Indian Ocean: Why India Seeks Demilitarisation

15 Dec, 2014    ·   4779

Dr Vijay Sakhuja writes that an extra-regional naval presence in the Indian Ocean is both an opportunity and a challenge

In his remarks at the 2014 Galle Dialogue in Sri Lanka, Indian National Security Advisor Ajit Doval alluded to the 1971 UN General Assembly Resolution 2832 (XXVI) which declared the Indian Ocean a ‘Zone of Peace’ (ZoP) and called on his host and the originator of this idea, Sri Lanka, to recall and renew the declaration. He also made an earnest appeal for “no escalation and expansion of military presence in the ocean” and urged the great powers to demilitarise the Indian Ocean. There are at least five reasons that prompted Doval to raise the ZoP element in his remarks:

First, the presence of Chinese submarines in the Indian Ocean has undeniably rattled India and New Delhi is unable to impress upon its neighbours that such naval presence undermines peace and stability of the Indian Ocean. Furthermore, New Delhi believes that Pakistan would, sooner than later, provide access and basing facilities to the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) for operations in the Indian Ocean. Pakistan and China recently concluded a MoU to develop a 3000 kilometers China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and expand the existing facilities at Gwadar.  The first phase of the CPEC covering 2014-2017 involves oil storage facilities and a refinery at Gwadar Port. This will facilitate China in transporting energy resources to the ‘landlocked’ Xinjiang. At another level, Gwadar also sits astride Xi Jinping’s 21st century Maritime Silk Road under which China has indicated its willingness to develop maritime infrastructure in friendly countries in South Asia, much to New Delhi’s discomfort.

Second, the UK has announced that the Royal Navy’s aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines, destroyers and other logistic support vessels will be forward deployed in the Indian Ocean and operate from the Mina Salman Port in Bahrain. According to UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, the deployment is an “expansion of the Royal Navy's footprint” and would “reinforce stability” in the Gulf. Bahrain will invest $ 23 million for the base and the Royal Navy will meet the operating costs. Significantly, Britain is making a comeback to the Indian Ocean.

France has rejected the notion that it is an extra regional power in the Indian Ocean. It has four bases / facilities at La Réunion, Mayotte, Djibouti and the UAE and these are referred to as the ‘quadrilatère français’ or the ‘French quadrilateral’ to look after its interests in the Indian Ocean.

As far as the US is concerned, it is the predominant military power in the Indian Ocean. It is a common sight to see US naval vessels and its nuclear submarines sail in and out of the Indian Ocean. It has a number of treaties, partnerships, alliance agreements with regional countries with whom it enjoys access and basing arrangements. Some regional countries consider the US naval presence a factor of stability and for them its presence precludes coercion by others.

Third, a number of navies were forward deployed in the Indian Ocean in support of US-led Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Enduring Freedom, Global War on Terror, and to counter piracy off the coast of Somalia. Some of these operations have been completed and foreign warships must return to their respective homeports. For instance, the Chinese naval task force (CTF 525) comprising two to three vessels that has operated in the Indian Ocean since 2008 can be withdrawn from the Indian Ocean since piracy off Somalia has reduced significantly. Similarly, the Japanese, Korean and EU navies could return to their bases.

Fourth, the Indian Ocean is buzzing with naval activity, and the presence of foreign navies is unnerving a number of Indian Ocean littorals. The Indian Ocean states have become independent, emerged as sovereign states, and zealously guard their sovereignty and wish to exercise ‘strategic autonomy’ to pursue their national interests.

Fifth, Indian Ocean littorals have developed a number of regional institutions and mechanisms to ensure safety and security of sea-lanes. The IORA, IONS, Milan, Galle Dialogue etc. and bilateral and multilateral naval exercises can uphold maritime order in the Indian Ocean.

However, the big question is: would the international community bite into Doval’s call for recalling the idea of Indian Ocean as a ‘Zone of Peace’. It is true that India is a major Indian Ocean naval power and has requisite capabilities and strengths to ensure order at sea. Furthermore, the Indian political leadership sees itself as a “net security provider” in the region. However, it will be fair to argue that extra regional naval presence in the Indian Ocean is both an opportunity and a challenge. Some see it positively as an assurance against regional challengers and to respond to threats emanating from non-state actors; while for others it is construed as challenge to spheres of influence and supremacy.