Imagining a Bay of Bengal Economic Cooperation framework: Towards a Bay of Bengal Community

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The Bay of Bengal embraces a vast geo-spatial area, with combined population close to 2 billion (close to 25% of total global population) and GDP-PPP of USD over 16.5 trillion. Notably, the core Bay of Bengal countries today account for a population of almost 1.9 billion, while adjacent states with interest account for an additional over 150 million. The core states have a combined GDP-PPP of $16.58 trillion, while landlocked and adjacent states with interest add another $ 1 trillion (please see Annexures 1 and 2). This is nothing to be sneezed at, even if dwarfed by figures boasted by China ($23 trillion), US ($21.4 trillion), and EU ($17 trillion).  While SAARC countries’ total intra-regional trade (trade amongst themselves) today accounts for only 5% of their total global trade (trade with other countries), ASEAN has a more respectable 25% intra trade while EU and North America boast of 40-50 per cent. One may reasonably imagine an economically integrated Bay of Bengal community certainly to significantly increase their current comparatively abysmal figure, given their comparative advantage in population, demography and demonstrated entrepreneurial vigor. If these states, collectively, could overcome the inhibitions and disorder fostered by the post-colonial neo-Westphalian mind-sets, they contain within themselves, collectively, vast potentials for prosperity and development that would dwarf the awe-struck descriptions of prosperity of this region recorded by Bernier, Ibn Battuta and numerous Oriental and Occidental traders- scholars-historians who visited this region since the 4th century CE.

Such a Bay of Bengal configuration would embrace greater part of SAARC and significant part of ASEAN, forming virtually a bridging Bay of Bengal community of nations who are of great value to both South and West Asia on the west and Southeast and East Asia on the east. However, this imagined region does not have a self-conception of a cohesive community yet. If the Bay of Bengal littorals could evolve towards comprising a Bay of Bengal Community (BOBC), replicating EEC and ASEAN evolution, possibilities for prosperity for all the littorals would be almost limitless. Given their comparative advantage in population, demography, and entrepreneurial vigor, it is poised to become the “economic cockpit” of greater Asian region -- or, conversely, the battleground for unbridled but disastrous contestation by competing powers, whether regional or global.

It is very clearly self-evident that it is in Bangladesh’s vital self-interest to strive for some measure of economic cooperation that could lead to beginnings of integration in the distant future. However, should the Bay of Bengal itself become ecologically endangered because of environmental factors resulting from multiple factors already besetting it, all countries’ economic and political stability would be endangered. Therefore, the countries need to seriously engage in proactive dialogue that would serve to protect the Bay of Bengal Commons and also translate into common economic prosperity for all. Since all littorals will be adversely affected if the Bay’s ecology becomes adversely compromised, they will need to come together and collaborate with each other not only to save the Bay but also to equitably and in sustainable manner continue to harvest it for the many benefits that it offers. Can Bangladesh take on this challenge? In my view, it MUST.

The current raging global pandemic that has driven down the global economy to rival the Great Depression (1929-39), has not only completely disrupted global value and supply chains, and upended powerful and smaller economies that could have seriously destabilising consequences on the socio-political scenario currently prevailing; it has also had devastating consequences for the South Asian region, not least on its smaller entities. Now, more than ever, the situation demands a rediscovery of our prior collective, but differently configured, self. Bangladesh should consider once again playing a central and pivotal role in the Bay of Bengal, re-evaluating its strategic importance, opening up the potentials of the Blue Economy of the Bay of Bengal, and also addressing meaningfully the seriously grave looming ecological, environmental and geostrategic challenges. These threaten us all from the devastating effects of global warming and climate change that are undermining further the already devastated ecology of the region and gravely impact economic livelihood and food and health security of its peoples. The current situation arising from the COVID-19 Pandemic have gravely exacerbated the situation and cannot be left unaddressed. The current global, regional and national situations make abundantly clear not only the seminal but now increasing importance of the Bay of Bengal in the global Oceanic ecosphere, but also its swelling importance as a developing region for geo-strategic contestation between global and regional powers. Bangladesh must safeguard its own interest and play a leading, even catalyzing role, in concert and collaboration with its “land-locked” neighbours in India, Nepal, Bhutan and also embrace all Bay of Bengal littorals, girdling the Bay from Indonesia to Sri Lanka. Such a strategy would bear critical centrality to Bangladesh’s own sustained economic development and growth as well as its very survival as a nation.

Bangladesh’s future prosperity, indeed, its very continuing existence, depends more than it imagines on the Bay of Bengal. It therefore needs first to better understand this great Commons and undertake concrete work to demonstrate its serious interest. Undertaking and sharing the knowledge gleaned from addressing issues closer to itself will also enable it to position itself to take the lead in efforts to bring Bay littorals closer together, to better manage and preserve the larger well-being of this commons for the sake of prosperity for all. But how do we get there? For this we may try and glean some lessons from the European and Southeast Asian processes?

Gleaning lessons from European and ASEAN transformation

Europe’s transformation did not take place in one great leap forward. Efforts at unification by force (conquest) had been attempted by Napoleon and Hitler but did not succeed. Ideas about voluntary grouping of the European states on terms of equality date back to only after the First World War (era of European Cosmopolitanism). Count Coudenhove Kalergi of Austria had called for a United States of Europe in 1923. Aristide Briand, French Foreign Minister and his German counterpart Gustave Streseman had also voiced such ideas in 1929. Their efforts failed in face of rising nationalism and the growing neo-imperialist tide (do these phrases ring a familiarly now?). What changed this tide was the growing realization by divided Europe of their sudden great weakness and vulnerability. The devastation from two World Wars, in which Europe was the main theater, shorn of their colonial might and wealth wasted in wars, and the emergence of two new hegemons (political, military & economic), namely the USA & USSR, finally compelled them to move closer together, with the conviction born out of suffering that their continent needed to come and work collaboratively with each other rather than being ceaselessly in a state of war. European cooperation was as much a rationale for self-preservation as a means for improving collective quality of life. Once this realization dawned on peoples and their leaders, there was a mushrooming growth of numerous regional organizations/groupings initially not connected with each other, such as:

• The Organization for European Economic Cooperation (1950)

• The European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC)- 1951

• The Western European Union (1954)

• The European Atomic Energy Community (EAEC or EURATOM) 1957

All above efforts finally led to formation of a more cohesive European Economic Community (EEC) 1957. The EEC later transformed into the European Community (EC), that was the precursor of the European Union (EU), setting up a mechanism for regular meetings of their foreign ministers for political cooperation and coordinating their respective foreign policies to bring them in alignment. Significantly, Belgium, Germany, France, Italy, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands took the lead in most of these initiatives.

What set apart this body from others? The original six ceded (or pooled) part of their national sovereignty (as derived from the Westphalian order of 1648) in order to form a cohesive, indissoluble economic and political unit, a regional body with sovereign powers of its own, largely independent of the comprising states, that could adopt laws, regulations and rules that had force of national laws. This pooling of national sovereignty became known as “integration”. The most notable and remarkable enabling factor in this organic evolution was the Franco-German reconciliation that became the cornerstone of the new European order and enlarged the reconciliation process across Europe. (A testimony of this remarkably resilient reconciliation is on public display for the citizens of Dhaka in the jointly constructed Franco-German Embassy premises in Baridhara!) These two former bitterly visceral enemies willfully decided to cooperate, collaborate and work with each other to set up a coherent, integrated economic framework, in which border checks and other barriers across borders were minimized, if not entirely removed, facilitating free movement for persons, goods, services and capital; it translated into higher living standards, impressive economic expansion, and generated vast opportunities for employment. Initially, UK and the Nordic countries, Austria and Portugal had opposed this partial ceding of national sovereignty, and formed a counter body called EFTA, but they soon realized that they risked isolation and losing benefits accruing from participation. (It is another matter that today the UK has opted to sever its ties with the EU, driven more by the revival of narrow nationalism at the expense of broad Cosmopolitanism). Notably, in 1992, 15 members signed the Maastricht Treaty on formation of European Union (EU) that formed a single political and economic union that also envisaged an eventual monetary union. On January 1,1999, 11 of the members launched the European Monetary Union or EMU, that signified birth of the Euro – set to challenge the supremacy of the US dollar. In short, centripetal forces were at work after the devastation wreaked on that continent by two successive World Wars within a short span of time, completely destroying the old Colonial Order and leading to its replacement by a new integrated order.

In neighboring Southeast Asian region, there were also similar centripetal forces at work, notably because the region did not suffer the horrendous fall-out of a partition of any of its component nation states, although there was a history of uneasy, even hostile relations among several of them. Two of them, Malaya and Singapore (both former British colonies) did experiment with forming a federative union named Malaysia, but inter-communal suspicion and tensions existed between its majority Malay community and the minority Chinese community in this configuration. When this latent tension threatened to spill out into open bloodshed, sagacious statesmanship decided that it was better for both to separate through a civil divorce that would still enable both to enter into cooperative arrangements with each other and with other neighbours. One major entity in the region was never colonized (Thailand), so it did not possess the nefarious legacy of “divide-and-rule” colonial policies employed elsewhere in the region. But in my view, there were two elements that made the Southeast Asian experiment conducive to success: one was what regional scholars of sociology describe as a spirit of “berkampung” (roughly translated as “togetherness”) running as a common thread culturally across the region; the second, and perhaps more importantly, truly far-sighted statesmanship on the part of the largest regional entity Indonesia, (in terms of size, population and military strength) which decided to step back and allow psychological space to the smaller neighbours to feel intrinsically secure as well as grow. ASEAN too, gradually evolved through an organic process to develop the ASEAN Political Cooperation mechanism that became integrated in their periodic meetings, much like the European model, facilitating largely a coordination of their foreign policies to be in alignment when addressing issues external to the region.

In the European process, therefore, without the largest entities (formerly bitter enemies) collaborating to jointly shepherd the regional integration agenda forward, that integration perhaps would have proved elusive. In the ASEAN case, the abdication by the largest entity from playing a dominating role was critically important and reassuring for the smaller entities. However, in both regions, the process was dominated by one critically important and defining factor – a centripetalism that aided integration. In both instances, pragmatism trumped nationalism and ultra-nationalist jingoism.

Tragically, this was in sharp contrast with the dominant centrifugalism that became enshrined in the “Partition syndrome” that marked the political situation in South Asia and continues to still dominate the mindsets of peoples and their respective leadership in South Asia. It is doubly tragic that the narrative of the Partition, essentially spawned in the early part of the twentieth century, so totally obliterated the earlier millennia-old narrative of a sub-continent that had coexisted together like a vast “joint family’, with its myriad members many a times squabbling bitterly amongst themselves, but largely coexisting peacefully amongst themselves. Tragically, the more recent narrative of the thirties threatens to rear and reassert itself today with greater venom.

The Idea of forming a Bay of Bengal Community: why should Bangladesh take leading role in championing regionalism in a divided region?

So today, in the South Asian region still dominated by centrifugalism to a large extent, why am I advocating that Bangladesh should take on a championing role for advocating regional cooperation in the Bay of Bengal region?

First and foremost, and most remarkably, Bangladesh may be the smallest of the partitioned rumps of the historical and civilizational Indian sub-continent, but it has proved adequately, and convincingly, over the last half century that it is by no means an inconsequential entity, in economic or geo-political terms. Bangladesh’s economic success is enviable, boasting the highest growth rate in the region and arguably the best HDIs comparatively. It today enjoys strong, and the best of relations, with both Asian giants that flank it, India and China, both of whom greatly value their multi-faceted bilateral relationship with Bangladesh. Bangladesh has value for them, not only as a very promising and one of the fastest growing economies today, but more importantly perhaps as an invaluable bridging pathway to larger sub-regional and inter-regional connectivity and cooperation.

Bangladesh as a relatively newly emerged nation has consistently punched above its weight, displaying vision and the gumption to take on bold initiatives that put larger powers to shame. It had played vigorously a seminal role in the formation of SAARC in 1985 through very determined and skillful diplomacy. When the larger regional process appeared stalled and brought meaningful forward movement in the SAARC process to a dead halt, it robustly and successfully championed sub-regional cooperation that resulted in the formation, in 1997 of the South Asian Growth Quadrangle (SAGQ) that went into prolonged hibernation immediately after formation) and the BIMSTEC that nevertheless remained somnolent and largely inactive and unproductive for over two decades. It breathed fresh life into the hibernating SAGQ and the largely somnolent BIMSTEC processes through doggedly pursuing, since 2011, the idea of sub-regional cooperation among the Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal configuration (BBIN) and its final formation as an intergovernmental platform in 2015. Since 2009, Bangladesh has palpably demonstrated its willingness to revive, and reassume, its historically important role as hub of connectivity between South Asia and Southeast and East Asia. It has assured everyone that it will play its due role in safeguarding security and integrity of vitally important maritime commerce routes; in responsibly harvesting the vast Blue Economy potentials; and in playing a visionary leadership role in climate change mitigation, including developing greater ecological resilience for tackling climate change. Also, significantly, as a moderate, democratic and secular state it has convincingly proved its credentials as a bulwark against terrorism and fundamentalism. On all counts, therefore, it is well-positioned today for playing a bridging role as dynamic catalyst for multi-faceted regional cooperation among countries of the larger Bay of Bengal region, provided it plays its cards well.

True, there are lurking dangers and emerging challenges that will test the resilience not just of Bangladesh but of all the countries of the Bay of Bengal region as well. Foremost among these is the Rohingya refugee crisis caused by Myanmar’s irresponsible and unacceptable treatment of its own minorities – Myanmar is everything that Bangladesh is not. Current continuing fulmination within Myanmar do not augur well either for that country or its people or the larger region itself. The growing populist and increasing communally polarizing politics now being played out in many places globally but particularly in the immediate neighborhood, signaling assertion of majoritarian pre-eminence and intolerance over tolerant inclusiveness also will inevitably spawn counterforces, domestically and intra-regionally, fueling divisiveness at the expense of cohesive cooperation. Last but not least, there are two vigorously competing narratives with global dimensions that converge and threaten to clash in the waters of the Bay of Bengal, namely the Indo-Pacific and BRI concepts. One would do well to recall here the UN General Assembly Resolution 2832 of 1971 declaring the Indian Ocean as a Zone of Peace. The Bay of Bengal regional countries in their own greater interest should consider reviving applicability of that UN Declaration to cover the Bay of Bengal region in today’s context, welcoming all forms of economic and development cooperation initiatives that would be universally beneficial but precluding military competition that would harm all.

If Bangladesh could continue staying the course and occupying the high moral ground, with sagacity and far-sighted statesmanship at the helm, it could still be at forefront of championing the incremental expansion of the current BBIN-BIMSTEC process into a wider Bay of Bengal Economic Cooperation (BoBEC) configuration. Who knows that pursuit of this cause will not lead to eventual organic formation and development of a vibrant Bay of Bengal Community (or even a Bay of Bengal Union), for the benefit and well-being of all peoples of the Bay region as well as preserving the ecological integrity of this great Bay of ours? In the end, it.

Can we dare to dream of all the Bay countries coming together and reimagining themselves as a Bay of Bengal Community with inextricably intertwined destinies, through increasingly comprehensive interlocution?

In 1673 French Philosopher Rene Descartes had famously posited, “Cogito, ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am!). I dare say aloud today its corollary: we dream, therefore we can!

Ambassador (Retd.) Tariq A. Karim is the Director of the Centre for Bay of Bengal Studies at Independent University, Bangladesh. He was a Distinguished International Executive in Residence at the University of Maryland. He is now also Honorary Advisor Emeritus, Cosmos Foundation.

  • Towards a Bay of Bengal Community
  • Imagining a Bay of Bengal Economic Cooperation framework
  • Gross National Product (GDP)
  • Bay of Bengal

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