Militarization Around the Indian Ocean

Part I: Superpower influence

By Subir Guin

THE INDIAN OCEAN, which separates the Eastern seaboard of Africa from Southeast Asia and Australia, is one of the planet's busiest seaways, for reasons that a single glance at an atlas will disclose. What may be less obvious is why the military activity in this region has so vastly expanded in recent years. The Indian Ocean, no "zone of peace," is in fact bristling with an awesome range of weapons. This two-part article will explore the background of this development.

The militarization stems from the rivalries, not only between the superpowers, but also between local countries with historic enmities, and even between communal groups within these nations. What follows here will be a summary of the strife in the nations that surround the Indian Ocean. We will shift our attention around its shores in approximately a clockwise direction. This segment will show how the ambitions of the superpowers have affected relations among the states in the Horn of Africa, the Middle East, India, and Pakistan. The next part will take a further look at India's military expansion, its role in Sri Lanka, and briefly touch on developments in Malaysia, Australia, and Southern Africa.

WHEN BRITAIN decided in the mid-sixties to vacate her Indian Ocean territories, the U.S. Navy leased Diego Garcia, a small island in the centre of the ocean, whose inhabitants were evicted to neighboring islands. Though it began as a modest communications facility in 1973, Diego Garcia is now a principal U.S. military base and satellite surveillance centre -- a critical link in the global network which enables the U.S. to pry into the farthest corners of this planet.

Because of misgivings about Soviet intentions in the region, the Pentagon began to upgrade Diego Garcia less than a year after acquiring it. What triggered these apprehensions was the rapid growth of the Soviet Navy into a blue water force, that was seen as a challenge to American dominance of the high seas.

Soviet Activity in the Horn of Africa

UNTIL THE SIXTIES, SOVIET ships were hardly noticeable around the Horn of Africa. Their trawlers had fishing rights in the area while they helped modernize Somalia's fishing industry. The People's Democratic Republic of Yemen, on the southeast shore of the Arabian peninsula, have always allowed Russian warships to replenish bunkers and provisions. Such activities provided pretexts for the militarization of Diego Gardia. Those who cautioned against the buildup, lest it spurred a regional arms race, found their arguments swept aside when the Shah of Iran was deposed. Soon afterward, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, a move that was viewed as a step toward their establishment of a warm water port on the Indian Ocean.

The Soviets and Americans vied for influence in Ethiopia and Somalia, who went to war in 1978. Moscow, having earlier supported Somalia, shifted its allegiance to Ethiopia. In response, Somalia turned to the West for aid and since that time has been providing the U.S. with access to the port of Berbera and other facilities in the Horn of Africa. In return, the U.S. has been aiding Somalia -- about $42 million for this year. Some observers believe that this has encouraged President Barre to ignore complaints about human rights violations, depicting them as the inevitable side-effects of counter-insurgency operations.

The Carter/ Reagan Gulf Policy

IN 1980 PRESIDENT Carter gave notice that any attempt by outside forces to gain control of the Persian Gulf would be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the U.S.: a policy that the Reagan administration was glad to sustain.

During the Iran/Iraq war, the U.S. despatched thirty ships and 20,000 men -- their most massive concentration of naval firepower abroad since Vietnam -- ostensibly to keep the Straits of Hormuz open for tanker traffic, but actually for obscure reasons that somehow Iran managed to expose and exploit. A U.N. sponsored cease fire was negotiated in August, but Diego Garcia will likely retain its status as a U.S. military outpost.

Arms Sales to Mid-Eastern Countries

DESPITE ISRAEL'S OBJECTIONS, Washington has recently begun to sell some of her most sophisticated weapons, including surveillance equipment, to friendly Mid-East states that meet the necessary political and/or economic criteria. Saudi Arabia, for instance, won approval to purchase five Boeing E-3 AWACS. Kuwait's request to purchase F-18 Hornets and Maverick missiles, initially rejected by the Senate, has since been cleared under a "compromise plan." Some of these nations are turning to China as an alternative source of (Silkworm) guided missiles, to the chagrin of Western arms merchants.

Egypt is counting on Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and others to buy their equipment direct from the Arab Organization for Industrialization (AOI), a conglomerate based near Cairo, which assembles ordinance of all kinds -- from aircraft and vehicles to power plants and ammunition. It expects approval to build the M-1 main battle tank. This should boost AOI's prospects, which have languished since 1979, when Egypt was isolated by her Arab neighbors for signing the Camp David peace accord with Israel.

Across the Gulf, Iraq acquired Mirage F-1 fighters and Tu-22 supersonic bombers from France and the Soviet Union before the cease-fire was called. Iraqi use of chemical weapons during the war has generated widespread criticism. China was to supply Iran with additional missiles and tanks, but now the war-weary country may cut back its shopping list for arms and spare parts for equipment originally purchased by the Shah.

India and Pakistan

Moving eastward across the Arabian Sea, we come to the subcontinent, which was partitioned in 1947. Relations between India and Pakistan havealways been strained by border disputes, some including China as well.

Militarily, the Indians are far better equipped today than twenty years ago. They have gained experience in high-altitude mountain warfare, and they manufacture much of their own equipment, including helicopters and snowmobiles.

The separation of East Pakistan (Bangladesh) in 1971, followed the massacre of Bengali civilians at the hands of the Pakistan Army, who were outmanoeuvred when Indian troops moved in. The U.S. despatched a warship to the Bay of Bengal, ostensibly to rescue Americans trapped in the country. No foreigners were ever in danger. The real purpose was to warn India against interfering, despite the fact that thousands of refugees were fleeing across the border into India. China stood by her ally Pakistan, threatening to create diversionary problems in the North. The Soviet Union, however, announced that if the confrontation widened, she would support India. This soon led to the Indo-Soviet Treaty of Friendship.

The Afghan and Sikh Factors

As Soviet soldiers marched into Afghanistan in 1979, separatist elements in the Sikh community were beginning to intensify their acts of terrorism, especially in the Amritsar/Gurdaspur area near the Pakistan border. Though the Afghan War has no connection with the separatist cause in Punjab, the two conflicts have indirectly served Pakistani interests; the repercussions of both have been felt far beyond Asian boundaries.

India avoided public criticism of Moscow, and understood Russian fears of Shiite fanaticism, so close to the borders of predominantly Muslim Soviet states. The frequency of communal clashes amongst rival religious groups in India has reinforced New Delhi's own commitment to secularism. As such, her hope for the eventual emergence of a progressive, secular, and independent Afghanistan, is but natural. For the interim, India supports Dr. Najibullah.

Pakistan, on the other hand, has willingly served as a covert U.S. armsconduit to the Afghan mujahedin. Some of the arms for Afghan rebels ($5 million worth during half of 1988 alone) found their way into black markets in Pakistan, which Sikh separatists exploited for their own purposes.

While the late President Zia denied any part in providing arms or sanctuary to these separatists, Pakistan could benefit if the Sikhs attained their goal -- the creation of an independent Khalistan. Visiting Punjab last year, veteran journalist Dr. Connor Cruise O'Brien was shown a map of Khalistan by a spiritual leader of the separatist movement. It was a map of all the Indian provinces, with one major difference: The State of Jammu and Kashmir appeared under Pakistan. O'Brien's comment: "Within the lunacy of the Khalistan project, there is a gleam of rational politics."

Nuclear Weapons Capability

The capability of both India and Pakistan to make nuclear weapons is another factor that spawns mutual mistrust. India reiterates her commitment to exploit nuclear energy only for non-military applications. Elsewhere we will examine why this assurance can hardly be taken at face value. In 1985 both countries pledged not to strike at each other's nuclear installations, but this is not enough. The strong evidence that Pakistan has approached military nuclear capability has not prompted the Reagan administration to review its $4 billion aid package, which includes $1 billion for arms and equipment. Yet this is the stage when the Soviets are withdrawing from Afghanistan and when East/West relations are improving.

Pakistan's pro-West tilt could be explained in part by its insecurity, generated by India's apparent bid for regional hegemony. But too close a relationship with the U.S. is not in Pakistan's interest. This is illustrated by a report in Jane's Defence Weekly, of a visit to Pakistan by General George Crist, Commander of the U.S. Central Command. It was the fourth top level meeting between the CENTCOM Chief and Pakistani leaders in less than two years. The General dined with President Zia the night before he dismissed Parliament and fired Prime Minister Junejo. Were the Americans privy to this secret plan?

The U.S. and Pakistan governments share a common interest in the Afghan mujahedin's ability to wrest power from Najibullah's loyalists as the Soviets depart. On matters concerning Iran/Iraq, however, there are differences. Pakistan does not share America's antagonism toward Iran, her neighbor to the west. In deference to Iran, Islamabad kept American warships from docking at Karachi. This evoked criticism from Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. Crist reportedly insisted, however, on Pakistan's quiet cooperation on America's Gulf policy and a resumption of port calls by U.S. warships. The November elections in Pakistan could result in significant changes, following the death of President Zia last August.

Calcutta-born Subir Guin is an Associate Editor of PEACE.

Peace Magazine Oct-Nov 1988

Peace Magazine Oct-Nov 1988, page 20. Some rights reserved.

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