In a landmark judgment, the Hague-based Permanent Court of Attribution (PCA) has awarded Bangladesh an area of 19,467 sq km, four-fifth of the total area of 25,602 sq km disputed maritime boundary in the Bay of Bengal with India on July 7. The UN Tribunal’s award has clearly delineated the course of maritime boundary line between India and Bangladesh in the territorial sea, Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and continental shelf within and beyond 200 nautical miles (nm). Now, Bangladesh’s maritime boundary has been extended by 118,813 sq comprising 12 nm of territorial sea and an EEZ extending up to 200 nm into the high seas. In addition, the ruling acknowledged Bangladesh’s sovereign rights of undersea resources in the continental shelf extending as far as 345 nm in the high seas, taking Chittagong coast as the base line.
The verdict has been broadly accepted by both the countries as a positive development for further consolidation of friendly relations especially given the geo-strategic/political significance of greater Indian Ocean region and South Asian sub-region. Moreover, the award has wide security and economic implications not only for India and Bangladesh but also for the entire Bay of Bengal region. Some are of the opinion that the ruling could provide impetus for the new Indian government to ratify the Land Boundary Agreement and reach an understanding on sharing the waters of the Teesta river with Bangladesh.
The verdict would contribute towards establishing strategic partnerships among the nations sharing borders in the Bay. The award is expected to have positive impact on emerging multilateral forum like BIMSTEC. It may be noted that India has already settled its maritime borders with Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Thailand. Similarly, Bangladesh’s maritime issues with Myanmar are resolved. The PCA award assumes strategic significance against the backdrop of China’s close ties with Bangladesh and the Asian giant’s growing interests and activities in the Bay region for which India is worried. Now the settlement of maritime disputes between India and Bangladesh may have a restraining influence on the expansionist designs of China.
Both the countries have accepted the award as it will open the door for exploration of oil and gas in the Bay—the site of huge energy reserves. International legal experts have hailed the tribunal’s encouragement to parties to exercise their sovereign rights and perform their duties under the convention with due regard to the rights of the other. The award mentions that it is for India for India and Bangladesh to determine the measures they consider appropriate, including through the conclusion of further agreements or the creation of a cooperative arrangement. The tribunal in its award has noted, “…The sovereign rights of coastal states, and therefore the maritime boundaries between them, must be determined with precision to allow for development and investment”.
The award has huge economic significance for a small state like Bangladesh. It has cleared the obstacles for Dhaka to open up its waters for foreign firms to explore and exploit hydrocarbons in the Bay. So long, Bangladesh’s maritime dispute with India is believed to have deterred many international petroleum companies to invest in the sea-blocks previously offered by it. The ruling has confirmed Bangladesh’s right to exploit the potentially rich waters in the Bay region. The United Nations Convention of Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) gives a nation 12 nm of territorial control and ensures sovereign rights to explore, exploit and manage natural resources with 200 nm of EEZ. The Awami League government is about to take measures for proper utilisation of resources in the sea areas obtained through the ruling. Reports suggest that the Foreign Ministry is organising an international workshop titled “Blue Economy” from September 1 in this direction.
The economic prospects of the Bay region have increased enormously after Myanmar and India discovered huge natural gas deposits beneath the sea. It is reported that Myanmar discovered 7 trillion cubic feet of hydrocarbon deposits in the region. This was followed by India’s discovery of another 100 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. This prompted Bangladesh—a nation with limited resource base and high demand of energy, to search for offshore energy resources. In 2008, Bangladesh government divided its claimed territorial sea and EEZ into 28 sea-blocks and leased them to multinational companies to meet its growing energy needs. But Bangladesh was eventually compelled to suspend exploration as both India and Myanmar objected to it. Successive discoveries of massive natural gas have made the delimitation of maritime boundary all the more significant. Economically, Bangladesh is a major gainer. Now, Dhaka is in a position to invite foreign companies to explore oil and gas resources in its maritime zones. It would definitely help Bangladesh to compensate gas shortages in its gas turbine-run industries and plants and contribute to the country’s economic development. India’s ONGC stands a good chance to win lucrative contracts in Bangladeshi offshore gas and oil fields.
India is also happy with the ruling and considers it as a diplomatic breakthrough for various reasons. Among other gains, the verdict has recognised India’s sovereignty over New Moore island and received nearly 6000 sq km of the contested zone where the island had once existed. India’s discovery of natural gas in 2006 took place in a creek which is situated about 50 km south of the mouth of the Hariabhanga river within the contested zone. The lingering maritime dispute stood in the way of exploration of hydrocarbons in the Bay region. Several petroleum companies had been reluctant to undertake exploration in the disputed area and a few of them even withdrew after making initial investments. Such as in December, 2013, Australian firm Santos withdrew from two sea-blocks citing security and maritime dispute with Bangladesh. Now India’s policy makers could chalk out a long-term strategy for the economic development of the Bay region. To realise its goals, New Delhi may forge bilateral or multilateral partnerships under the framework of sub-regional grouping like BIMSTEC. It will be interesting to watch how the Modi government, which emphasises on productive relationships with the neighbours, responds to the new opportunity offered by the recent award.
The verdict is also good news for millions of fishermen in both the countries. The amicable settlement has opened up vast sea areas which were not available to them in the last four decades. Moreover, both the countries could enhance cooperation in the conservation of the rich bio-diversity of the Sunderbans. By clearly delineating the maritime boundary between the two nations, the verdict could help boosting coastal and maritime security in the region. Before the award, both India and Bangladesh could not undertake cooperative measures due to the vexed problem. The verdict has now cleared the hurdles of strengthening security in the maritime front. Furthermore, precise demarcation of maritime boundary would assist in preventing the cases of transgression by fishermen of both countries. The PCA award is really a “win-win” situation for both the countries, as described by the Bangladesh foreign minister, if they follow it up with concrete action.