Securing the seas: Can BIMSTEC develop a common agenda on maritime issues?

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NEW DELHI: A week after holding the first coastal security workshop in Delhi, BIMSTEC members representing think tanks met at the Vivekananda International Foundation to discuss broader issues concerning the maritime domain including port and shipping security, and most important from India’s point of view, the tracking of sub-20m boats through satellite imagery to ward off potential terror attacks.

Some key questions came up: What are the modalities through which BIMSTEC nations will co-operate going forward? How will co-operation internationally on the seas work without affecting sentiments of nation-states? Finally, just what are the definitive outcome and goals BIMSTEC countries should work towards at sea?

Echoing these concerns, Vice Admiral Satish Soni, former Eastern Naval commander, believes that for any cooperation to be effective, issues of jurisdiction need to be resolved. “Maritime domain awareness is not just about exchanging contacts on the radar, there are issues of national sovereignty and that of jurisdiction of data,” he pointed out. “For instance, if Myanmar has data of maritime domain awareness which is sensitive to them will they be willing to share this with us? Even if they do, how will the sharing work? How are we to overcome problems of jurisdiction? How are we going to sit down and analyse the data together? These are questions which this panel needs to ponder.”

Clearly, ‘trust differences’ within BIMSTEC members remain to be bridged, add to that technology levels between the navies of member states are uneven, leading to problems in joint intelligence operations, monitoring and sharing on the seas.

Malinga Meegoda, Research Associate with the Lakshman Kardigamar Institute of International Relations and Strategic Studies believes that national interests will continue to hamper efforts to cooperate at sea. “Nations have their interests to consider so they will be reluctant to reveal the size and capabilities of various vessels at sea. Also, the national interests of states vary. As we have seen with the QUAD there have been differences of opinion when it comes to monitoring navigation because all the nation-states have different strategic interests.”

While smaller nations may be willing to open up to ensure stability on the high seas there is the fear of getting caught up in ‘bigger games.’

As Meegooda elaborates, “My country Sri Lanka, is willing to open up, but frankly, we are very wary of getting embroiled in regional geo-strategic competition, so subscribing to joint navigation comes with its own challenges. We need clearer definitions of what joint navigation means and what it will entail.”

While security and maritime issues would and should be the prime focus of BIMSTEC nations some panellists also believe the ambit of the organisation has to increase and focus increasingly on another key area – the environment in the region. Vijay Sakhuja, a retired naval officer and former director of the National Maritime Foundation, says a large number of people living in BIMSTEC countries live along coastlines and are highly vulnerable to excessive rainfall or drought. It is thus important for BIMSTEC countries to develop ‘marine awareness’ for the security and well being of the region.

Nobody would deny the scope for cooperation within BIMSTEC is vast but so are the hurdles and there is as yet, no clear roadmap to address them.  Over two decades since its founding, BIMSTEC remains a work in progress.

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