Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Enhanced Cooperation, Institutionalised Mechanisms & Interdisciplinary Coordination Essential For A Prosperous Bay Of Bengal

By Staff Correspondent

On the second and concluding day of the International Conference on Security and Prosperity in the Bay of Bengal in Kochi, Kerala, the collective key takeaway through discussions and deliberations by global diplomats, delegates and experts from Germany, Thailand, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, India, Bangladesh, Nepal, and the Maldives across multiple sessions on the blue economy, enhanced energy cooperation, trade and investment, environment sustainability and human security for the regional development of the Bay of Bengal was that: 

  • All the member countries should cooperate more on various issues like counter-terrorism, energy, human security and technology transfer. 
  • The need to institutionalise these mechanisms and that those countries which have got better or are in an advantageous position to take care of the rest of the groups should come forward and work with other member counties in the Bay of Bengal region. 
  • There are a lot of interdisciplinaries among all the subjects discussed, i.e. energy, technology transfer, blue economy, trade, environment and all. So, it cannot be done in silos. It should be through inter-ministerial, inter-governmental meetings that should be held every year with certain deadlines that help realise the region’s potential.

The conversations and discussions on the second day of the international conference gave testimony to the escalating traction this region is gaining in geopolitical and security architecture. Every session brought out key takeaways, insights and ideas to further strengthen the Bay of Bengal region. 

In the session ‘Prospects and Challenges of Blue Economy in the Bay of Bengal’, the key takeaway was that as the region is politically, diplomatically, security-wise and economically highly significant in the global, national and regional context, and so sustainable ocean management has to be the way forward. This sustainable strategy must focus on and include priority areas like maritime trade and supply chains, maritime transport, shipping, coastal tourism, marine biotechnology, marine minerals, development of sustainable processes etc.

Dr Mini Shekharan, Associate Professor (Fisheries Management) in the School of Industrial Fisheries, Cochin University of Science & Technology (CUSAT) shared that, “Maldives follows sustainability certification very well and that must be emulated in all the nations in the BoB region.” Dr Sevvandi Jayakody, Chair Professor to the Department of Aquaculture and Fisheries of the Wayamba University of, Sri Lanka, felt that “Currently everyone in various sectors like trade, energy, maritime security, fisheries, technology etc. works in silos. If we want to embrace the blue economy, we must change the way we work.” Dr P Krishnan, India, highlighted the fact that “Without proper data, policy-making becomes a big challenge in the context of the blue economy as data is the oil for the entire fisheries management. Even the fishermen can become data collectors and not only the fish collectors.”

In the second session that discussed the prospect of moving ‘Towards Enhanced Energy Cooperation in the Bay of Bengal’, the key takeaway was that with a population of over 22% and a total GDP of nearly 4 trillion, the Bay of Bengal is gaining ample attention and energy has become a key sector that can bring factors like prosperity, security and cooperation in the region. It is important to remember that energy security and cooperation are at the centre stage on topics like national security, economics and development. With the strong political momentum built around the energy transition, there is a need to focus on different types of renewable energy sources and how countries could achieve energy efficiency and security collaboratively by bringing out a comprehensive maritime strategy for the Bay of Bengal. 

Gauri Singh, Deputy Director General of, the International Renewable Energy Agency, India, highlighted that “Energy diplomacy as a concept needs to be developed especially when we are looking for more interconnections.”  Admiral Jayanath Colombage (Retd), Sri Lanka, strongly felt that “Non-state actor threats are more prevalent in the Bay of Bengal than the State versus State threats.” Needrup Zangpo,  Executive Director, Bhutan Media Foundation, expressed that, “Landlocked countries have to gain from the wealth of Bay Of Bengal littorals and vice versa with the need to know the how of transcending geopolitical tensions in energy cooperation, are some of the challenges they need to address.”

In the session on ‘Fostering Regional Development through Trade and Investment’, the following were the key takeaways: The Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) is a seminal example of multi-sectoral connectivity. They mainly focus on infrastructure, institutions and people-to-people connectivity. Such success can be replicated in the Bay of Bengal region by materialising not just through bilateral cooperation but also through plurilateral and sub-regional cooperation. Another lesson from the success story of GMS that can be replicated in the Bay of Bengal region is the synergies built between the government and private sectors. Dialogue mechanisms with commerce chambers and councils must be consistent to this end. 

As BIMSTEC is close to finalising an agreement on energy grid connectivity, it is expected that the region can benefit from the same in the coming years. Madhurjya Kumar Dutta, Director, Trade and Investment Facilitation Department, Mekong Institute, Thailand felt that “In terms of connectivity, North-east India could take a key role in connecting Southeast Asia.”

In the session on ‘Harnessing Cooperation for Environmental Sustainability in the Bay of Bengal’, the key takeaway was that: Oceans are very important as they act as a carbon sink and source of oxygen. With an increasing population living within 200 km of the global coastal ocean, their growing needs and demands are putting tremendous pressure on oceans. Oceans are getting acidified, harming the coral ecosystem. Coral bleaching can cause disruptions in the food chain and eventually cause disturbances in the food web. With climate change, marine plastics and marine debris from land (80%) and water (20%) sources, it is predicted that by 2050 that there will be more plastics than fish if we continue on this path.

To tackle the problems of marine litter and climate-induced problems, Research & Development is essential. New technologies and innovations, along with community engagement, are the need of the hour.  Sharon Susan Koshy, Research Associate, CPPR, highlighted, “Small fisherman communities have to be given due diligence when it comes to policy formation and changes as it is always good to have a bottom-up approach as opposed to a top-down.” Ibrahim Naeem, Director General of the Environmental Protection Agency, Maldives, expressed that “Creating coastal forests and looking into the health of sea beds can be the solution to address saline intrusion around the continents to strengthen their coastal regions.” 

The session on “Addressing Human Security Challenges through Institutional Mechanisms” had the following takeaways: Climate change is a shared global factor affecting transnational regions, eventually leading to the displacement of people. The impact of climate change-induced migration is a lethal combination of climate change and social crisis. It is vital to align the national-level climate policy with the Bay of Bengal region. The policy should be comprehensive and both regional and transregional. The Bay of Bengal acts as a connector, and hence the region will experience movements like migration, refugee crisis, internal displacement; Movement of trade, commerce and connectivity; movement of ideas; and movement of regional and subregional cooperation.

Dr Joshua Thomas, former Deputy Director of the Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR) North Eastern Regional Centre, commented, “Human security is a contested concept. It is most inclusive in character and most global in its space and scope.” Dr Lawrence S. Prabhakar, researcher & Professor of International Relations & Strategic Studies, observed that “Human insecurity is seen when the livelihood and habitat of the people are badly damaged by climate change, and one way to address this is by aligning national climate policies of countries with BIMSTEC climate agendas.” Mr Sanjay Gathia, an Independent specialist and analyst, stated that “India needs a refugee policy”. 

The session on Emerging Technological Advancements And Innovation In The Bay Of Bengal had the following takeaways: Connectivity is not only required to foster development through trade and investment, but it is vital to increase the technological potential of the Bay of Bengal. Indeed, there is an evident lack of international cooperation in technology and innovation. Now all countries have data on which the world of technology relies. However, countries in the Bay of Bengal are yet to unify their strengths and innovate for collective welfare. The panel for technology and innovation in the Bay of Bengal stressed the importance of including the younger generations and prioritising the transition to clean energies. While nations must sit together to create amalgamated policies, it is essential to have a policy that includes the regional transfer flow of data to make all the other policies of the nation work, acting as the bedrock.

Dr D Dhanuraj, Chairman of CPPR, stated, “Technology is the buzzword in the market, globally regionally or in state matters”. He also reflected on the question, “Is humanity progressing or not?” followed by saying, “The newspaper advertisements reflect that response because it is all about the technological products and technological development.” Lamyah Karim, Project manager of BAARC International, commented that “Technology plays a pivotal role in resource extractions. Blockchain is also helping to get renewable energy already in Europe.” Mr Abhijnan Rej, Director, Tarqeq Research, India, expressed that, “Institutional mechanisms need to be supported to support tech as a bedrock to policy making, and if countries in the region are able to use GIS technology to deal with a non-traditional security threat, this can be helped to develop national policies.” Tanis Phongphisantham, a technology consultant, said, “West holds the technology and innovation conversation, but this needs to be taken up by South Asia and SEA.”

The conference concluded with the plenary session by Vice Admiral V Muraleedharan, commenting that “The nations in the Bay of Bengal can enhance their prosperity and security through mutual cooperation and there are various forums through which you can enhance the cooperation, thus more than a competition, it is mutual cooperation working towards prosperity of the entire region.” Dr D Dhanuraj, Chairman of CPPR, summing up the international conference and dialogues, said, “The conference discussed the need for operation, understanding and support both in traditional and non-traditional security challenges faced by the Bay of Bengal region. I think the key takeaway is that the Bay of Bengal region is going to play a major role in global geopolitics as it connects the Indo-Pacific to the Middle East. And being an important sea line of communication, it plays an important role in the global supply chains. So, understanding that significance and realising the potential is the need of the hour for all the countries of the Bay of Bengal.”

Dr Carsten Klein, Regional Head, South Asia, Friedrich Naumann Foundation, in his remarks, said, “From a European point of view and in many aspects, it is also my deep conviction that the region is somewhat undervalued it is to a certain extent underestimated and we, our humble resources at Friedrich Naumann Foundation, we would like to change that a bit, for example by having this conference, by also having webinars on the area. And really intensify our work here in the region. We had the opportunity here to sit together and discuss the challenges, problems, and, of course, the problem-solving approaches. We are going to invite further conferences not only in Southeast Asia but also abroad with experts from this conference and some excellent research papers that I’ve seen.”

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