"If the United States and the Soviet Union want to fight, they can fight in their own house." This caustic comment made to us by a senior member of the Mozambican Foreign Ministry reflects the government's strong opposition to great-power militarization of the Indian Ocean.
That FRELIMO, Mozambique's ruling party, holds this position, is not surprising, given its long history of jealously guarding its independence from foreign domination. It is a history that is especially important for Americans to understand in this era of renewed superpower competition in the Indian Ocean.
Mozambique, with nearly 2,000 miles of Indian Ocean coastline, has assumed a strategic position in this volatile part of the world. from its three major ports -- Maputo (Formerly Lourenco Marques), Beira, and Nacala -- a great power could interdict, or at least disrupt, much Indian Ocean commerce and alter the balance of power in southern Africa.
In addition, a number of offshore islands, especially the Bazarutos, are ideally suited for airbases and radar tracking stations.
Western military experts have long recognized the country's strategic importance. In fact, this was one of the reasons given for supporting continued Portuguese colonial rule in Mozambique.
Since the nation achieved independence in 1975, Mozambican opposition to the militarization of the Indian Ocean has been one of the cornerstones of its nonaligned policy. Indeed, the Constitution specifically calls for the transformation of the Indian Ocean into a nuclear-free zone.
President Machel was outspoken in support of demilitarization at the 1976 Conference of Nonaligned Nations held in Sri Lanka. "The People's Republic of Mozambique opposes the establishment of foreign bases in the Indian Ocean, the presence of foreign warships, and the circulation and storage of nuclear weapons within the region," he said.
He struck a similar note last yeat in Havana when he urged all nonaligned nations to reaffirm their commitment to "transform the Indian Ocean into a de-nuclearized peace zone."
Western critics view these pronouncements with a degree of skepticism. Rumors, originating in South Africa, that Mozambique has given the Soviet Union secret naval and air bases are used to reinforce their position. They point to Mazambique's treaty of friendship with the Soviet Union, the presence of Russian , Cuban, and East German military advisers, and FRELIMO's vocal commitment to socialism.
(Moscow Nov. 18, President Machel and Soviet President Brezhnev signed a cooperation agreement between FRELIMO and the Soviet Communist Party. They also signed a protocol on scientific and cultural cooperations.)
To combat these rumors, President Machel invited Western ambassadors accredited in the capital of Maputo to fly over the BArazuto islands, long considered the most likely location for a foreign military base. Western embassy officials with whom we spoke came away convinced there was no military presence there.
Several senior members of the Western diplomatic corps have even suggested that Mozambique's refusal to accede to Soviet demands for military bases helps to explain why Soviet military assistance to Mozambique has been extremely modest in comparison to the aid given ethiopia and South Yemen.
With regard to the friendship treaty with the Soviet Union, Mozambican officials in Maputo emphasize that it obliges Moscow to recognize their country's nonaligned status. They note that during their struggle for independence from Portugal, their requests for assistance from the West were denied by all but the Scandinavian countries. The United States and Its NATO allies continued their active support for Portugal, while the Soviet Union aided FRELIMO.
Despite this treaty, Mozambique's foreign policy does not mirror that of the Soviet Union. Witness its refusal to become embroiled in the Sino-Soviet split, its significant mediating role in the British-orchestrated London agreement on Rhodesia's independence, its assistance to Zimbabwe African National Union guerrillas despite the group's history of tension with the Soviet Union, and its sympathy for the Eritrean rebels fighting against Moscow's Ethiopian ally. As William Dupree, former United States Ambassador to Mozambique, acknowledged, "Frelimo is Marxist, but they keep their distace from Moscow. They are very independent, pro- third world."
Reports of a large-scale foreign military presence are equally overstated. Even in 1979 when Rhodesian attacks were most intense amd Mozambique was extremely vulnerable, Mr. Machel's government refused to allow foreign troops on its soil. At present, there are no more than several hundred Soviet, Cuban, and East German military instructors, all subordinate to Mozambique's high command.
Finally, Mozambique's commitment to socialism, like that of indepent-minded Yugoslavia, stems from a deep conviction that it is the most effective way to destroy poverty and underdevelopment.
It is important not to underestimate Mozambique's desire to be independent of all power blocks.
As one of FRELIMO's founders who is a leading member of the Central Committee tol us, "We did not fight for 15 years to free ourselves to become the pawn of yet another foreign power." Mozambique's Indian Ocean policy reflects this deep commitment.