The Bay of Bengal Conversation is an annual geopolitical conference hosted by the Centre for Governance Studies in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The conference serves as a platform to facilitate Track 2 diplomacy among all nations that consider themselves stakeholders in the Indo-Pacific region. This year will be the second edition of the conference. The conversation will be focused on addressing all fault lines that threaten regional peace, stability, and prosperity.
The world is once again witnessing the kind of great power rivalry that inevitably leads to the horrors of war. History has shown that nations caught in the crossfire bear the brunt of the consequences of reckless brinksmanship. Unfortunately for the Indo-Pacific nations, the region is quickly becoming a tinderbox. The only advantage we are allowed is to learn from past mistakes. And the only way to de-escalate the situation is through conversation.
In recent decades, the economic and geopolitical center of gravity has shifted eastward. Regions that were once considered the backwaters of the world now have begun a phase of rapid modernization, the likes of which the global north saw after World War II. The Indo-Pacific region, as understood today, comprises 40 countries and economies, 65% of the world’s population, 37% of the world’s poor, and an estimated 50% of the world’s GDP by 2040. Due to the rising adoption of technology, declining rates of poverty, and rapid development of infrastructure, this enormous population is just beginning to find its true potential for production and consumption. The region is also host to nations which are the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Considering the inescapable importance of the region for any potential future world order, various global north nations have devised their national Indo-Pacific strategies. Whether it be through the allure of the Belt and Road infrastructure or the idealism of a free and open Indo-Pacific, an arms race of rhetoric is already underway.
However, the situation is not the same here as it was among the Cold War-era buffer states. The lines in the sand have not been drawn yet. Allegiances are intentionally left ambiguous, and there are no series of treaties and defense pacts that might oblige nations to pick a side. Instead, the nations of the Indo-Pacific have been presented with unique leverage over the competing world powers. And if they manage to play their cards right, the nations of the Indo-Pacific may dictate their own fate in the world to come.
But before that can happen, the region must address its internal faultiness. This year, the Bay of Bengal conversation will host participants from 75 nations. Diplomats, politicians, bureaucrats, military experts, activists, academics, journalists, civil society representatives, business leaders and many other stakeholders will come together and discuss threats, potentials, and ideas to solve the most complex geopolitical issues and ideate ways to create a more integrated, peaceful, and prosperous Indo-Pacific.
This year’s Bay of Bengal Conversation will focus on identifying and elucidating aspects of the various Indo-Pacific strategies of different nations and delving into perspectives of regional stakeholders, academicians, and diplomats to expound on trends and trajectories of regional development and challenges. The conversation will cover five different perspectives in particular when analyzing geopolitical development in the Indo-Pacific:
1. The Indo-Pacific as a convergence of foreign policy paradigms
The idea of the Indo-Pacific has changed drastically over time. The region was initially envisioned as a collective of nations comprising emergent anti-colonial forces. However, the contemporary notion of the Indo-Pacific stems from the idea of the late prime minister of Japan, Shinzō Abe, who identified the region as a confluence of the Indian and Pacific Oceans and saw the potential for the dynamic coupling to serve as seas of freedom and prosperity in broader Asia. The focus on the security of sea lanes linking the two oceans is the fundamental pillar of most Indo-Pacific strategies, as formalized in 2019 by the United States under the concept of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific”. Several scholars have pointed out that this concept is primarily understood as a U.S.-led containment strategy directed against China. The term gained further salience when it was adopted by India. Several nations of the Global North now have their own versions of an Indo-Pacific strategy, focusing on their own geopolitical and economic interests. The question now has to be asked as to what factors have resulted in this confluence of paradigms, and what are the implications of this new paradigm to the individual nations of the region?
2. The Indo-Pacific as new theatre of Great Power competition
Recent decades have seen a sharp decline in bilateral relations between two eminent nuclear superpowers USA and China. Antagonistic rhetoric, military escalation in the South China Sea, and a trade war quickly turning into a potential cold war are all disturbing signs of unrest in the Indo-Pacific. The stated goal of all declared Indo-Pacific strategies include the ongoing peace and stability of the region. And yet, the fear remains that this unified quest for peace and stability may inevitably lead to further strife and conflict. The escalating rivalry between the United States and China is the most significant geopolitical issue in the Indo-Pacific region, but the nations of the Indo-Pacific are not mere bystanders. They are also active participants with their own stated objectives and stakes. What role can each Indo-Pacific nation play in this new theatre of great power rivalry to ensure peace and prosperity for the greater Indo-Pacific region?
3. The Indo-Pacific as a geopolitical tinderbox
The confluence of geographies has bred multiple unsolved conflicts, which add to the region’s status as a potential geopolitical tinderbox. Unresolved conflicts include:
-The continuing conflict between Taiwan and China, driven by China’s recent escalation of bellicose language and military activities in the Taiwan Strait.
-Several territorial disputes in the Indo-Pacific area, notably those between China and Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and China and a number of Southeast Asian states over the South China Sea.
-North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, as well as the country’s belligerent attitude, which has heightened tensions with the US, South Korea, and Japan.
-Myanmar’s protracted civil conflict which has resulted in the genocide of the Rohingya people and created one of the region’s greatest refugee crises.
-The ongoing unsolved humanitarian and refugee crises in Afghanistan
-The unresolved territorial issue between India and Pakistan
The majority of these conditions have remained unchanged or are actively deteriorating. Almost all of these concerns pose significant challenges to regional stability. What current diplomatic frameworks keep these disputes under control, and how might regional players come together to avoid the tinderbox from being lit?
4. The Indo-Pacific as a front line climate action
The nations of the Indo-Pacific have some of the world’s highest and fastest-growing greenhouse gas emission rates. Currently, the region accounts for more than half of global carbon dioxide emissions. The region also contains roughly two-thirds of the world’s seas and is one of the most sensitive to the effects of climate change internationally. South Asia’s glaciers are melting, and many of the Indian Ocean’s Pacific’s tiny island nations are facing disastrous sea-level rises. And these difficulties do not exist in isolation. For example, the South China Sea, a critical security hotspot in the area, is home to more than half of the world’s fishing boats, which fight for increasingly precious marine resources. When security, biodiversity loss, and climate issues collide, as they do in multiple locations in the Indo-Pacific, they exacerbate and magnify the broader issue of climate adaptation and mitigation. Only through active engagement of Indo- Pacific nations can we hope to confront these global concerns? Though more global climate action forums such as COP offer some prescriptions for the issue, how can regional stakeholders discuss, participate, and collaborate to progress against climate change and biodiversity loss?
5. Finding the narrative for the Indo-Pacific in the new world order
If we are to follow the trajectories of regional development to their logical conclusion, the Indo- Pacific will find four broad geopolitical situation that the region will settle into eventually.
One is an American-led order that would look a lot like the current one. Along with its allies and partners, the United States would continue to build and improve regional rules and standards. The US would also be essentially free to wield power without substantial restraints, allowing it to mold the Indo-Pacific area according to its interests and preferences.
A Chinese-led framework would be a significant departure from the current order. Washington would relinquish leadership to Beijing, enabling the Chinese Communist Party to steer the region’s growth. Beijing would very certainly want to expand its political, economic, scientific, military, and cultural clout in the area and beyond.
A bipolar order would combine the characteristics of each of these orders. The US and China would compete across the Indo-Pacific, each attempting to construct an order that favored its own interests. Regional states would have little agency, as in the abovementioned situations; they would be obliged to select sides. A bipolar order would place a price on regional governments’ alignment decisions but also put them in more danger.
In a multipolar order, three or more nations compete for regional dominance and influence. This system’s potential poles might include the US, China, India, Japan, the UK, Australia, the EU, and others. Regional nations would have a better chance of remaining non-aligned in such a scenario. However, as the number of poles rises, regional regulations and norms may become increasingly contentious.
As the direction for the future of the Indo-Pacific rests largely upon the action or inaction of regional actors, which kind of world order they would like to see and be a part of?