For centuries, the sea, or ‘maritime space,’ has been used as a site for cultural and religious exchange. The seas have been platforms for ideas and commerce but also sites for warfare. Powerful nations have used the ocean to extend their empires. Aside from all this, the ocean needs to be seen as a resource space and a low-cost and safe transport surface.

Bangladesh has a strong maritime legacy. Very few know this! To understand the country’s role in the maritime space, it is important to see it as a maritime nation. Bangladesh has a maritime area of 1,18,813 km2, with a coastline of 710 km. For centuries, Bangladesh’s south-eastern city of Chattogram, formerly known as Chittagong, was a hub for Arab, European and Asian traders.

Geographically, Bangladesh is ashore of the Bay of Bengal, and as such of the Indian Ocean. The Bay of Bengal is the ‘third neighbour’ and the Indian Ocean is the ‘fourth frontier’ of Bangladesh. The other two neighbours are land neighbours, of course – India and Myanmar.

Bangladesh is a founding member of two major regional integration organisations: the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) and the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA). The country has adopted a policy of adhering to regional and international institutions to govern its maritime space. Bangladesh is also a member of another technical initiative, the Bay of Bengal Large Marine Ecosystem project.

An open, inter-connected and rules-based Bay of Bengal, and Indian Ocean, is important not only for Bangladesh but also for the region as a whole. In fact, maritime space matters hugely for peace, prosperity and socioeconomic development.

Maritime Bangladesh

As a maritime nation, Bangladesh has a policy geared towards a stable and peaceful maritime space in its neighbourhood. This goes back to the very founding of the country. Bangladesh’s founding father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who led the first post-liberation war administration in 1972, viewed maritime space as a ‘zone of peace.’ This was a fundamental change from the prevailing Cold War opinion of the time, when other decision-makers saw maritime spaces as ‘zones of conflict and asymmetry.’ In the early 1970s, the Indian Ocean region (IOR) was split into spheres of influence that came under the major powers. Bangladesh rejected this power competition over the Indian Ocean and introduced a new agenda.

Soon after independence in 1974, Bangladesh enacted a signature maritime law, the Territorial Waters and Maritime Zones Act; most other countries did not have such a law. This spoke about rules-based maritime order in the Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean region. It was not till nearly nine years later, in 1982, that the United Nations framed its Convention on the Law of the Sea. Was Bangladesh a torch-bearer for the popular ‘law of the sea’? Either way, Bangladesh played a pivotal role in rule-based maritime order.

In the early 1970s, the Indian Ocean region (IOR) was split into spheres of influence that came under the major powers.

For Bangladesh, a competition-free Indian Ocean region (IOR) will establish an Asian peace. When New Zealand Prime Minister Norman Kirk visited Bangladesh in January 1974, a crucial deal between both the countries aimed to make the IOR a zone of peace. Similarly, at the Commonwealth Conference in 1973, Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Mujib spoke about the aspiration to establish the Indian Ocean as a zone of peace. This policy advocacy continued at the Summit Conference of Non-Aligned Countries in Algiers in September 1973. There, Mujib again urged member countries to declare the IOR a zone of peace.

Mujib’s philosophy on the sea has been continued by Bangladeshi regimes till this day. As a result of this policy, in 2012 and 2014, respectively, Bangladesh peacefully resolved its maritime boundary delimitation with Myanmar and India. This was example-setting. Other Asian countries can take lessons from Bangladesh with regard to maritime dispute resolution.

In 2018, Bangladesh adopted its longest vision policy, the Delta Plan 2100, to make its rivers and the ocean sustainable for future generations. This sort of intergenerational policy sends an encouraging signal to policy-makers beyond the country’s borders.

Bangladesh also looks beyond the ‘zone of peace’ in considering its maritime space. It is also focused on economics, with sustainable use of marine resources as its core policy. At a meeting of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) held in Nepal in 2016, Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said ‘the new global development agenda requires us to focus on our fourth frontier – the Indian Ocean […] Our common undertakings must secure protection, development and exploration of resources of seas and oceans in a sustainable manner.’

In the regional architecture

The secretariat of the South/South East Asian cooperation body BIMSTEC is located in Bangladesh. As such, the country plays a proactive role in making the institution functional. Bangladesh has used its leadership to champion what is called ‘the blue economy.’ For instance, in 2014, the country organised a major international conference, where it proposed a compact named the Bay of Bengal Partnership for the Blue Economy.

Bangladesh is also pushing its blue economy agenda within the intergovernmental regional organisation Indian Ocean Rim Association.

Bangladesh is also pushing its blue economy agenda within the intergovernmental regional organisation Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA). The pitch is simple: the blue economy can potentially change the fate of the people of the Indian Ocean region. But countries have to be mindful of the challenges: lack of human resources, technology and investment. This means there is no alternative to scaling up regional cooperation. For this, there needs to be political will as well as firm commitments by all member countries.

Why fisheries?

Marine fisheries need to be a priority sector within the blue economy. There are reasons for this.

Nutrition: Marine fisheries are key to food and nutritional security, providing a large amount of protein. According to data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), fish consumption increased by 122% between 1990 and 2018. In addition, the sector creates livelihoods for millions. The livelihood factor is important for countries like Bangladesh because 85% of the world’s fisheries are in Asia. In addition, marine fisheries are a key source of foreign exchange reserves for many littoral states.

Depletion: In both the Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean region, marine fisheries stocks have already been depleted to below critical point. More alarming is that researchers have found a huge ‘dead zone’ in the Bay of Bengal. According to FAO, in 1990, 90% of fish stocks were within biologically sustainable levels. This had reduced to 66% by 2017. Between 1974 and 2017, overfishing increased by 24 percentage points. It is safe to say that the world is facing a fishing crisis!

Conflict: Decline of marine fisheries stock can spur conflicts within and beyond borders. According to industry observers, in the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean region, illegal fishing is rampant.[1] Moreover, ocean acidification is catalysing climate change and disrupting coastal livelihoods. This is a recipe for conflict.

Policy prescription

Bangladesh is a key maritime player in the Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean region. It needs to focus on an action plan in this regard.

Protection: Bangladesh needs to protect marine fisheries from depletion. In this case, marine protected areas need to be created at the sub-regional scale. In addition, Bangladesh can play a proactive role in protecting habitats. Small-scale fishing communities are vulnerable to fishery decline. The welfare of small-scale fishers needs to be a policy priority.

Leadership: Through forums like Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) and BIMSTEC, Bangladesh needs to focus on preventing illegal fishing across the Indian Ocean. In fact, such fishing not only fuels overexploitation but has in fact led to the extinction of many fish species.

Pollution control: Bangladesh can protect the health of the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean region by curbing marine plastic pollution. Marine plastic pollution is destroying the health of the oceans.

Bangladesh can protect the health of the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean region by curbing marine plastic pollution.

Research: The 21st century is the maritime century. And research will lead the way! There is no alternative to fostering education, science and innovations in the maritime domain. Bangladesh should take the initiative in convincing IORA member states to establish an IORA Maritime University on the blue economy. African countries have already established a regional maritime university. A similar regional university by IORA member states would surely serve Bangladesh’s maritime agenda.

Involve the people: Bangladesh needs to focus on engaging the people of the Bay of Bengal in protecting the ocean. Maritime knowledge among the people in the region is very poor. The biggest problem is that they still conceive the ocean as a dumpster. Few people know that half of the oxygen they breathe comes from the ocean! So, if the ocean survives, so will the people. Thus, arranging mass awareness-raising activities, like ocean-related essay competitions and seminars, is imperative. Bangladesh high school curriculum could cover ocean pollution as a topic.

International relations: Bangladesh should foster regional maritime cooperation in its foreign policy. Bangladesh already has an edge in this field because of its blue economy policy. Maritime diplomacy will be an additional tool to navigate its external relations. The aim is simple for Bangladesh: push the rationale as to why the Indian Ocean countries need to prioritise the blue economy.

Focus on institutions: To foster regional maritime cooperation, Bangladesh should help strengthen the existing regional architecture, such as BIMSTEC and IORA. Institutions are necessary for norm creation and information-sharing.

End remarks

Bangladesh maintains a policy to foster peaceful, stable and secured maritime space. The country started by making both the Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean region a zone of peace. It has since then moved on to add a prosperity element. Bangladesh’s leading advantage is its blue economy initiative.

In its future policy actions, the country needs to focus on the marine fisheries sector. Marine fisheries need to be seen through a food security and forex-earning lens. Bangladesh can focus on moulding the two apex regional bodies, BIMSTEC and IORA. A wholesome maritime strategy has to involve research and communities on the ground. Otherwise, it will be doomed to fail.

[1] Illegal fishing is termed as illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) by fishing industry observers.


Photo ©️ Mahmud Hossain Opu

Md. Shariful Islam is Assistant Professor of International Relations at the University of Rajshahi, Bangladesh. He is a foreign policy analyst. He is also an adjunct research fellow at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs in Dhaka. His research focuses on foreign policy, histories of international relations, maritime security and the blue economy. He pursued his doctoral studies at the South Asian University, New Delhi.