India, Bangladesh and a Sensible Border Dispute Settlement

India’s unqualified acceptance of an international tribunal ruling in July on its maritime boundary with Bangladesh is a landmark in regional and international relations.

The Arbitration Tribunal in The Hague, operating within the framework of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) had been deliberating the case since 2009 when Bangladesh brought it to the court and India accepted its jurisdiction.

India’s acceptance of the verdict is despite the result being presented in India as a victory for Bangladesh which is reported as having been awarded some 19,000 sq km of Indian territory in the Bay of Bengal.

In fact the Tribunal rejected a larger part of Bangladesh’s claim than India’s and broadly appeared to offer a compromise tolerable to both parties, in particular neither fully accepting or rejecting the equidistance principle argued by India or Bangladesh’s argument for a line that would take into account the issues raised by the shape of its coast vis-à-vis both India and Myanmar.

India also won the argument over Bangladesh’s baseline which Bangladesh had claimed because of tides that went further into the bay.

The most immediate significance of the mutual acceptance of the verdict is the prospect of exploration for hydrocarbons long held up by the dispute. Beyond that it represents a basis for enhanced cooperation between the two states which have often seemed determined to irritate each other at great cost to their economic development. Bangladesh badly needs Indian investment and trade,

India, particularly its troubled northeastern states, could benefit from improved transport and other links through Bangladesh.

The conditions seem ripe. In Bangladesh, Awami League rule is less hostile to deals with India than the opposition Bangladesh National Party of Begum Zia, and the new Modi government in India shows signs of taking a broader view of foreign policy issues than its predecessors, and being more pro-active.

An indulgent rather than haughty attitude to its smaller neighbors may be seen as the best way of fending off China’s attempts to influence Bangladesh and other South Asian countries with money and sweet talk. India has already had some success in improving relations with a Myanmar anxious to balance China with other relationships.

India’s original acceptance of the Arbitration Tribunal’s competence long predates Modi’s government. But the new administration seems keen to build on this and other opportunities to play up India’s constructive role in world affairs and its determination not to be forever overshadowed by China.

Although Modi in opposition was a frequent visitor to China to drum up business for his home state, Modi in power has been conspicuous in focusing early attention on other Asian countries, not least Japan.

Acceptance of the Arbitration Tribunal verdict presents a fine contrast with China, which refuses to accept any international jurisdiction over its claims to almost the whole South China Sea. Beijing knows only too well that maritime claims stretching 1,000 miles from its shores to the coasts of Malaysia, the Philippines and other countries would be rejected both on UNCLOS rules and by reference to the actual history of the region rather than a Chinese version which declines to accept the existence of “inferior” non-Han people. Certainly the other claimants to areas of the South China Sea will take note of the India-Bangladesh case and use it to show that China refuses to abide by international norms and dispute settlement procedures.

Meanwhile Indian news media has been reporting the issue of new People’s Liberation Army maps which are believed to include claims to Indian territory as well as the South China Sea. No one is said to have yet seen these maps but it would be no surprise if future ones include areas of neighbors which had once supposedly been tributaries of Beijing.