The Indian Ocean Zone of Peace: Reality vs. Illusion


Yogi Berra, the legendary American baseball player known for his pithy quotes, once remarked: “In theory there is no difference between theory and practice; but in practice there is.” India’s recent pitch for an Indian Ocean Zone of Peace (IOZOP) at the Galle dialogue in Sri Lanka is a classic example of theoretical propositions not always meeting the test of practical utility. In principle, the proposal to declare the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) as a zone of peace is strikingly apposite. Increasing Chinese presence and the threat of PLA-N bases in the IOR, the growing interests of other major powers (U.S., U.K., Russia, France and Japan) in the region, and the many Chinese infrastructure projects in the region, create an imperative for India to actively limit the military maritime activity of external powers in the region. But attempting to do so through the IOZOP route will ensure that while no military activity is ever practically curtailed, Indian influence and credibility in the region will be severely eroded.

The trouble with the IOZOP proposal is its flawed premise: that by simply declaring the region a “Zone of Peace,” foreign military presence and activity can be effectively halted. Conceivably, the proposal has been triggered by the recent docking of a Chinese submarine in Colombo – an event India took grave exception to, even remonstrating with Sri Lanka for its insensitivity to Indian security interests. New Delhi also may have taken note of a recent media report that quoted a Namibian Ministry of Defence official suggesting that discussions were underway “at the highest levels” for Chinese naval bases in the Indian Ocean Region. Though it was subsequently denied, the report had sufficient sting to give Indian policymakers the strategic heebie-jeebies. Proponents of the proposal now believe that in the absence of military strength and influence to counter the growing Chinese presence in the region, India should use the multilateral route to create a consensus for preventing the military activity of external powers in the region. A study of the past would, however, enlighten ardent Indian Ocean peaceniks of the efficacy of such a proposal.

In a recent op-ed in The Hindu, T.P. Sreenivasan, India’s representative to the Ad Hoc Committee on the Indian Ocean in the early 1980s, observed that the original 1971 proposal of an IOZOP was not so much about peace and tranquility in the IOR, as it was about circumscribing the presence of Western powers in the region. The Ad Hoc Committee, he points out, considered the various provisions of the proposal at length but none was found feasible because members stood bitterly divided on the issues. Most permanent members – except China – were vehemently opposed to the suggestion of no bases in the IOR. The littoral and hinterland members, on the other hand, supported it. “The innumerable problems India has faced on account of the U.N. resolution and the U.N. Ad Hoc Committee on the Indian Ocean,” Sreenivasan perceptively points out, “must be recalled before we take any formal initiative in this regard.”

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Opposition to the proposal from the major maritime powers is likely to arise this time as well; the only difference being that this time China too would likely join the chorus rejecting the proposal. With growing Chinese interests in the Indian Ocean, it is almost a given that Beijing would actively reject any suggestion that seeks to limit China’s military presence in the Indian Ocean. More worryingly, any such proposal would be detrimental to India’s own power-projection in the neighborhood. Sri Lanka’s original 1971 proposal, as Sreenivasan points out, was driven not only by the fear of extra-regional military presence but also by a perceived uneasiness about growing Indian naval power particularly in the aftermath of the 1971 war when the Indian Navy had launched an audacious attack on Karachi. In some ways, the IOZOP was an attempt by Colombo to buy some insurance against any possible Indian designs on Sri Lanka.

Paradoxically, it is India that has been dichotomous in its security approach to the Indian Ocean – opposing, on the one hand, extra-regional military presence and yet depending on U.S. naval power to underwrite regional security. As might be expected, the response to the revival of the IOZOP too has been fanciful on many levels. First of all, the Indian Navy might be a net-security provider in the region but it also honestly admits to a lack of capacity that renders assistance by other maritime players in the region a rank imperative. A principal precept of the Indian Navy’s maritime strategy is cooperative security and meaningful contributions in this regard have so far come only from the big naval powers in the region.

Second, the real danger from an Indian standpoint is not increased U.S. interest in the Indian Ocean Region but the lack of it. In the aftermath of the global financial crisis and the U.S. pivot to the Pacific, American interest in the Indian Ocean has been waning. With the shale revolution, the U.S. is losing interest in the Middle East. Consequently, its stake in securing the flow of energy from the Persian Gulf has reduced. Regrettably, U.S. naval retrenchment from the region also means a reduced ability to confront larger threats to peace and security in West Asia. This is one reason why many other states are rushing to fill the vacuum. The U.K.’s announcement that it would be reviving its maritime presence in Bahrain should be seen in this light.

While London’s decision to reopen its naval base in Manama is a cause for worry mainly because it implies a further militarization of the IOR, the fact is that the Royal Navy never really ceased to be a presence in the region (the RN has four mine-hunter warships permanently based at Manama, from which British destroyers and frigates in the Gulf are regularly supported). All that the U.K. is seeking now is to bolster the existing infrastructure at the Port, providing its navy with a forward operating base that would enable sustained security operations and the accommodation of its service personnel.

This does not mean that RN ships will be a regular presence in the broader security affairs of the IOR; much of the heavy-lifting in the Western and Eastern Indian Ocean will still need to be done by indigenous powers like India. The Royal Navy’s new base merely implies the U.K.’s desire to be able to tend to security hot-spots such as the Islamic State’s threat to the Middle East and the Levant – areas in which India might have no interest. Similarly, France, Japan and Australia are marginal players in the strategic affairs of the Indian Ocean, even though each contributes substantively to regional security. Circumscribing their space for operations by imposing a moratorium on maritime activity and presence is likely to damage the cause of collective security in the region.

An additional concern is that once a Zone of Peace is declared, Pakistan might revive its proposal for a denuclearized Indian Ocean – a proposition first raised in the aftermath of India’s nuclear test in 1974 and one that New Delhi strongly resisted. This could be a potentially game-changing move that needs to be understood in its entirety before endorsing a Zone of Peace. Pakistan’s nuclear efforts in the Indian Ocean are motivated solely by the presence of India’s strategic submarine capability (the Arihant). The Pakistan Navy (PN) does not quite need a ballistic missile capable submarine as it is not bound by “no-first use” and does not consequently need a survivable weapon. It does, however, feel compelled to counter India’s SSBN, which, it feels, has skewed the balance of power in the Indian Ocean. As a preliminary measure, the PN has invested in a naval tactical missile capability, but its aspiration to develop a strategic ballistic missile capable submarine has not proceeded beyond an expression of intent. Pakistan would, however, be happy to eschew naval tactical nuclear weapons if India were to take away its SSBN out of the equation. To compound matters, New Delhi’s backing of a ZOP in the IOR will leave it with no moral or political grounds to justify its opposition to a denuclearized Indian Ocean.

Lastly, while there is anxiety about China’s aggressive tactics in the South China Sea, many Indian Ocean states are not fully convinced that the PLA-N’s presence in the IOR poses an active threat to maritime security. It is highly unlikely – especially against the backdrop of Beijing’s proposal for a Maritime Silk Road, which has received enthusiastic backing from the Maldives and Sri Lanka – that other Indian Ocean states would be keen on a “ban” on Chinese naval activity in the region. Yet there is an almost universal acknowledgement of India’s contribution to the security and well-being of smaller Indian Ocean states (a case in point being the “fresh-water” assistance recently rendered by the Indian Navy to Maldives).

In the event that a ZOP is announced, it is India that will stand to lose the most because its proposal will be seen as a “backdoor” maneuver to limit the Chinese presence and an effective abdication of leadership and responsibility in the IOR.

Abhijit Singh is a research scholar at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses and looks at Maritime Security in the Indian Ocean. He is co-author of the book Indian Ocean Challenges – A Quest for Cooperative Solutions.

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