The Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) has recently determined a new maritime border between India and Bangladesh in the Bay of Bengal. This settles a long-running dispute that prevented fisherfolk of both nations from exploiting the waters and discouraging national companies and their global partners from drilling oil in the bay where many new and rich oilfields have been discovered lately. The verdict falls short of expectations of both sides but leaves each with something to cheer about. The PCA had settled a similar dispute between Bangladesh and Myanmar in 2012. The resolution of Dhaka’s maritime territorial disputes with Myanmar and India now opens the door for substantive regional cooperation.
Now that both sides have made substantial gains and ended a major bilateral dispute as per international law, it should spur them on to go for an amicable settlement of two other major pending issues: land boundary agreement and Teesta water sharing. This will be in line with prime minister Narendra Modi’s foreign policy of building bridges with immediate neighbours. It also vindicates India’s stand that all countries must respect international law on use of seas and challenges China’s belligerent posturing of settling its disputes with its neighbours in South China Sea through coercion and intimidation.
China’s rise and its growing maritime interests in the Indian Ocean have made the Bay of Bengal a theatre of critical interest for Beijing. New Delhi can’t afford to ignore the strategic consequences of this. Over the years, India has delimited its maritime boundaries with Maldives, Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand and Indonesia. The PCA verdict now settles the maritime boundary with Bangladesh. In the southern Indian Ocean, Delhi has already embarked on trilateral maritime cooperation with Maldives and Sri Lanka. It is likely to be expanded to include Mauritius and Seychelles. A similar framework for security engagement with Bangladesh and Myanmar must be at the top of New Delhi’s agenda in the Bay of Bengal.