New wars on the Cold War relic

Revisiting the Indian Ocean zone of peace concept, which has led to long debates since 1971, may prove hazardous in the present context, because the rivalry that is taking shape in the region is between the U.S. and its allies, and China.

December 16, 2014 01:11 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:23 pm IST

The National Security Adviser, Ajit Doval, has sought to revisit the U.N. General Assembly (UNGA) Resolution 2832 (XXVI) >declaring the Indian Ocean as a zone of peace , and which has called upon the great powers not to allow an escalation and an expansion of military presence in the Indian Ocean. ( The Hindu , December 1, 2014). The expectation is that it can be used as a device to prevent China from holding sway in the Indian Ocean.

While the Indian Ocean Zone of Peace (IOZOP), in its original form, appears relevant in the present context, the innumerable problems India has faced on account of the resolution and the U.N. Adhoc Committee on the Indian Ocean must be recalled before we take any formal initiative in this regard. Sri Lanka, our comrade in arms in the IOZOP initiative, has played games with us even in the happier days of India-Sri Lanka relations and when China was not in the picture. The new narrative in the Indo-Pacific may not be congenial to depending on Sri Lanka or any other neighbour to deliver on the IOZOP in accordance with our interests.

The formulation The idea of IOZOP goes back to the days of the 1964 Cairo Conference of the Non-Aligned Movement, which had expressed concern over the efforts of the imperialists to establish bases in the Indian Ocean and declared that the Indian Ocean should not be a battleground for the big powers. The Lusaka Declaration (1970) refined the idea further and it led to the UNGA resolution, which proposed the IOZOP strictly in the context of the raging Cold War at that time.

The UNGA resolution said: “the Indian Ocean, within limits to be determined, together with the air space above and the ocean floor adjacent thereto, is hereby designated for all times as a zone of peace”. It went on to define the zone of peace not as one where there was an absence of war or of a state of peace and tranquillity, but specifically about the great powers halting and eliminating all bases, military installations and logistical facilities, and the disposition of nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction. It also envisaged universal collective security in the region without military alliances. Ships would have the right to unimpeded use of the zone, except warships posing a threat to the littoral and hinterland states of the region.

In subsequent years, in the Adhoc Committee on the Indian Ocean, which was set up under the aegis of the U.N. disarmament machinery, the concept divided rather than united permanent members and the littoral and hinterland states. The permanent members, except China, did not support the original resolution. France, the United States and the United Kingdom kept out of the committee as they felt that they had been directly targeted and the Soviet Union had participated in the work of the committee, paying lip service to the notion of a zone of peace. Australia was the spokesperson of the West, which raised questions on the feasibility of the elimination of foreign military presence.

Regional interpretations Till the end of the Cold War, India stuck to the purist interpretation of the zone as an area free of foreign military presence, particularly bases and other facilities, conceived in the context of great power rivalry. Implicitly, India did not object to the movement of warships, as long as they did not threaten the regional states. Indira Gandhi reiterated this position at a press conference in Moscow, making the Soviet presence legitimate, even though there were reports that the Soviet Union was seeking to establish bases in Somalia and elsewhere.

The innumerable problems India has faced on account of the U.N. resolution and the U.N. Adhoc Committee on the Indian Ocean must be recalled before we take any formal initiative in this regard.

After a meeting of the littoral and hinterland states in 1979, India became acutely aware of a hidden agenda on the part of Sri Lanka and others to draw attention to the increasing strength of India, posing a threat to the smaller states in the region. Sri Lanka was not loath to have an American presence in the Indian Ocean as a stabilising factor. President Jayewardene said at one point that he did not know whether Sri Lanka wanted the Americans to get out of the Indian Ocean and even hinted that the interests of regional countries differed.

Pakistan began to emphasise “denuclearization” of the Indian Ocean after the Indian tests of 1974 and took the initiative of a Nuclear Weapon Free Zone in South Asia, which was strongly opposed by India. The polarisation was palpable in the Adhoc Committee. Consequently, the possibility of a Colombo Conference to implement the Declaration became remote. India did not find it helpful to hold the Colombo conference without the participation of the great powers. Nor did India participate fully in the Indian Ocean Marine Affairs Cooperation (IOMAC) on the plea that it detracted from the concept of the zone of peace by inviting the great powers to it.

A fallout of the debate in the Indian Ocean Committee was that India and Australia had become antagonistic to each other. Australia began complaining about the growth of the Indian Navy and also countered India at disarmament forums, particularly at the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) negotiations. At one point, K. Subrahmanyam maintained that the confrontation in the Indian Ocean should be treated as being triangular rather than bipolar as he felt that the military presence of the super powers was directed against the autonomy of the Non-Aligned countries.

China had taken a position of tactical support to the zone, as its presence in the Indian Ocean was not in focus. As a proclaimed supporter of the developing countries, China expressed solidarity for the littoral and hinterland states in seeking to eliminate foreign military presence. The focus on the Indian capabilities, which emerged in this context, was also a welcome development for China. It claimed legitimacy for itself as a permanent member of the Security Council and as an Asian power.

Shift in focus After the end of the Cold War, the dynamics in the Committee underwent a sea change, with India itself shifting the focus of the zone of peace from the elimination of foreign military presence to one of cooperation between the major powers and the littoral and hinterland states. The debate became increasingly an embarrassed ritualisation of the demilitarisation effort. India’s joint exercises in the Ocean with multiple partners legitimised the presence of various navies including that of the U.S.

The Adhoc Committee soldiered on without a particular focus, merely recalling the old resolution and emphasising the need for the permanent members and major maritime users to join in an effort to bring about a balance in the Indian Ocean. From an arena of the Cold War, the Committee became ritualistic without a clear focus or agenda. Naturally, new threats, such as piracy, terrorism, drug trafficking, etc were brought in, making it a forum to combat non-state actors rather than the great powers.

Revisiting the zone of peace concept, which has led to the long debates since 1971 may prove hazardous in the present context, because the rivalry that is taking shape in the region is between the U.S. and its allies, and China. With the kind of support China demonstrated in Kathmandu among the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) countries, it is possible that the zone of peace idea will turn into a move to counter the U.S. as a foreign presence and to seek some balance between India and China in the Indian Ocean. China might well gain a status similar to India and strengthen its capabilities there. International focus on India’s naval acquisitions, present and future, may well become counterproductive. According to Admiral Arun Prakash, there are not many navies, worldwide, which have seen, in recent years, or are likely to see such significant accretions to their order-of-battle. “This force build-up, once complete, will not only enhance the Navy’s combat capability by an order of magnitude, but would also alter the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific region.”

A way out The greatest resistance to the revival of the IOZOP will come from those who will argue that the idea itself is outdated as the Cold War and great power rivalry are non-existent. They are likely to remind us that we ourselves had stressed the Cold War angle more than anything else. Others will begin highlighting the spirit of cooperation that has dawned in the Indian Ocean and lamenting that India is reviving old ghosts. The U.S. may also look at the concept negatively as it will impinge on its own activities. China will marshal support to campaign against the concept of the zone, from which they are sought to be excluded. In other words, a new IOZOP will have even less chance of success than the old one.

A strategy of enhancing cooperation between the littoral and hinterland states and external powers without the reference to the IOZOP may have a greater chance of success. India has special strengths in combating piracy, alleviating natural disasters and trafficking. The involvement of the U.S. in fighting terrorism may be of an advantage. China has already taken note of India’s inclinations in the Asia-Pacific and offered cooperation to avoid the “Asia Pivot” and to adopt an alternative Chinese vision. An opportunity exists for us to develop a third plan of engagement between the regional countries and external forces for fruitful cooperation in the Indo-Pacific.

(T.P. Sreenivasan was India’s representative to the U.N. Adhoc Committee on the Indian Ocean from 1980 to 1983 and from 1992 to 1995.)

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