The place of Mauritius in the world and her trajectory over this coming decade will be one that is intimately attached to India and China – a tale of two giants and an island
By Kannen Ramsamy
A few weeks ago, I travelled on the new Metro Express service. While enjoying the beautiful window views and a speedy journey towards Rose Hill, I couldn’t help but consider how the new light rail, which is perhaps the most high-profile public infrastructure project in Mauritian history, stands as an indication of the continuing influence of India on Mauritius. With its construction being led by the Indian multinational conglomerate Larsen & Toubro and its funding bolstered with a grant of around Rs 9.8 billion from the Government of India, the Metro Express is a development that has quite clearly been moulded by the hands of the Asian giant.
“The Mauritius-China Free Trade Agreement, being the first of its kind between China and an African nation, is a hallmark of the deepening partnership between both countries. It also points to success in the journey that Mauritius is taking to establish itself as a gateway for future Chinese investment into the African continent…”
It marks the endurance of a strong economic connection that stretches back to the 18th century, when the first wave of Indian migrants landed on Mauritian shores. Since those distant times, Mauritius has turned itself into a financial sweet spot for India, providing offshore services that have resulted in the small island becoming one of the largest investors into India. Between the years 2000 and 2017, Mauritius accounted for the largest share of all FDI received by India at 34%, most of which consisted of rerouted capital.
Meanwhile India has been critical in a range of Mauritian sectors – becoming a key trading partner, advancing technical expertise in key emerging fields such as IT and telecommunications, as well as helping construct major cultural sites such as the Mahatma Gandhi Institute.
But India is not the only Asian giant making an imprint on modern-day Mauritius. So too is China. Towards the end of last year a highly comprehensive Free Trade Agreement was signed between the two countries, laying out plans to heavily cut tariffs on goods, open up more than 100 sub-sectors for service trade and foster deeper technical co-operation. The agreement, being the first of its kind between China and an African nation, is a hallmark of the deepening partnership between both countries. It also points to success in the journey that Mauritius is taking to establish itself as a gateway for future Chinese investment into the African continent.
Off the back of this agreement also comes the headwind being made in the Jin Fei Smart City project in Riche Terre, the Chinese-backed Rs 2.6 billion development that comes as part of the belt and road Initiative, aiming to spur financial and touristic innovation. Again these moves emerge as signs of a healthy modern endurance in the relationship between the two nations, rather than novel terrain. China too holds a long history of migration with Mauritius and has always played an important role in Mauritius’ socio-economic growth. The personal networks of Sino-Mauritians were, for instance, crucial in the success of the export-processing zones of the 1980s and many influential Mauritian figures such as Moilin Jean Ah-Chuen and Joseph Tsang Mang Kin are of Chinese origin.
For the most part, Mauritius will see itself forging a path of prosperity in tandem with both these giants and creating circumstances where everyone can win. Yet it would be naive to think this path will not at times be jagged and dangerous. As China and India continue to grow and assert global dominance, the tense but inevitable dance of securitisation between the pair will seep its way into the Indian Ocean and subsequently into relations with Mauritius.
Take Diego Garcia, for instance. The military base has allowed the US to keep watch from and over the Indian Ocean for decades, and will thus be a point of interest and possible future rivalry between China and India, depending on how things play out in the current contest over ownership. India has already made explicit moves to expand its sphere of influence via Mauritius, most notably through the recent signing of the maritime security cooperation pact. Some obstacles will be less predictable, as demonstrated by the onset of the coronavirus global health crisis. Deepening ties means greater flow of not only goods but also people coming into Mauritius from the world’s two largest population hubs. The Jin Fei Smart City project alone is expected to attract thousands of new Chinese visitors upon completion. How well prepared is Mauritius to deal with the environmental and perhaps even social impact of these shifts?
The place of Mauritius in the world and her trajectory over this coming decade will be one that is intimately attached to India and China – a tale of two giants and an island. Hosting a demographic with strong ancestral ties to both countries as well as a cultural landscape so heavily influenced by them, Mauritius has in some ways always been part of this tale. But the powerhouse status of India and China is relatively recent and remains extremely dynamic, so the story of the future can be expected to take on a similarly new and dynamic fabric.
In the spirit of independence it would be wise that Mauritius remain cautious of getting lost in the large shadows cast by these two Asian giants. I’ve previously written on the importance of balancing external and internal integration, ensuring that integration into the global economy does not come at the expense of internal domestic economic and political strength. This is particularly true for how Mauritius partners with India and China in the future and works to evade debt-traps, overreliance and militaristic geopolitical choices that would leave the island stuck between a rock and a hard place, so to speak.
With these precautions in mind, it remains nonetheless an exciting time for Mauritius in the world. Tactful foreign policy and diplomacy, geared towards inclusive and collaborative prosperity, can see the island make the most of the huge potential that China and India will bring over the next decade.
* Published in print edition on 12 Mach 2020