BANGLADESH is not only a riverine country but also a maritime nation that opens to the south toward Indian Ocean through the Bay of Bengal.
It was the ocean route that in the past led many foreigners to come to Bengal (now greater part of Bangladesh) and Chittagong port was the conduit for interaction between Bengalis and foreigners including European colonisers.
National power, wealth and prestige remain, however, largely oriented to the land territory of Bangladesh. The importance of rivers in our country is emphasized but often the significance of the vast maritime area that is being used for external trade is ignored. Lately, however, the importance of living and non-living marine resources is being realised.
Geographically dominating as the third largest ocean in the world, the India Ocean, covering about 20% of the water on the Earth's surface, is bounded on the north by South Asia; on the west by Africa; on the east by South East Asia, the Sunda Islands, and Australia; and on the south by the Southern Ocean.
The region contains 1/3 of the world's population, 25% of its landmass, 40% of the world's oil and gas reserves. The region is home to most of the world's Muslim population as well as India, one of the world's likely "rising powers."
The Indian Ocean is also home to the world's two newest nuclear weapons states, India and Pakistan, as well as Iran, which Western nations suspect, has a robust program to acquire nuclear weapons.
Just as Europe's rise made the Atlantic Ocean a setting for 500 years of maritime and naval contention, shifting power centres will draw new fleets of merchantmen and warships into play across the 68.6 million square kilometers of the Indian Ocean.
The Ocean is rich in mineral and energy resources (oil and gas), and the rising power of China and India is about to undergo a metamorphosis that would turn the world around.
In addition, the region constitutes one of the key centres of gravity of international terrorism. While India and some a few of the other littoral states appear to be on a path of sustained economic progress, most of the region is characterized by high levels of poverty.
Non-military threats to maritime security in the Indian Ocean region are also increasing. These include gunrunning, smuggling, container security, drug trafficking and oil related environmental disasters. Oil spills can seriously affect the flow of merchant vessels to the seaports.
The northern reaches of the ocean hum with the traffic of half the world's container ships, just under three quarters of global petroleum products and increasingly with immense tonnages of raw materials ripped from the ground of Australia, Africa and South East Asia, bound for China, India, Japan and South Korea.
Indian Ocean also has choke points, flash points, and arcs of instability, such as the Red Sea, the Strait of Hormuz, the Persian Gulf (Arab Gulf), the pirate-infested water off the Horn of Africa (Somalia), the Malacca and Sunda Straits, through which passes 40% of the world's sea borne oil, including a third of China's supply, 70% of Japan's and 90% of India's.
Fifty-four kilometres across at its narrowest point, bordered by Iran on its northern shore and a short distance from the huge Chinese-built naval facility at Gwador (Baluchinstan in Pakistan), the Strait of Hormuz is a place that keep admirals awake at night.
As Chinese and Indian resource demands grow over the coming decades, the Indian Ocean will feature more on the defence departments of nations. America's strategically placed military base at Diego Garcia will become more important than ever.
The contest between China and India has started sometime ago. Some Indian defence analysts argue that China, which simply cannot countenance the emergence of a rival power in Asia, has been determinedly working to minimize India's regional and global standing.
During 2005 Chinese diplomats reportedly visited South East countries lobbying against India to join the East Asia Summit. However South Asian nations wanted to include India as a counter-weight to an increasingly powerful China.
The Indian Navy, already one of the largest in the world, is reportedly expanding from 155 ships to well over 300, including three aircraft-carrier battle groups and a flotilla of nuclear-powered submarines. Indian policy makers worry the Chinese-built Gwador port of Pakistan.
The Chinese for their part worry over the Straits of Malacca, through which 80% of its oil supplies are presently shipped. On this Robert Kaplan quotes Zhang Ming, a Chinese naval analyst, who warns that 244 islands of India's Andaman and Nicobar archipelago could serve to block the western entrance to the Strait of Malacca.
This is one of the reasons that led China to have close bilateral ties with Myanmar. Myanmar has a strategically located Island (Coco Islands) north of India's Andaman Islands. It is reported that China has a naval base in the Coco Islands.
Japanese Maritime Self Defence Force destroyers and refuelling supply ships have been continually on-station in the Indian Ocean since November 2001. The MSDF ships were dispatched under the Anti-Terrorism Special Measures Law (2001), which has since been extended a number of times beyond its original two-year period of application. The new government in Japan has stopped refuelling US ships.
There is a continual tendency in both Japan and abroad to underestimate Japan's actual military strength - especially that of its naval forces. In 2006, Japan had 16 submarines and 54 principal surface combatants (destroyers and frigates), and 109 Lockheed Orion P-3C antisubmarine warfare aircraft in various modes.
Military power, including weapons of mass destruction and their delivery vehicles, is looming larger in the region. Malaysia, Indonesia and a variety of other littoral states of South East Asia are strengthening their militaries.
Malaysia, for example, is more focused now than ever before on the potential strategic importance of the Indian Ocean approaches to Peninsula Malaysia.
Not long ago, Malaysia's Navy chief said that the country's strategic location in the waterways of the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean exposes the country to serious dangers. Reacting to this challenge, the Malaysian Navy has inaugurated construction of a new navy base and command center at Langkawi, Kuala Lumpur's only port directly fronting the Indian Ocean.
Indonesia also has been establishing military infrastructure projects in the Ocean. Singapore monitors the situation on behalf of the US near the Straits.
Thailand, similarly, is now more aware of its status as an Indian Ocean littoral state. Arms trafficking in southern Thailand, which has fuelled conflicts in Sri Lanka and northeast India, has come under scrutiny as Thailand's neighbours have urged a more robust response from Bangkok.
In recent years, Bangkok also has joined a plethora of Indian Ocean regional organizations - including BIMSTEC and IOR-ARC, and has pursued the so-called “Look West” policy of cultivating Indian Ocean states, especially India.
Thailand lately has also shown new interest in building a canal across the Kra Isthmus to forge a shorter direct route between the Pacific and Indian Oceans. However, large obstacles stand in the way of this dream being realized any time soon, not the least of which is Singapore's implacable opposition to a Kra Canal.
Moreover, many of these states are emphasizing power projection capabilities, often through the acquisition of more advanced military hardware and the construction of new bases intended for forward defence.
China and India perceive a potential threat from the US in the Indian Ocean as being the most dominant player in the Indian Ocean. The United States has the capability to project military power in the region and a well-defined strategy to pursue its policy of pre-eminence.
The U.S. maritime strategy of the 1980s envisioned a war at sea won by sea control. The new US strategic thrust aims to move away from classical sea control/sea denial to influencing events further ashore as exemplified by Afghanistan.
National, regional and global maritime security threats are interrelated and this requires strategy to meet maritime security threats.
Bangladesh needs to be prepared to address both military and non-military maritime security in the light of the above issues of the Indian Ocean.
It is noted Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, in course of her visit to the Naval Headquarters on 11 April 2010, talked about the government's mega plan for building Bangladesh Navy as a deterrent force.
The government is expected to procure maritime patrol aircrafts, modernize four missile boats and two patrol aircrafts by adding missiles, develop special naval force SWADS (the Navy's fleet air system) by installing surface to air missiles and air defence system. These plans and programmes will be implemented by 2012. Thereafter Bangladesh has a plan to equip the Navy with submarines having base facilities by 2019.
Within this time, the government plans to take all necessary steps for setting up the naval force's own air base, jetty for ship berthing, training school, and accommodation facilities for officers and sailors, the Prime Minister reportedly said. The plan, which has been chalked out for modernization of the Navy, will "turn the navy into a three-dimensional force by 2021."
The Navy thus equipped may safeguard maritime security that includes Bangladesh ports, shipping, offshore oil exploration and sea-lanes in the Bay of Bengal.
Furthermore, Bangladesh has been a member of Indian Ocean Rim for Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC) together with other 18 maritime nations in Asia and Africa. The two institutions may address the challenges posed by non-military maritime threats.
The author is former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva.