top of page

BIMSTEC at 20- Traditional and Non Traditional MaritimeSecurity Threats; By Commodore RS Vasan IN(Re

C3S Paper No. 0049/2016

The Paper was presented at the conference on “BIMSTEC at 20: Agenda for 2017 and Beyond” conducted by CSIRD, IFPS and BIMSTEC at Kolkatta on 28th and 29th March 2015. 

The sub regional organization BIMSTEC has been in existence now for nearly two decades and it is as good a time as any to take stock of what has been achieved in the maritime domain. Specific examination is needed   in terms of how much and how effectively the existing structures have succeeded in taking on the scourge of both traditional and nontraditional security threats. It is also important to see how much more can be achieved in terms of regional and sub regional integration that promotes the economic well being of countries under the chosen umbrella.

Terrorist Attack.The 9/11 attack in 2001, the Mumbai terror attack in 2008, the piracy attacks and armed robberies off the Somali coast as well as in the South China Sea brought about a sea change in the way land locked countries along with maritime nations looked at the serious challenges faced by Law Enforcement Agencies, Intelligence agencies, Maritime Security Forces and the civil society. It may be noted that even China which is more than 8000 kilometers from the piracy infested area off the Somali coast chose to send its war vessels to patrol the areas to protect its sea borne interests. In fact, PLA-Navy units have maintained active patrols since end of 2008.

Certain measures were instituted immediately post the 9/11 attack to ensure that ships and ports were protected by similar attacks that could result in mass casualities and disruption. The main consideration was that just as the aircraft were hijacked and used as human guided missiles; ships likewise could be taken over and used as weapons against ports and facilities to cause large scale destruction and media attention. The measures included International Ship and Port Security Code(ISPS), Container Security Initiatives(CSI), and application of many innovative technological measures. The Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) an American led initiative was specifically designed to prevent proliferation though many countries including India did not join the initiative as there were concerns about the sovereignty issues of the vessels to be boarded by the inspecting units of a particular navy.

The Mumbai terror attack on 26th November 2008 on the other hand brought to fore the continued danger in the sub continent due to cross border terrorism. The audacious planning to attack the commercial capital by using well trained terrorists  using the sea routes shook up the entire world and prompted security agencies to review the existing structures and mechanisms for preventing such attacks. The fact that the terrorists were able to take over a fishing vessel MV Kuber and commandeer the vessel to take them to a safe landing point in Mumbai indicated the dangers that lurked in the maritime neighbourhood of India with a determined neighbor hell bent on inflicting cuts at regular intervals to promote the policy of ‘bleeding India to death by a thousand cuts”. The Mumbai terror attack exposed many a chink in the armour and India was compelled to initiate a slew of measures to revamp maritime security. These included:-

  1. Revamping the Coastal Security Architecture.

  2. Creation of the Coastal Security Group under each of the Maritime State and equipping them with high speed boats along with sanctions for manpower and equipment.

  3. Navy at the Apex and use of JORs for coordinated control

  4. Revitalisation of Intelligence agencies and cooperation

  5. Creation of the Sagar Prahari bal

  6. Emphasis on National Investigation Agency and hubs for NSG

  7. Regional cooperation and Training on counter terrorism

  8. Coastal Surveillance system for Maritime Domain Awareness(MDA)

  9. Utlising new technology such as the Long Range Identification Tracking, Automatic Identification System, Vessel Traffic Management System(VTMS) etc.,

  10. Anti piracy patrols since 2008.

  11. Getting Maldives and Seychelles onboard in the effort for enhancing regional MDA

Challenges for the countries in BIMSTEC.Coming to the BIMSTEC, Bhutan and Nepal are land locked and have completely different range of challenges both due to connectivity, terrain and neighbourhood. There are other domestic challenges in the back drop of the geo political, geo strategic imperatives of the region.

AT the outset, it is noteworthy that India gracefully accepted the verdict of the international tribunal on the Exclusive Economic Zone which gave away a large portion of the claimed area to Bangladesh. This contrasts with the issue in South China Sea where it is clear that China will not respect the decision of the International authorities in respect of claims by Philippines. Seen along with the land mark agreement about the borders and enclaves between Bangladesh and India, these are welcome signs for regional integration and harmony.

The major challenges faced by the maritime nations of BIMSTEC in addition to the threat of seaborne attack, include many nontraditional threats including piracy, armed robbery, people smuggling, poaching, smuggling and marine pollution. These have engaged the attention of the policymakers with increased awareness of the potential of Non State Actors to disrupt seaborne trade and commerce.

The codes such as the International Ship and Port Security(ISPS) code implemented on 01 July 2004 have ensured that vessels engaged in international trade are relatively safer from the designs of the non state actors. However, vessels and craft not under the purview of such codes pose a greater challenge today than ever before. The control and regulation of the activities of small craft and fishing vessels continues to be the biggest challenge for the nations in the sub continent where fishing is a major occupation of the coastal community.

The issue of Illegal Unreported and Unregulated(IUU) fishing has become a major issue for all nations in the region and requires coordinated efforts to promote responsible fishing on one hand and ensure that this activity is not misused for terrorist activities. The fishermen from the countries in the region routinely trespass in to each other’s territory complicating livelihood and security issues. The initiative between India and Pakistan to set up a hotline between the Coast Guard and the MSA of Pakistan has gone a long way in CBMs besides alleviating the sufferings of the fishing community on both sides. As opposed to detention and harassment, the erring fishermen are invariably escorted out of the respective territories by mutual consultation. However, the issue in the Palk bay is more complex as the Tamil Nadu fishermen continue to cross the IMBL claiming historical rights to the entire Palk bay though the IMBL was demarcated in 1974. The issue has always been a political one with the regional parties vying with each other to build constituencies and vote banks. It is not to say that there are no efforts to bring about an amicable solution. Fishermen on both side and the NGOs have been in dialogue to work on the processes to resolve the decades old intransigence.

 It would be in order to examine the statistics of last year in terms of the number of armed attacks and piracy in the world. As per the end of the year report for 2015 published by Regional Cooperation Agreement on combating Armed Robbery and Piracy (ReCAAP) in Asia, there were 200 attacks in the Asian region. Most of them were carried out on ships that were under way. The number of armed attacks for robbery was more than the actual number of piracy. Surprisingly, while the number of such attacks along the African coast has come down, it has gone up in the Bay of Bengal, South China Sea and Straits of Malacca. It is due to the increased number of such incidents in the past that ReCAAP was commissioned in Singapore. Officers from the Regional Navies and the Coast Guards are deputed both to the ReCAAP and the Information Fusion Centre (IFC) to ensure that there is clear understanding of the local issues and the nations of the region work together to provide updates and analysis on the issues of piracy and armed robbery in Asia.  Both the Piracy Reporting Centre and the ReCAAP have rendered yeoman service in terms of sending out timely warnings to sea farers and carrying out detailed analysis of the occurrences. In addition, they have also been able to generate quality reports on a regular basis that helps in examining trends and shaping responses in the high risk areas.

There has been a spate of attempts to use the sea routes for people smuggling. Many Sri Lankan Tamil Refugees have been lured to take this arduous journey in unseaworthy vessels through the sea routes using some of the member countries of BIMSTEC to reach Australia. Indian maritime agencies have been able to thwart such attempts by close coordination with the intelligence agencies. There are also issues of trafficking of women and children from Bangladesh and Nepal in to India. There is a need to have a template for exchange of intelligence and information with in the BIMSTEC structure and strengthen the process to ensure that innocents do not lose their lives due to this misadventure aided by fly by night operators.

HADR. The need for having effective HADR architecture in the area that is prone to Tsunamis, cyclones and flooding during monsoons is inescapable. The experience of Tsunami of 2004, cyclone Nargis and the cyclone whichhit the city of Vizag on the east coast of India in 2014 are illustrative of the damage that can be caused by nature. It is evident that a lot of damage is accentuated due to manmadeinterventions. The Tsuami warning centre set up by India is working well and would provide the necessary warning to the countries in the region.

The offer of the PM of India to provide a SAARC satellite surveillance system for promoting maritime safety needs to be considered on a priority basis and made available to the members of BIMSTEC. The example of India which has been able to utilize its expertise in remote sensing in space has been able to apply the processes  for various purposes such as city planning, checking on green cover, sea erosion, post natural calamity assessment etc.,  The system of telemedicine being offered to remote places in India by ISRO needs to be replicated in the remote areas of the BIMSTEC countries by extensive network of nodes with the assistance of India who have demonstrated excellent skills in both space based surveillance and adoptability to IT enabled structures. Pakistan as a member of SAARC had reservations about such a system, but BIMSTEC should have no such concerns as it would be a transparent system with the active participation of the experts from the member countries who can derive the benefits of remote sensing.

SAR. The incident of MH370, Air Asia plane and more recently the loss of a Coast Guard Dornier in the Bay of Bengal clearly reinforces the belief that more needs to be done to strengthen the SAR architecture. Each nation in the region who are also members of the ICAO and also signatories of the M-SAR convention have a major responsibility in promoting the SAR architecture. This would mean using all resources including the military surveillance means to optimize the combined civil military efforts in peace time.

Environmental protection.The developing countries of BIMSTEC have an equal responsibility in protecting the fragile environment in addition to complying with the best practices for reducing the carbon foot print. Bangladesh and India have a shared responsibility of caring for the eco system in Sunderbans which unfortunately witnesses a lot of poaching by the citizens of both countries that destroys the flora and fauna of this wonderful area. Three are similar common environmentally sensitive areas that need attention by the countries that share borders in the region of BIMSTEC that need attention.

There is also a phenomenal increase in the commercial activity in the maritime domain thanks to the initiatives such as the blue economy, Chinese initiative such as the  OBOR, MSR etc., There is a need to closely monitor the environmental impact of such initiatives as there could be compromises due to commercial interests of stake holders.

Energy Security.  If there is one commodity that will drive the economic progress and development of nations, it is the continued supply of energy products. India and China have become huge importers of oil, gas and coal. This is set to keep increasing exponentially as per the study of Energy Impact Analysis (EIA) year after year. The need for energy while challenging nations has also spurred research and development in scouting for both conventional and non conventional energy sources. The discovery of the processes for extraction of shale oil and gas has liberated USA from the dependence on Middle East for energy products. The R&D on solar, wind, tide energy has been given a fillip with new advances in technology. However, the safe transportation of the energy goods and security will continue to be major factor of concern   for all nations. Collectively, BIMSTEC is in a position to invest in the related areas of research for exploring all avenues for meeting the energy demands of the nations in the region. The strength of each country can be leveraged to bring about optimal utilization of energy resources without serious impact on the environment. There is also a need to examine the inland water connectivity issues which can provide eco friendly alternatives for transportation. There is a need to examine the practices in each country and evolve the best practices for promotion of the inland waterways.

Blue Economy. A lot has been said and written about the importance of blue economy in the century of the seas. The prosperity and development of nations is increasingly dependent on the oceans. The harnessing of the oceans for both living and non-living resources will see manifold increase as new technologies are applied in the maritime domain. The revolution in marine transportation, modernization of the related ports and infrastructure will redefine the parameters of maritime trade. It is necessary to integrate even land locked countries in this process. From this point of view, the specific and the most important  recommendation for BIMSTEC is to provide opportunities for Bhutan and Nepal which are land locked to raise their merchant fleets manned by their citizens. India should take a lead and provide finances through a separate Blue Economy fund to be administered by BIMSTEC to facilitate this process of transformation of land locked countries as de facto maritime entities. Bangladesh or Sri Lanka could be the co-chair of this initiative which will have long term impact on the objectives of BIMSTEC. Other member countries with capacity and capability in the maritime areas should open up their port facilities, training facilities and infrastructure for use by the land locked countries at concessional rates. There are provisions in the United Nations Conventions on the Laws of the Seas(UNCLOS 1982) which allows for such provisions in respect of land locked countries.

Conclusion. BIMSTEC as a sub regional organization has many challenges as we move in to the next century. The major concern will continue to be about maritime security as nations continue to prosper using the seas for growth and prosperity. The emphasis on Blue Economy will bring about new forms of regional economic integration provided a perspective plan is drawn up identifying core areas in which lead initiatives are warranted. The member states  who also belong to other sub regional/regional groups such as the SAARC, ASEAN, etc., have the advantage of looking at the initiatives in other regional and sub-regional groups for taking on similar challenges and it would be logical to adopt the best practices  irrespective of where it is followed regionally or globally.

As BIMSTEC turns twenty next year, there would be a new thrust in bringing about greater sub regional integration by simultaneously paying attention to the maritime dimensions of safety, stability, trade promotion and security.

[Commodore R.S Vasan IN (Retd) is Director, C3S and Head, Strategy and Security Studies. Email:]

1 view0 comments


bottom of page