay. Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, Harvard University, and a Ph.D. pupil at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Previously, he labored as a analysis fellow at the U.S. Department of Defense’s Daniel Okay. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, as an affiliate scholar at the East-West Center and as a visiting scholar at Edwin O. Reischauer Center at SAIS and the University of Tokyo. 

Image: Twitter by way of @indiannavy