Agalega and Geopolitics in the Indian Ocean

We have a role to play on this chessboard. However, as in all games of chess, we have to make smart moves in order to establish a credible foreign policy that is both realistic and pragmatic

By Krishna Bhardwaj

From time to time, a controversy gets sparked off locally whenever a local paper would refer to news reports appearing in the Indian media about negotiations/deal between India and Mauritius for Agalega to be ceded to India. Successive Prime Ministers have strongly denied that there was any deal of the sort. If one were to rise beyond petty considerations, there is much we can do by putting a premium on our geographical location and our existing privileged relations with the parties having a geostrategic interest in the Indian Ocean.

At one time, Mauritius used to be referred to as the “land of rainbows, waterfalls and shooting stars” as well as the “star and the key of the Indian Ocean”. To the kids who were being taught geography in such terms in those colonial days, the latter phrase conveyed a romantic view of the beauty of their island home. Little did they suspect that the real reference was to Mauritius’ location in the southern Indian Ocean as a strategic position in maritime trade in an era dominated by ocean transportation and travel. The Suez Canal had yet to become the alternative major passageway between the East and the West so that sea-going vessels went round the Cape of Good Hope, making Mauritius a key port of call during this long voyage of mostly sailing ships from Europe to its colonies. Once steamships and airplanes became more common modes of transportation, it was no longer necessary to pause in Mauritius over the long haul. Besides, Mauritius did not identify itself as an active entrepôt for international trade as did Singapore. We fell out of the mainstream of international transport, losing both the star and key positions.

Missed the boat – but all is not lost

Today, with a world closely networked through computing and the internet, we have missed the boat again as we did not develop ourselves into an important hub of international communications that cannot be missed. Instead of incentivising our own boys and girls to become smart software developer wizards of high international reputation, as it befits an essentially service-provider nation, we remained content to offer BPO services on the back of a communication infrastructure bent more towards maximizing short term profits than positioning the country outstandingly on the World Wide Web. The consequence is here to see: we have become a nation of mobile phone chatters having nothing to do with the production of the hardware or software that goes into such products of mass consumption. All is not lost yet. We have to reconfigure our priorities and present ourselves as a gateway for reconciliation of power pursuits in this part of the globe. Nature has put us in the near-middle of the Indian Ocean while our demographic composition and cosmopolitan culture can help to lift ourselves profitably beyond the power struggles of the different forces vying for pre-eminence in the world.

It may not be obvious on the surface but the Indian Ocean still holds a lot of interest in the post Cold War superpower struggle. The Americans and, ironically enough, the British through them, are present in the defence of their geopolitical interests in this part of the world. This is in the shape of their presence on the Mauritian archipelago of Diego Garcia. The attitude posted by the Anglo-American interests regarding the Chagos issue shows that they consider it as an important physical fallback position in the Indian Ocean which is now at the heart of global geopolitics.

Play our card, smartly

We do not have to take sides in the competition of the great powers. However, we can adopt a calculated attitude of understanding of the diverse historical positions in the interest of geopolitical stability. This is where we must play our card, smartly. Obviously, we have to go far enough to state our position that we will not be supportive, neutral or be earning the sympathy of the international community in this power struggle in exchange for sheer peanuts. To get to concrete results in this regard, our diplomacy will have to play an important role. Our Indian Ocean strategy will show whether we are really up to it.

The French struck a deal with us regarding their continued occupancy of part of our territory, notably the Tromelin Islands. They have agreed to a co-management of this part of our territory. It is a first step in the right direction, a step that will keep this delicate issue from coming under the glare of international floodlights. Civilised cultural and trade relations with France will help keep another potential NATO (for whatever it is worth in the post Cold War era) member by our side.

While we may not have capabilities to exploit the resources lying under Antarctica, the bigger countries may be nursing their own ambitions over there. India is one of them. There are several areas in which both Mauritius and India can cooperate to drive a mutually beneficial agenda for growth. The Indian Ocean is the most important link between the two countries in this regard. We need to ensure that this ocean becomes a field for generating more cooperation towards advancing the economic and strategic interests both nations.

It is being said that China which looks upon Africa as a potential economic partner has already done a lot of its homework to affirm this sort of relationship on the Continent. Other than having set down firm outposts on the African continent, China is even present in Mauritius through the Jin Fei project which is based on an area of land ceded by the government in the vicinity of Port Louis harbour. China is deemed to be the number two global economic power. It has had ties with us for a long period. As in the case of India, we import a good part of our needs from China. China has a major interest in the Indian Ocean because a lot of materials it employs for its industry are sourced from neighbouring Africa.

We have a role to play on this chessboard. However, as in all games of chess, you have to make smart moves in order to establish a credible foreign policy that is both realistic and pragmatic. Look at Singapore. It depends a lot for its economic well-being on its trade links with the West. It has for long been a gateway as well for finance and capital channelled to China. But it has signalled its position clearly enough in order not to allow itself to be checkmated by either of the two. The founding Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew had once stated that its sticking to free market rules is unquestionable but so equally is its attachment to Confucian Asian family values, rather than to atomised structures, to hold the fort together in moments of distress. This unabashed affirmation of its stance makes it unassailable from both the East and the West. Doing so is an art. We need to master it as well if we want to make the most of our strategic location in the Indian Ocean.

* Published in print edition on 15 December 2020

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