An Indian Ocean Region shared by India and China


by Rajeewa Jayaweera

Evidence that Cold War rivalries were extending to the Indian Ocean threatening the peace and security of its littoral states emerged when the USA secretly acquired the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) of Diego Garcia as a military base moving its indigenous inhabitants to Mauritius. During the third conference of the Heads of State / Government of Non-Aligned countries held in Lusaka from 8 to 10 September 1970, Sri Lanka’s newly elected Prime Minister Mrs Sirima Bandaranaike proposed a new Foreign Policy initiative "the Indian Ocean as a Zone of Peace" (IOZOP) as a response. It was based on declaring the Indian Ocean a Zone of Peace though the more recognized form was for an Indian Ocean free of nuclear weapons. Her proposal was reflected in the summit’s final declaration.

"Declaration of the Indian Ocean as a Zone of Peace" was then included in the agenda of the 26th General Assembly in 1971. The resolution was adopted with 61 votes for, zero against and 55 abstentions. China voted in favour whereas USA, USSR, UK and France all abstained. The adopted Resolution 2832 (XXVI) called for the Indian Ocean with air space above and ocean floor within limits to be defined, to be designated as a zone of peace. It further called all nations to consider and respect the Indian Ocean as a Zone of Peace and to refrain from Power rivalries and competition enabling the exclusion of military bases and free of nuclear weapons. India’s attitude in view of its Friendship Treaty with USSR signed in 1971was lukewarm. An Ad Hoc Committee on the Indian Ocean was established during the 1972 General Assembly and tasked with the study of practical measures to achieve the objectives of the Declaration.

India exploded a nuclear device in 1974. Sri Lanka’s one time High Commissioner to India and subsequently Permanent Representative to the UN, Shirley Amarasinghe, commented "Sri Lanka did not want super powers to be replaced by a hegemonic littoral power". It prompted Pakistan to follow suit and commence the nuclear rivalry the Indian sub-continent. Though Sri Lanka followed a non-aligned foreign policy till 1977, it changed course after JR Jayewardene took over the reins of power. He followed a pro-western foreign policy and showed no interest in IOZOP. The disintegration of the USSR in 1991 made USA the unchallenged single superpower in the world. China meanwhile was well on its way towards economic prosperity. India after losing its ally and guarantor of security in 1991 opened its economy. The opening of their economies by the two most populous nations in the world with a combined market of nearly 3 billion consumers made western powers change their attitudes, policies and outlook towards both China and India.

Today, the countries vying for supremacy in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) are no longer America and Russia but China and India. China being an economic power house, has been investing in countries in both South Asia and Africa for some time. In the process, China has developed close bilateral relations with countries around India i.e. Maldives, Sri Lanka, Myanmar Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan. China, in October 2013 announced its Maritime Silk Road (MSR) or officially, the 21st Century Maritime Silk Route Economic Belt, a Chinese strategic initiative to increase investments and foster collaboration across the historic Silk Road. US critics have called this a ‘string of pearls‘ strategy. In November 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced plans to create a Beijing based USD 40 billion development fund which would help finance infrastructure projects in the countries within MSR. Countries in the IOR would be the beneficiaries of these Chinese initiatives. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank would obviously dilute the monopoly of the American and western controlled World Bank and IMF. China has accelerated its drive to draw Africa into the MSR by the speedy construction of a modern standard-gauge rail link between Nairobi and Mombasa.

India has become acutely aware of China’s successful efforts in the recent past in fostering close bilateral and economic relations with nations located around India as well as its own failures in the region. India’s National Security Advisor Ajit Doval in his keynote address at the ‘Galle Dialogue’ in December 2014 stated "except for Bhutan, New Delhi’s ties with other countries in the region are beset with problems" referring to its neighbours - Pakistan, Nepal, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Maldives. Referring to the 1971 UNGA IOZOP resolution he "called upon the great powers not to allow escalation and expansion of military presence in the Indian Ocean." It is believed that Doval was referring to the growing ties between Sri Lanka and China in general and a visit to the Colombo Port by a Chinese submarine in particular. Prime Minister Modi (PMM) has begun talking of "Ocean Economies" with the obvious intent of India playing a lead role. His recent three nation tour of Mauritius, Seychelles and Sri Lanka (Maldives being dropped consequent to recent developments in the country), all countries in which China has been active in developing bilateral relations and infrastructure development investments is an indication of the new direction taken by the Modi administration for India in the IOR.

IOR’s importance today has increased tenfold from the days of the cold war. The players in the arena too have changed with the then major contenders i.e. USA and USSR being replaced by China and the new entrant India. Judging from the recent developments in Indo – US relations, it would appear that USA has virtually outsourced its interests in the IOR to India for the ‘containment’ of China. It is noteworthy that despite a Foreign Service comprising of officers from a multitude of ethnic origins, the Asst. Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs in the State Department Nisha Desai Biswal, current US Ambassador to India Richard Rahul Verma and US Ambassador Designate to Sri Lanka and Maldives Atul Keyshap are all US citizens of Indian origin. The IOR is important to USA, UK, EU countries, Japan and Australia besides China and India, for both economic and security reasons. Maritime Security and safety of sea lanes of communications are of primary concern to all these countries. It can be argued that China who depends on sea lanes of communications for over 75% of its oil needs, for its large volume of exports to over half the world and their investments in the region does have a legitimate interest in the IOR. Their situation is somewhat similar to that of Japan’s in the 10 – 15 years prior to WW II. The world has witnessed first-hand in many instances, the implications in the reduction in 1991 from two to one ‘super power’. The two super power concept more often than not was an effective deterrent. The implications of having only India or China all powerful in the IOR would be no different.

Since the defeat of former President Rajapaksa whose administration followed a distinct ‘look East’ policy by incumbent President Maithripala Sirisena in January 2015, Sri Lanka has endeavored to ‘reset’ Indo-Sri Lanka relations by replacing the previous policy with a ‘look India’ policy. In dealing with India, Sri Lanka has two unalterable disadvantages. One is its strategic placement vis a vis its geographical location which is a geo-political fact of life. It has to be accepted by any government in Colombo and its dealings with any foreign power must take India’s strategic and defense concerns into account.The second is the ethnic link of 15.4% of its population to the inhabitants of Tamil Nadu which too is a fact of life. Therefore the welfare of the ethnic Tamil community in Sri Lanka does have an impact on India especially at election times and when a fragile coalition government is in place. That said, India needs to manage its domestic political issues without holding Sri Lanka hostage for solutions. While Sri Lanka needs to skillfully manage its relations with India and not involve itself in any policies or acts having profound consequences for Indian security, it must retain its right to manage its internal affairs not related to India’s security.

Sri Lanka must benefit from China’s quest for investment opportunities in addition to opportunities afforded by India, which in any case will not be in the same magnitude as from China. Let it not be a case of exchanging Chinese investments and influence with Indian investments and influence. In this context, the better suited option for Sri Lanka, other SAARC countries excluding India, Myanmar and the littoral states would be to remain non-aligned while being equally close to China and India. Both China and India could serve their own interests as well as those of nations located in the MSR region by assuming the role of joint guarantors of security in the IOR. With this in mind, President Xi Jinping’s suggestion to President Sirisena for trilateral talks between China, India and Sri Lanka begs serious consideration.

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