NEW DELHI: India is sifting carefully through the recent decision of the international tribunal on the maritime boundary between Myanmar and Bangladesh—as it would have significant bearing on India’s own arbitration with its south Asian neighbour in deciding the sea boundaries in the gas-rich Bay of Bengal.
In 2009, Bangladesh had taken both Myanmar and India to different international courts under the United Nations Convention for Law of the Sea, asking for a delimitation of the maritime boundary, including the continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles—following standoff over the former allotting gas blocks in the area to international oil majors.
The disputed area between India and Bangladesh is around 20,000- 30,000 square kilometres in the Bay of Bengal. “There was some overlapping of the area with the disputed block between Myanmar and Bangladesh, so we have to recalculate what area is left,” said a senior government official, privy to preparing India’s legal case before the UN court of arbitration.
India has to present its case or ‘counter-memorial’ before the UN court of arbitration in July, after Bangladesh as the petitioner pleaded first in May 2011.
After that, both countries will again get a chance to give rejoinders to the points raised by their legal sides, which will take another year.
On March 14, the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea delivered its first ever judgement concerning the delimitation of maritime boundary in the Myanmar-Bangladesh case. It was also the first that any international court or tribunal had addressed the issue of territorial rights on the continental shelf, beyond 200 nautical miles from the coast.
In Bangladesh, it is a highly charged political issue— demonstrated by foreign minister Dipu Moni, a Supreme Court advocate, leading the final arguments at the tribunal last September.
She was also present at the reading out of the judgment in Germany.
Bangladesh has already spun it as a “victory” for Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League government. The political capital invested by the Hasina government in the case was evident, when Hasina told reporters that she would achieve a similar verdict in the case against India, if she is brought back to power. The next parliamentary elections are slated for January 2014, while the judgment in the India-Bangladesh case is expected to be given in the second half of the year.
Bay of Bengal had become an attractive area for potential gas reserves, especially after India made its biggest ever gas discovery in the KG basin. On the continental shelf, there are expectations that in the future, technological innovations will lead to viable extraction of ores and hydrocarbon.
For both Myanmar and India, the argument has been the same—the maritime boundary should be based on the “equidistance” principle, and that Bangladesh’s coastal geography should not be taken into account. Bangladesh has argued that the “concavity” of its coast should be taken into account, and had rejected the “equidistant” method to calculate the maritime boundary.
The 23-judge bench, based in Hamburg, Germany, decided somewhere in between the two positions.
“The Tribunal finds that in the present case the appropriate method to be applied for delimiting the exclusive economic zone and the continental shelf between Bangladesh and Myanmar is the equidistance/relevant circumstances method,” said the 150-page verdict.
“We (India) can also argue that our coast along Bengal and Odisha is also concave, so this principle should be applied for us too,” said a senior government official. For India, it has been a high-stakes game, as the delimitation would finally give a narrower interpretation of Bangladesh’s right beyond the continental shelf. “Earlier, Bangladesh had a much expansive interpretation of its area after 200 nautical miles. But, the tribunal has decided to fix the line, which will certainly help our case now,” he said.
Incidentally, India had been giving significant support to Myanmar in developing its maritime resources—including help in making its submission for claims before the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS).
Both India and Myanmar share two names in their international legal team.