The Hind Mahasagar An Ocean Of Peace
Prime Minister Modi’s whirlwind tour to the Indian Ocean nations of Sri Lanka, Seychelles and Mauritius is being seen in different perspectives globally. The tour was made against the backdrop of major power shifts in the region. ‘Indian Ocean diplomacy’ is not a frequently used term in the conduct of Indian foreign policy—this, despite the region being part of India’s extended neighborhood. India needs to reaffirm its supremacy for strategic and commercial reasons. Ninety percent of India’s trade and oil imports move by sea, as the Indian economy becomes more globally integrated, the more it will depend on the ocean. The Indian Ocean is the only ocean in the world which is named after a country, i.e. India. We have a 7500 km-long coastline that straddles almost the entire length of Indian Ocean.
The net result of Modi’s trip is to affirm that India is the historical lodestone of the Indian Ocean, and has the ability to safeguard the region. A message was sent to China and the USA that India will not let anyone nation undermine its geographical advantages in the region. Modi was loud and clear on the fact that India had the military might and scientific prowess to support these “chhote chhote taapu” [small islands]. He has reaffirmed that India will never mount any territorial claims over its Indian Ocean partners; rather it will do everything to strengthen the defence sectors of these countries. A clear message was given to the world that from here on India will take on its responsibilities in the Indian Ocean as the major maritime power. The Indian Ocean has become a hotbed for the major world powers. There is a growing interest in the region from China, US, UK, Russia, France and Japan. Over three-fourth of the world’s shipping traffic passes through the Indian Ocean. The region has 30 nations and nearly 40 per cent of the world’s population. It touches Australia, South-East Asia, South Asia, West Asia and the eastern seaboard of Africa. India stands bang right in the middle. It is an accepted fact that India neglected the importance of this strategic geo-political region for years, which gave Chime the opportunity to fill the vacuum. Modi’s trip has laid the solid foundation of the groundwork for a major overhaul of India’s relations with its Oceanic neighbours. There were clear signals sent of India’s new foreign policy and strategic interests in the South Asian region and the extended neighborhood.
The setting-up of many infrastructure projects by the Chinese is a wakeup call for the Indians to limit maritime and military activity in the area. The Indian influence and credibility in the region is being eroded gradually. The Chinese have, during the last decade, been successful in winning friends and influencing people in the region. Beijing has strengthened its links with all the nations that border India—Pakistan, Nepal, Myanmar, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Maldives. In the present situation, when Colombo’s growing friendship with China and Pakistan is intended to diffuse India’s influence, India could not remain unconcerned about these developments. The roots of the Indian Ocean Peace Zone (IOPZ) can be traced back to the Conference of the Heads of States of Non-Aligned Countries held in Cairo in 1964. The then Sri Lankan Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike had spoken out against the increasing superpower rivalry in the Indian Ocean region. The Cairo conference had adopted two major resolutions: the establishment of nuclear weapons free zones in the oceanic regions of the world and opposition to the two Cold War rivals of the day, USA and the USSR , for establishing and maintaining bases in the Indian Ocean region.
The original proposal for declaring the Indian Ocean Zone of Peace (IOZOP) was adopted in the U.N. General Assembly in 1971. The IOZOP was not so much about peace and tranquility in the Indian Ocean region; it was more about curtailing the presence of the two superpowers. All the permanent members of the Security Council, except China had opposed the suggestion of zero bases in the region. Forty-three years after this, this resolution was passed by the General Assembly; the security architecture of the Indian Ocean region has undergone a huge transformation. The USSR had disintegrated and the presentday Russia does not have the resources to compete with the US and China.
The former US Senator and strongman Daniel Patrick Moynihan had once questioned the Indian notions about the Indian Ocean. He had remarked that just because the Ocean had been named Indian, a mere nomenclature, it was an accident of geography. He had said it could just as well have been called the Madagascar Sea. Modi has set these doubts to rest. Historically, Indian mariners have been the dominant power in the Indian Ocean from the time of Chandragupta to Ashoka, 2400 years ago. The medieval Cholas sphere of influence covered the entire Bay of Bengal, which extended up to the present-day Malaysia and Indonesia. The ancient Kalingans had extended their kingdom till Bali and Sumatra.