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Talk by David Brewster on "Bay of Bengal as a Coherent Strategic Space"

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  • November 15, 2014

    A talk by Dr David Brewster on ‘Bay of Bengal as a Coherent Strategic Space’, was organized by the Centre for SoutheastAsia & Oceania at IDSA on October 15. The speaker is distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Australian National University, a Distinguished Research Fellow with the Australia India Institute, University of Melbourne, and a Fellow with the Royal Australian Navy Sea Power Centre.

    Dr. Brewster traced the strategic importance of the Bay of Bengal to the period of Second World War in 1942 when the Japanese invasion stopped at the boundary of the then Burma because of the popular perception of India not being a part of Asia by the Japanese. Later too, a ‘mental’ dividing line has been drawn on the Bay of Bengal to set the Indian Subcontinent apart from Myanmar vis-à-vis Southeast Asia. Formation of a separate Southeast Asia Command furthered the process of differentiating the Indian Subcontinent from Southeast Asia during the Second World War.

    Dr. Brewster emphasized that there is a need to move forward from these traditional regionalization concepts in the context of evolving strategic dynamics to perceive the Bay of Bengal as a single strategic and coherent space. He spoke on India’s role in regional peace and stability as because the security issues in the Bay of Bengal region have become trans-regional and the World War II, the Indian independence, India’s economic policy, absence of security cooperation in the region during Cold War have affected the strategic importance of Bay of Bengal. He also spoke about the regional groupings that existed and expressed his concern at India not being considered for membership in these regional alliances, such as APEC. He spoke on the certain concrete achievements of BIMSTEC as well as its limitations of being an exclusive regional grouping not involving countries like Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. He expressed his view that India’s role as a regional security provider would do broader significant rebalancing of the strategic space. India’s defence structure, its ability to protect the SLOCs, internal political stability all will have some or the other consequences on its capacity to play the role of a security provider, nonetheless as a benign security provider.

    He presented his new mental map of Bay of Bengal where the peripheries would be redrawn. In that mental map, Bay of Bengal would be considered as a strategic twin of South China Sea. He said, both are identical and linked by the Malacca Straits. He explained that both Bay of Bengal and South China Sea have immense significance in today’s context of international affairs and therefore, an enhanced security role of India is necessary in both the regions. He also spoke on the concept of Indo-Pacific where both the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean merge and new vistas of cooperation emerge within countries located in different continents.

    He concluded by maintaining the point that though strategic spaces in geography were subjective and transient, but India’s increasing role in the region necessitate such a conception.

    Following the talk, the floor was opened for Q&A session. Some of the important questions that were asked were: Whether Bay of Bengal and South China Sea can be seen under the same lens?; Whether India should be interested in playing the role of an extra-regional security provider in the Indo-Pacific region?; What should be India’s security priorities?; Which theory is more suitable for explaining the strategic significance of Bay of Bengal: Mental Mapping theory or the Cognitive Theory? Can Arabian Sea be compared with Bay of Bengal as a similar type of strategic and coherent space?; Whether India should concentrate on its troublesome western neighbours or relatively peaceful eastern neighbours?; Does the US presence in Diego Garcia influence the strategic interests of India and China?; What should be the role of small states in Indo-Pacific security architecture?