BAY OF BENGAL (July 17, 2017) Ships from the Indian Navy, Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) and the U.S. Navy sail in formation, July 17, 2017, in the Bay of Bengal as part of Exercise Malabar 2017. Malabar 2017 is the latest in a continuing series of exercises between the Indian Navy, JMSDF and U.S. Navy that has grown in scope and complexity over the years to address the variety of shared threats to maritime security in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Cole Schroeder)

In his meeting with the visiting Indian Foreign Secretary, Harsh Vardhan Shringla, here on October 5, the Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa sought a return to the kind of bilateral relations that existed in the 1960s and 70s and sought India’s support for his wish to turn the Indian Ocean into a “Zone of Peace.”

Indeed, in the 1960s and 1970s, the leaderships of the two countries saw eye to eye on many matters, both domestic and international, and a number of pacts were signed. Non-Alignment and world peace were living philosophies.

President Gotabaya’s plea for a Zone of Peace stemmed from a growing anxiety among Sri Lankans about their island-home becoming a theater of a conflict between China on the one hand, and a US-led coalition including India, on the other.

The formation of QUAD (an economic cum security alliance between the US, Japan, India and Australia), that is aimed at countering and containing China in the Indo-Pacific region, has aggravated fears of an armed conflict in the Indian Ocean. With the emergence of QUAD, the Indian Ocean has been linked with the Pacific Ocean to form a single security zone. Therefore, a Pacific war could become an Indian Ocean war. The formation of AUKUS involving the US, Australia and the UK, and the US decision to supply Australia with nuclear submarines have further increased the prospect of conflict with China in the entire Indo-Pacific region.

To allay fears in India that his Zone of Peace concept might weaken India’s preparedness to meet emerging threats to it from an increasingly assertive China, the Lankan President assured Shringla that India need not fear that Sri Lanka’s relations with China would be detrimental to India’s security. He assured that Sri Lanka would do nothing to jeopardize India’s security.

Earlier, India too had wanted the Indian Ocean to be a Zone of Peace,  when it felt threatened by the docking of a Chinese submarine at the Colombo harbor. In December 2014, the visiting Indian National Security Advisor Ajit Doval told the ‘Galle Dialogue’, that countries in the region must go back to the 1971 UN General Assembly (UNGA) resolution, mooted by Sri Lanka, urging the declaration of the Indian Ocean as a Zone of Peace.

The Concept

It was in September 1970 that the then Sri Lankan Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike mooted the idea in her speech at the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) Summit in Lusaka. It was reflected in the final declaration of the Lusaka summit. The immediate provocation was the establishment of a major US naval base in Diego Garcia. Later, in December 1971, the Indian Ocean Region saw US military intervention when the nuclear-powered carrier USS Enterprise sailed into the Bay of Bengal to thwart India’s military operation to create Bangladesh.

When Sirimavo raised the issue at the UNGA on 12 October 1971, she made the following proposals: 1) Warships and ships carrying war material would have the right of transit but they will not to be allowed to stop except for emergency reasons. 2) There should be a ban on naval manoeuvres, intelligence operations and naval tests. 3) All foreign military bases should be excluded from the littoral and hinterland States.

But the world’s powers felt that these proposals were “simplistic, idealistic and naïve”. Their arguments were:  1) Implementation of such proposals would violate international law on the freedom of navigation on the high seas for all ships guaranteed by the 1958 Law of the Sea. 2) A group of States in any given region cannot establish a separate legal regime for the high seas. 3) The Indian Ocean is of concern not only to the littoral States but also to the entire international community. 4)  Verification of intent of any warship would be difficult.

However, supporters of the resolution like Sri Lanka’s Ambassador Shirley Amarasinghe argued that the freedom of the high seas does not adequately serve the fundamental interests of all nations alike. It is clearly weighted in favor of the dominant user nations. US, UK and France strongly opposed the proposal. Some felt that the strategic space in the Indian Ocean will be monopolized by India.

Be that as it may, by Resolution 2832 (1971), the UNGA declared the Indian Ocean a “Zone of Peace”. It called upon the great powers to enter into immediate consultations with the littoral States of the Indian Ocean, to halt further escalation and expansion of their military presence in the region. The declaration upheld the need to preserve the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of the States of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and sought to resolve political, economic and social issues affecting the region under conditions of peace and security.

On 15 December 1972, UN Resolution 2992 (XXVII) was adopted. By this an Ad Hoc Committee of fifteen members was set up to study the implications of the Indian Ocean peace zone proposal. But, the Ad Hoc Committee came up with nothing.  However, when the issue was brought before the UNGA in 1976 for a vote, the tally was 106 for, none against, and 26 abstaining. The US and the USSR abstained.

The US delegate said: “‘This resolution may affect the fundamental security interests not only of States compelled to maintain significant military preparedness but also of states that rely on the stability created by a political and military balance.” He also argued that the resolution was likely to pre-empt efforts to create a new regime of the Law of the Sea in as much as it proposed a special set of rules for a particular area, thus setting a dangerous precedent.

The Soviet delegate concurred saying: “We reject the view that a group of States in a certain region can establish a legal regime for the high Seas in that region.”

However, by 1977, conditions had changed. In the UNGA vote on the issue, the Soviet Union was among 123 States that voted in favor of the resolution. The US voted against. The Soviets changed because of America’s naval expansion plans in Diego Garcia and the stationing of submarines such as Polaris and Poseidon.

The rise of China as a maritime power in the second decade of this century, changed the balance of power in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) to the detriment of the Western powers and their allies. The tilt raised the hackles in Washington, New Delhi and Tokyo. India is already beefing up its naval presence in the IOR through engagements with the countries of the region especially the Maldives and Sri Lanka. The US has formed the QUAD with Australia, India and Japan, and the AUKUS with Australia and UK.

Pakistan is also flexing its naval muscles and its target is India.  Since 2007, the Pakistan Navy had been conducting the “Aman” Naval Exercises. In 2021, the Russian navy participated in it, raising its profile.

Although nations in the IOR recognize the need for international naval cooperation to prevent human trafficking, drug smuggling and terrorist movements, and are enthusiastic supporters of joint naval exercises to smash such criminal elements, they are also apprehensive about being dragged into armed conflicts between big powers jockeying for hegemony in the region. Hence the periodical call by Sri Lanka for the  designation of the Indian Ocean as a Zone of Peace, however dim the prospect of its being effective. If Sirimavo Bandaranaike called for it in 1970-71 and campaigned for it vigorously, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa called for it twice, first in October 2020, and again in October 2021.



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