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Territorial Disputes In The Bay Of Bengal History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

The management of relations with its immediate neighbours should be the first priority of any country’s foreign policy. The stakes are always high as conditions in its immediate vicinity directly impact a country’s security. A conflict environment in one’s neighbour creates opportunities for external powers to interfere and distort local relationships. It also affects the flow of mutually beneficial trade arrangements. Hence, cooperation among these countries is most essential one to maintain regional stability. With unresolved territorial disputes, illegal trade and insurgency in the Bay of Bengal area, how far will the countries involved succeed in building regional stability? Given, the high stakes of accessible gas deposits in overlapping maritime claims what implications could these have on the efforts to demarcate the boundaries? How far will international law be successful in resolving the dispute and what are the avenues for resolution?


Energy Prospects

The Bay of Bengal region has emerged as another centre of oil politics and an important energy resource to meet the Asian needs. Speculation about gas prospects results from advances in offshore drilling technology that allows exploration in new swathes of the geologically promising but disputed ocean territory. By occupying 879,375 sq.nautical miles and with depth of 2,586m, the Bay of Bengal is the largest bay in the world. It is located in the northeastern part of the Indian ocean, in a triangle shape with India’s east coast and Sri Lanka on the west, India, Bangladesh and Myanmar on the North and Andaman and Nicober Island in the east. The future of South and Southeast Asian countries is in peril, because of the rapid economic challenges, especially in the issue of energy. Bay of Bengal is not a major oil and natural gas producing region of the world, but there is every possibility and potentials for enhancing production by larger investments flowing in. Moreover it is one of the last great oil and gas rich provinces which has been left unexplored. There are opportunities for cooperation in power supply, integration of electricity grids, trade in energy of all forms, flow of technology and establishments of production facilities will benefits all the countries in the region.

Demand for natural gas in Bangladesh, which has experienced power shortages, constitutes a major domestic political issue. Demand for gas has also grown rapidly in potential export markets, creating strong incentives for Myanmar to export gas in order to bring in foreign reserves and gain favour with countries such as China and India. The economies of Bangladesh, India and Myanmar are going to need the Bay of Bengal’s huge deposits of minerals and hydrocarbons. These countries could potentially use both these energy resources and infrastructural connectivity at sub-regional and regional levels as opportunities to improve their relations. However, tensions are palpable as Myanmar, Bangladesh and India face off over rights to the resource riches of the Bay of Bengal in multiple territorial disputes. There is very large growth in energy demand to fuel electricity generation, industrial processes transport and households in these countries. How to best meet these demands poses a range of policy challenges for the region’s governments.

Nature of dispute

UNCLOS states that any coastal country is entitled to have first 12 nautical miles from its baseline as territorial sea, 24 nautical miles as contiguous zone, and the next adjoin 200 nautical miles as its exclusive economic zone (EEZ). But as the coast of these countries follow a curve creating overlap of territories.

By legislating the territorial and maritime zones act in 1974, Bangladesh became the first country in south Asia to have declared its jurisdictions over territorial waters, economic zones and continental shelf. India’s policy in its oil and gas explorations and discovering hydrocarbons followed under the New Exploration Licensing Policy (NELP).India discovered 14 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in 2002 and 20 TCF of natural gas reserves in 2005 in the Krishna-godavari basin and Myanmar discovered 7 TCF of gas in 2004. There were series of bilateral talks, but negotiations remained inconclusive as there were different approaches of all the three countries to demarcate their maritime boundaries, and claims of their territory in the bay. Bangladesh wanted to resolve the dispute based on the principle of equity, while India and Myanmar favoured the equidistance policy. According to the UN charter, the principle of equity takes into account a country’s population, economic status and needs, GDP growth, and other human issues, while the “equidistance” system marks the boundary through geometric calculations. India’s claim over 300,000 sq. km of seabed in the Bay of Bengal that could potentially have large hydrocarbon reserves is being disputed by its eastern neighbours Myanmar and Bangladesh.

Myanmar, in a 4 August letter to the United Nations (UN), has complained that India has unilaterally extended the maritime boundary between the two countries, contravening a 1986 bilateral agreementIndia and Bangladesh have overlapping claims on at least 18 blocks in the complicated maritime geography. India makes claims on 10 and Myanmar on 7 blocks. They cannot exploit the full benefits of their oil and gas reserves in the Bay of Bengal due to these countries cannot exploit the full benefits of their oil and gas reserves because of the claims and counter claims in the offshore gas blocks by them. India and Bangladesh have overlapping claims over 18 blocks in the region. UN provisions states that any country’s claim will not be considered if there is a dispute with a neighbouring country which might have overlapping claims. In November 2008, the dispute became more complicated and was on the verge of armed conflict when Myanmar had send two exploration vessels with 2 naval ships to facilitate the south Korean Daewoo company to explore the oil and gas resources in the region near 50 nautical miles southwest of the st. martins island..Bangladesh later positioned its three ships a the same spot. Although the tension over this has been slowed down with Myanmar’s claim that it had not withdrawn from the blocks because of Bangladesh request but because completion of the seismic survey by the south Korean company in thje block ad-7, the crisis is yet to be resolved. In December 2008 Indian survey vessels intruded into the disputed waters. On 12 May, India staked claim to large swathes of seabed under the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal, which a government scientist involved with the survey process pegged at approximately 0.6 million sq. km of continental shelf. A strong political commitment is essential for all these three countries to come up to a decision.

The disputed maritime boundary between Bangladesh and Myanmar has twice resulted in military tensions, in 2008 and 2009. Myanmar and Bangladesh are currently pursuing a settlement to the boundary dispute through the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea, while India and Bangladesh are working towards a settlement using an arbitrator.

Why should India invest?

The major ports such as Kolkata, Chennai, tuticorn lies along the coast with Bay of Bengal and its outlying Andaman and Nicober Island makes the sea strategically crucial for India.

Second, due to the proclivity of India’s neighbours to exploit India’s nation building difficulties, the country’s internal security challenges are inextricably linked with border management. Moreover with this threat India’s growth rate has far put paced that of most of its neighbours which has generated peculiar problems like insurgency. The increased cross-border terrorism, infiltration and ex-filtration of armed militants, emergence of non-state actors, nexus between narcotics and arms strugglers, illegal migrations, separatist movements aided and abetted by external powers, sea Tigers, pirates, and Muslim fundamentalist has caused socio-political instability in the region. While India has become rock-solid in the western frontiers, it has become highly vulnerable in its eastern sector, where its enemy is not a national army but a multitude of secessionist, terrorist and drug-running militants operating between Southeast Asia and Northeastern India through Bangladesh. To combat terrorism in this region, India needs to patrol the Bay of Bengal, resolve its territorial disputes, stop the illegal trade, and this could be possible only if the neighbouring countries look up to India as a friendly nation. It is imperative for India to engage Bay of Bengal and Andaman sea particularly littorals in a calibrated manner.

Myanmar strategically provides the Eastern Flank to the Bay of Bengal and along with India virtually encloses the Bay with its extraordinary seaboard which in the South extends to the Andaman Sea and therefore of significance for India’s vital Andaman and Nicobar Islands which control the Straits of Malacca. India can write-off her naval dominance in the Bay of Bengal should Myanmar provide a number of naval bases to China along her long seaboard. This would also enable China to permanently station an Indian Ocean fleet operating out of such bases.

India is projected to grow by 8 to 10% in recent years and thus the requirement for energy is also expected to rise immensely. Its current dependence on oil import is for over 70% of its needs, and it is going to rise by 85% by 2015. The growing economies would demand very large natural gas supplies, and Asia is leading producer and a major consumer too. Hence Asian cooperation is very important for consuming and supplying nations of the world.

China’s Sphere of Influence

As well known, the increasing Chinese presence and influence in Southeast Asia, especially in the Bay of Bengal region has become a matter of great concern for India and Southeast Asia. Indeed China thinks it has important interests in the Bay of Bengal region and the priority given by it to the economic development and strategic linkages with Myanmar is apparently in pursuance of its long term objective of sustaining and strengthening its influence and role in this region.      

The security concerns of the region must be addressed at the earliest.  Regional cooperation would also be fruitful in reducing tensions between its littoral states and it would be useful for curbing the terrorist movements and drug trafficking in the region. There is a sense of urgency to check illegal activities in the region and to fully exploit and capitalize on what the India should consider as a strategic window of opportunity.

India seized many major naval exercises with countries like United Sates to counteract the increasing Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean. The Malabar 2007 wargame, the largest ever in Bay of Bengal India, US, Singapore, Japan and Australia took part in it. This exercise was widely viewed as “strategic encirclement of China”.India has forged naval cooperation agreements with Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia to increase its strategic reach in the region. India also established Far Eastern Naval Command off Port Blair to increase surveillance in the adjoining Andaman Sea. China now plans to directly connect to Chittagong port and construct a deep sea port at Sonadia island seven kns off coz bazaar port in bay of Bengal.

Zhang Myanmar too have agreed on the construction of a tri-nation highway connecting Chittagong and Kunming in Yunnan province through Myanmar. This will give China a direct access to Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea through its already established ports in Pakistan (gwador port), sri lanka(hambantota and Myanmar (Kyakpiu). These activities will pose inevitable geo-strategic threat to India and its maritime interest. China is also looking forward with their plans to build a port in Colombo. China have got access to the Myanmar naval base in Haggyi Island,monitoring stations in the Coco Island, and the north of India’s Andaman and Nicober Islands.

The 1200 miles long pipeline, that China is constructing to connect its Chingqing province in southwest passing through the Guizhou province and Kunming in Yunnan province with the Kyaukpiu Port on the Bay of Bengal.

China is progressing with the Hambantota port in southern part of sri lanka.This will give China an effective influence over the Indian Ocean.China’s fuel requirement comes from Africa and Middle East. Indian Ocean, Malacca Straits to South China Sea is hence very vital for the country as this fuel passes through this marine to reach China. While the ports such as Chittagong, Sonadia and Kyakpiu will provide the facility of fuel transportation for China by avoiding the Malacca Straits and South China Sea.India have adequate naval strength in the Indian ocean and hence neednot have to worry about the initiatives and efforts by china in the region. What is important is a good partnership and Valuable dialogue between India and China to maintain a cordial relation in this region


Avenues for resolution

By pursuing a policy of good neighborliness and peaceful coexistence, India, Bangladesh and Myanmar will fully exploit the aforesaid complementarities, potentialities, and opportunities to optimize the benefits of cooperation for which political willingness must prevail.

Trilateral agreement

To make substantive progress on the sea delimitation issue we need to press with utmost urgency and seriousness for agreements on joint surveys, research and development between Bangladesh, India and Myanmar which is crucial as the future is in the throes of serious gas crisis and it will impact heavily to wait for the outcome of the International Law of Sea (INLOS). The settlement is possible with a trilateral agreement between these countries. With India and Myanmar on the verse of improving its relationship, Bangladesh will be compelled to join the group and make an agreement to peacefully settle the dispute. Dhaka appears to have realized that the country ringing its territory on three sides could be a lucrative market for its natural resources.

It hardly needs emphasis that both for India and Myanmar the resources of Bay of Bengal is not critical to its survival as it is for Bangladesh conceding the legitimate energy needs of both the countries. For Bangladesh the resources of Bay of Bengal involving particularly the continental shelf (CS) and economic zone (EZ) are crucial for its survival and future. A peaceful, stable and democratic Bangladesh free from extremism and militancy is in the vital interest of India and Myanmar for regional peace and stability. This can only be achieved on the bedrock of a viable economy; access to and legitimate sharing of the resources of Bay of Bengal, which is crucial to the survival and future of Bangladesh as a vibrant peaceful and democratic country. A just, fair and equitable resolution of the territorial dispute would give the much needed boost to Bangladesh’s progress and development and help avert the real peril of Bangladesh becoming sea locked. This would be seen by its people as the real test of friendship of India and Myanmar towards them and their country beyond the trappings of diplomatic niceties.

On the other hand India should be allowed to wheel power through Bangladesh from its North-Eastern states. Second, the market for solar home systems in Bangladesh and India’s East and North-East could be integrated. Third, a joint development framework for offshore oil and gas in the Bay of Bengal (including settlement of any boundary disputes) could be developed. Fourth, options could be explored to develop Bangladesh’s coal fields (consistent with sound social and environmental practices) and export coal-fired power to India (coal by wire). Fifth, in the area of natural gas, there could be cooperation on LNG imports (focus on Mongla port for gas in Khulna Division and West Bengal). Sixth, another possible area is cooperation on oil refinery in Chittagong to serve Bangladesh and NE Indian markets. Seventh, talks on the Myanmar-Bangladesh-India gas pipeline could resume. As earlier noted, engagement here will be long-term. Building on the experience of past dialogue where progress has been very limited, there may be a need to rethink the engagement strategy with concrete work program that distinguishes between quick gains and the long-term options. In some parts of these concave features agreement between three or even more countries is required before a full set of boundaries can be established. Due to the bay concavity, Bangladesh at the top of the bay becomes a zone locked with potentially only a small exclusively economic zone (EEZ). Geographically it is locked in-between India and Myanmar. The stage has reach to a try point now where the boundaries with these countries intersect and a trilateral agreement is required. With organizations like SAARC, ASEAN and now the BIMSTEC working for regional cooperation, a valued solution has not been met in this issue.



How International are International laws?

International law allows every country to have and use 200 nautical miles from its coast to the sea. However, this law gives rise to tricky situation as the coasts of India and Bangladesh and Myanmar follow a curve, which implies overlapping of territory. This has led to disagreement on their border. Under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), India and Myanmar have to delimit the border and file their claim to the UN on 29 June and 21 May 2011 while Bangladesh has to do it before 27 July 2011. The arbitration settlement of the disputes might take three or even five years. The fifth round of talks at the technical level between Myanmar and Bangladesh held at Chittagong January 2010 ended with agreement to resolve the dispute on the basis of equity and equidistance of resources. But in the sixth round of talk in March 2010 Myanmar came up with their proposal to draw a line near the friendship line. This is an imaginary line down to st Martin Island in the northeastern part of the bay of Bengal. And thus the hope for a bilateral resolution got delayed. There has been no talks between india and Bangladesh for a long time, as india wants to resolve through arbitration by the UN.

India and Bangladesh have overlapping claims on at least 18 blocks in the complicated maritime geography. They cannot exploit the full benefits of their oil and gas reserves in the Bay of Bengal due to claims and counter-claims to the offshore gas blocks. Both Bangladesh and India have agreed on the need to amicably demarcate the maritime boundary. But will these talks lead to a valuable solution. There has been agreements and demarcation in past, which was not successful.

On the other hand if the dispute is settled through the ITLOS, it could provide legal precedent that affects future maritime boundary cases elsewhere. The biggest losers of a boundary settlement and any subsequent energy developments will probably be the people of Myanmar, especially the Rohingya and others living in the country’s northwest. Little of the money from gas exports is likely to go to Myanmar’s people. If the history of onshore energy infrastructure development is any indicator, gas exports will instead lead to forced labour, land confiscations and other human rights violations. Offshore energy infrastructure could result in fishing restrictions which will challenge the livelihoods of the fishermen in the area.

Development of energy infrastructure in northwestern Myanmar will disproportionately challenge the livelihood of the Rohingya. Arakanese Rohingyas are facing movement restriction in border areas of Bangladesh as the Rohingya Resistance Committee (RRC) declared they would be arrested in town and on the road. On the Burmese side of the Burma-Bangladesh border, an army battalion has ordered villagers to supply a monthly quote rations since the beginning of this year, which some are finding difficult to do as they are very poor. India, the largest of the three littoral countries, has remained a mute spectator so far. Other than India, China and South Korea are also in the race for exploration of hydrocarbons in the Bay of Bengal. This unresolved issue could emerge as a major bone of contention that would trigger future resource conflict among Southeast Asian neighbors. The significance of a boundary settlement might not be readily apparent, but that does not mean that the consequences are insignificant. The leaders of Myanmar and Bangladesh are both feeling political pressure to settle the long-drawn-out dispute over maritime boundaries in the Bay of Bengal. If the junta concludes an agreement motivated by its own short-term interests, the resulting boundary will have a negative impact on the people of Myanmar for generations to come.

India has remained similarly removed from the maritime boundary dispute between Bangladesh and Myanmar. Because of the concave shape of the Bay of Bengal, India’s involvement will be necessary to construct a full set of boundaries for the bay.

There’s no way to know for sure, as it will depend heavily on how the agreement is concluded. For Myanmar’s citizens, the worst-case scenario may well be a negotiated settlement in which the junta sacrifices maritime territory for a quick deal. An unfavorable decision from the ITLOS could also be bad for Myanmar’s people, though this depends largely on the court, not the junta.

If Myanmar finds gas, it could inspire a repeat of the competition between China and India for gas exports from the Shwe fields. However, it could also offer the junta an opportunity to create stronger economic, strategic and political links with India, balancing the country’s perceived over-dependence on China.

If the junta settles the maritime boundary motivated mainly by its own short-term interests, Myanmar could be stuck with the injurious boundaries long after the generals are gone. Under the UN provision, no claims submitted by a country would be taken for final consideration before settling the objection raised by a neighbouring country, which might have overlapping claims. The outcome, whatever it is, won’t be a zero sum solution. It could go either way, i.e. Bangladesh may or may not get the desired maritime area. Bangladesh may win it against Myanmar, but may not against India if population is considered a major factor in delimitation of boundary surrounding the bay. The equidistant line could be bent, but not as much as Bangladesh wants – could be another possible solution.

Looking closer, currently none exploits the resources of this disputed zone. So, none will at least materially lose anything. But, politically, it would always have a great impact on politics of Bangladesh and Myanmar – may be to some extent in West Bengal too. The outcome would be published in around 2014-2015, when a new government in Bangladesh would be in power. If it goes against Bangladesh, it could create political turmoil. In Myanmar, a potential crack between the Junta and the Chinese could arise out of this if China doesn’t see Myanmar through this case. India should redefine the concept of ‘area’ taking into consideration both historical realities and geopolitical imperatives. In the near term, an unsettled boundary will continue to prevent natural gas development in the overlapping claims. A trilateral agreement and cooperation can be a best step to resolve the disputes and maintain peace and stability in the region.

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