Choppy Waters: Navigating the future of maritime security in the Bay of Bengal

The recent Houthi attacks on commercial vessels in the Gulf of Aden have vividly demonstrated how the maritime threat, previously the domain of relatively low-capability coastal pirates, has the potential to escalate into a sophisticated, high-capability one for which global commercial shipping is a ‘soft underbelly.’ How easy is it for non-state forces, sometimes with the support of marginalised states, to exploit the maritime environment? And has the global security industry done enough to address the risks of Houthi-style copycat actors looking to leverage the criticality and vulnerability of global shipping for political advantage?

Leveraged asymmetry: how weak and localised forces are shaping the wider world

Asymmetric warfare depends on the leverage of minor capabilities for disproportionate effect. But recent activity in the Gulf of Aden has gone beyond traditional asymmetry and highlighted the massive ‘asymmetric leverage’ that today’s global economy offers to relatively inconsequential forces. At a crucial maritime chokepoint between Yemen and Somalia, low-cost tactics such as sea mines and boat bombs alongside increasingly easy-to-obtain anti-ship missiles have projected power and influence not only over one of the world’s key maritime routes, but worldwide: disrupting the world’s supply chains, spiralling insurance premiums, forcing operators into detours of up to 7000 nautical miles around the Cape of Good Hope, massively increasing time in transit as well as fuel consumption, and, ultimately, driving up the price of goods and fuel for people around the world.

The COVID years showed us how sensitive a global just-in-time economy is to disruptions in supply and fluctuations in demand, with the effects of delay and disruption magnified and multiplied through every stage of the supply chain. This sensitivity provides a centre of gravity for asymmetric actors to target: because whole-of-system viability relies on continual and regular movement of goods, every node requires resilience; and disruption at any one of countless strategically critical pinch-points has a cascading effect up and down the value chain.

The lesser of three threats?

The maritime security ‘seascape’ can be defined broadly by three threat types: the environment, global state actors and marginalised state and non-state actors. Global players like the US and China’s maritime ambitions reflect a strategic, long-term approach aimed at expanding influence across key maritime domains, using military might and economic leverage to assert territorial claims and enhance global stature. The environment requires no leverage, strategic plan or political ambition to reap a devastating impact on coastal community livelihoods, drive mass migration and catalyse political instability.  Marginalised state actors and non-state entities, meanwhile, exploit the maritime environment’s vastness and governance gaps in ways which offers them unique asymmetry advantages. Long the poor cousin of the three, it may be that marginalised state and non-state actors are emerging as at least as important as major state and environmental threats.

The Bay of Bengal is ripe for asymmetric leverage

If leveraged asymmetry is seen to work in the Gulf, it must be catching the eye of many. How long is it before separatist organisations like the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army in Myanmar or regional terror organisations such as Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) follow suit in trying by targeting maritime vulnerabilities at the meeting point between two of the world’s largest economic blocks, ASEAN and SAARC? Larger than the Mediterranean Sea, the Bay of Bengal includes the entrance to the Malaca straight, through which a quarter of the world’s traded goods flow. It is not difficult to project the massive consequences of minor actor attacks the intricate web of economic dependencies on which we all rely.

These waters are not just channels of commerce and communication; they are also frontlines of defence, diplomacy, crime and illegal and unregulated industry. Each of the littoral states is ranked high on the global terror index. Myanmar’s military Junta Government recognises a number of well-resourced and coordinated independence and extremist movements. Thailand’s vast coastline is commonly used for illicit sea movements, including by Hezbollah and Al Qaeda. The congested and contested nature of the Bay’s waters, combined with its vast size, provide criminal and non-state groups with both freedom of manoeuvre and an almost endless choice of impactful potential targets.  

The Bay of Bengal is ringed by some of the largest and most populous countries in the world. Billions of people living in its littoral countries compete for fish stocks and shipping lanes in a region highly susceptible to increases in competition from rising sea levels and dwindling biodiversity. The countries jostling for room along its coast are home to multiple marginalised and oppressed groups – from Myanmar’s perilous existence at the margins of the regional political sphere to vast coastal Bangladeshi populations serviced by still-emerging governance institutions. Opportunities to disrupt this complex and fragile ’system of systems’, and to tilt its balance towards instability and insecurity, are surely tempting.

International and regional maritime security has been de-prioritised and under funded

The global private security industry has responded fairly well to the increased maritime threat. If you’re a ship owner, you can hire a team of retired Royal Marines from any one of dozens of companies. But whilst they may be effective against piracy, these guarding services fall well short of the ability to protect against sea mines, marine drones and missile attacks. In addition, given the sheer scale of global shipping, outsourcing to the private sector can only fill a tiny part of the security gap.

At the capacity development end of the spectrum, large-scale Government-to-Government assistance has focused predominantly on land actors, integrating security forces and prosecuting land-based terrorists. Meanwhile, although it covers 70% of the earth, the agencies charged to protect the sea are often undervalued. The International Maritime Organisation IMO has a budget of less than $100 million this year, in contrast to International Organisation of Migration’s $1.8 billion. The only regional body that has membership from all states coastal states, the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation or BIMSTEC, has an annual budget in the vicinity of $1.5m – or the equivalent of about 5 hours operating time for a US aircraft carrier.

With chronic underinvestment in maritime security equipment, training, tactics, policies and integration in the Bay of Bengal, its maritime security has remained predominantly – and worryingly – in the hands of US Naval power. With an international budget of more than $800Bn, this may well prove to be enough. But as vividly highlighted in Ukraine, US security assistance is – quite rightly – dependent on US political consensus, and in turbulent times for US politics, a more isolationist approach is a very feasible trajectory – and not one which will have been missed by asymmetric threat actors. We should not underestimate the need for better resilience of funding, multinational political will and global leadership.

A legislative and economic environment ridden with loopholes and ambiguities

The challenge of securing the Bay of Bengal maritime domain is compounded by legislative ambiguities and economic dependencies. India, Myanmar and Bangladesh, for example, operate in a ‘grey zone’ where maritime rights are shared but responsibility for maritime governance is uncertain. Despite ‘hot pursuit’ laws allowing incursion by one state’s forces into the territorial waters of another, illicit vessels can dip between international waters and Exclusive Economic Zones to dodge maritime law enforcement. Meanwhile the only truly global western maritime power – the United States – is not a signatory to UN Convention on the Laws of the Sea at all. It is these grey spaces and governance gaps that asymmetric threat actors are adept at exploiting to find the maximum regional and global leverage.

Cooperation as the backbone of regional maritime security strategy

In response to these challenges, the most critical component of a Bay of Bengal maritime security strategy is improved regional cooperation. Initiatives aimed at improving information sharing, conducting joint patrols and harmonising national legal frameworks are essential to minimise the loopholes that give threat actors their freedom of manoeuvre. BIMSTEC exemplifies such efforts, providing a platform for dialogue and collaborative action to strengthen the collective capacity of regional maritime security forces, foster international collaboration, address non-traditional threats and promote economic development within a secure maritime framework. These initiatives are vital steps toward helping the Bay of Bengal remain a zone of peace and stability. As the Bay of Bengal emerges as a pivot point for a wide nexus of maritime security challenges, the need for robust, collaborative strategies has never been more urgent.

But national rivalries run deep, founded in historical narratives that mean that each of the seven Bay of Bengal countries views the others with varying degrees of suspicion. International support must be designed from the ground up to foster regional collaboration under a maritime security and governance framework which is shared between, and bought into by, each of the Bay’s littoral states. Only collective response can safeguard the Bay of Bengal from both the traditional and the asymmetric threats that jeopardise global security and economic stability, ensuring that one of the world’s most important seaways remains a conduit for prosperity and peace.