“China’s footprint in the region is indelible, whether one likes it or not”

Interview: Vijay Makhan

‘The British have not played fair with us on the Chagos issue… we have been led down the garden path by the British who have lived up to their reputation of being perfidious’

Vijay Makhan, former Deputy Secretary General – Organisation of African Unity (now AU), and Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Mauritius, is our guest this week to comment on various aspects of current affairs that are concerning for the country. Amongst others, are the visit of the Chinese President Xi Jin Ping as part of his Africa tour, the issue of the negative perception of our financial services by Africa following the publication of a high level report, the communication gap which the government does not seem to be paying too much attention to with deleterious effect on the country’s reputation, the happenings in the MMM, etc. Read on…

Mauritius Times: Chinese President Xi Jinping will be visiting Mauritius this Friday as part of a four-nation visit to Africa. What is the significance of this visit given Chinas strategic ambitions in this part of the world, and how important is the Chinese President’s stopover here to both Chinas and Mauritiusinterests?

Vijay Makhan: First, allow me to say that this momentous visit, albeit not a state visit per se, has not been given the prominence and visibility that it deserves, not only for local consumption but also for the outside world. News coverage of President Xi’s visit to Africa from abroad mentions his trip to Senegal, Rwanda and South Africa. There is no reference to his stop here which is rather a pity considering the importance of the region in China’s geopolitical strategy.

Be that as it may, the mere fact of what I have heard some qualify as a ‘rest visit’ here in the President’s schedule is laden with significance. It sends a very strong signal to the region and the world in general as to China’s interest, as indeed its ambition in the Indian Ocean. China’s footprint in the region is indelible, whether one likes it or not.

But for Mauritius itself, this semi-official visit provides us with the opportunity to reiterate our friendship and close ties with this emerging country which harbours the ambition and indeed has the capacity of becoming the number one economy of the world. China has been by our side in our development endeavours since we established formal diplomatic relations in 1972. We do have a multi-dimensional privileged relationship with it.

In that respect, one should remember that a fair percentage of our population has ancestral links with China which, until recently, was described as the sleeping giant. Well, the giant has come out of its slumber and is definitely a force to be reckoned with. It is but legitimate that we, as a nation, should be proud to welcome such a distinguished visitor within our shores.

President Xi’s visit is happening at a time when the USA and China are engaged in an escalating trade war. Analysts of major economies across the world, including our regions are figuring out what bearing this trade war will have on their respective economies. What does a country like Mauritius gain or lose from the US-China trade war?

Let us first agree that any trade war is not conducive to the well-being of the world economy. This trade war which, unfortunately, appears to be gaining in momentum is not only one between the US and China but is also one between the US and the EU, without forgetting that Mexico and Canada equally are involved.

The posturing of the Trump administration in the ongoing tariff war does not augur well for world economic growth. The effects will be felt worldwide. I note that President Trump has already pledged a 12 billion Dollar package for the US farmers who feel the pinch in this escalating war. As we speak, an EU delegation is in Washington to try and avert a full-scale trade war.

For a start, countries like Mauritius that do not have a significant quantity of entrants in the manufacture of Chinese products meant for onward export will not feel the effect initially, but the entire world trading system will change in configuration and outlook. Third countries that produce the same goods on which tariffs have been slapped in the current tit for tat war will be only too happy to increase their production and sell to the affected markets. For example, countries that produce soybeans and corn are likely to fill the gap left by American exporters in those commodities. The Trump stand is triggering ground-breaking multilateral agreements among other countries concerned or impacted by the trade war. A case in point is the recent signature of the EU-Japan deal.

The paradox of it all is that the very countries that pushed the world into a liberalisation spree, much to the disadvantage of the poorer members of the World Trade Organisation, are now reverting to protectionist measures and show utter disregard to the world rules that they themselves helped establish!

Notwithstanding the US-China tussle, we are witness, in this part of the world, to the increasing battle of influence engaged by India and China in the Indian Ocean. What are their interests in this part of the world, and how well are we playing our cards in the light of our own long-term interests?

Both India and China have a major stake in the Indian Ocean. They are major emerging players and both harbour ambitions to be counted among the leaders of the world and therefore they need to consolidate their status in this region.

Beyond the obvious rivalry that underscores their increasing activity in the Indian Ocean, understandably, they need to ensure that their trade routes are not disrupted, be it from acts of sea piracy, terrorism or any possible hostile environment. They need to secure their maritime lanes of communication.

Take China, for example. More than 70 per cent of its energy needs and 80 per cent of its trade ply through the Indian Ocean sea lanes. Similarly, India is surrounded by insecure and quasi-hostile land frontiers and therefore, the Indian Ocean is vital for its interests. There exists between these two countries a scramble for concessions in the string of countries that punctuate our Ocean.

Mauritius has always positioned itself as a friend to all and enemy to none. Our geo-strategic situation makes us an important player in the region. Both India and China are privileged partners in our development. We have always maintained very friendly relations with both, not least of all because of our ancestral links. Our national interests will be best served by continuing to consolidate such relations with them.

Even if its true that there is no such thing as a free lunch in international economic relations, would you still consider China and India willing to walk the extra mile in order to accommodate the expectations of Indian Ocean rim countries, including Mauritius, in light of their geopolitical ambitions ?

I think both are keen to develop far-reaching relations in the Indian Ocean rim countries. In fact, in view of their known legitimate ambitions, they will do what it takes to ensure that they have the necessary leverage among the countries of this area, much to the advantage of those countries.

But of course, if there are expectations from the recipient countries, these have to be reasonable and manageable. As you say, there is no free lunch and care needs to be exercised by the countries that benefit from the seeming pecuniary generosity of these two giants, lest they fall into a spiral of indebtedness beyond control.

There is opposition in certain quarters here to Indias interest in Agalega as well to Chinas in a fishing port and berthing facilities in the Jin Fei area as much as there has been to this day opposition to what a former External Affairs minister qualified as “Mauritius’ commitment to the defence of the West. How should we manage these expectations from Mauritius?

I said earlier that there exists a scramble for concessions in the region. Mauritius is in an enviable geographical position that makes it an important player in the equation viewed from any perspective. We need therefore to play our cards right and at times close to our chest.

But we should take care not to convey the impression that we are auctioning the country and compromising our sovereignty. The opposition that you refer to arises from the absence of information surrounding these ventures. There is an obvious opacity that shrouds the negotiations on these issues, thereby provoking the concerns expressed.

I think the capacity of the government to communicate intelligently and effectively on matters of legitimate concern to the population is worse than below standard. I grant that in matters of state, especially inter-state negotiations, a certain level of discretion is essential but the citizens need to be comforted and hence the dire need for an effective communication strategy. Is there anything to hide?

Our major trading partners are still to be found in Western Europe, and it does not seem the Go Eastpolicy as advocated earlier or from the other emerging national economies forming part of the BRICS will fetch us an alternative export market any time soon. What does this imply for Mauritius?

It is true that our traditional trading partners are mostly located in West Europe and we have largely benefited from their markets as a result mostly of the provisions of the erstwhile ACP-EU Yaoundé and Lomé Conventions and the current Cotonou Accord. Having said that, it is not a sound policy to only focus on our traditional markets. The international economic system is so unpredictable that one needs to develop some degree of foresight to explore new avenues for our exports. The unfurling trade war and the uncertainties of Brexit are certainly cases in point. Both have the capacity to wreak havoc on the world economic system and we need to be prepared.

We are not a grand player as such in the world economic system but we definitely always need to be on our guard and not be caught unawares. It would be in our interest to seek new avenues and diversify our markets. We need to put in place an aggressive marketing strategy to tap the markets where our exports could be competitive or where we have a comparative advantage. Of course, this doesn’t happen overnight. One should also remember that in such situations on the international scene, as I often underline, there is no permanent friendship but rather permanent interests. We need to be alive to that fact and strategise accordingly.

On the other hand, oral auditions of Mauritiusrequest for an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice on the excision of Chagos from Mauritian territory will begin on 3rd September 2018. Mauritius’ diplomacy seems to have achieved a good measure of success in marshalling support from different countries and the African Union to the Mauritian cause. Do you think a favourable advisory opinion would be forthcoming?

It would be unwise and indeed unethical on my part to venture a firm and conclusive opinion on how the learned judges at The Hague will determine the case. But, based on the facts that we have put forth and the technical legal evidence that will be adduced by Mauritius and its supporters, I do not see how the decision can be any other than in our favour.

The British have not played fair with us on the Chagos issue. We had always said that we were ready to find a solution to this dispute on the basis of bilateral talks. But for 50 years, we have been led down the garden path by the British who have lived up to their reputation of being perfidious. Some of their leaders have even displayed an unbelievable arrogance in their reactions to our legitimate pleas and proposals.

What happens next – either way?

This is a very crucial time for us. We have reached a point in this sad and inhumane episode in modern history, the determination of which at The Hague will have consequential repercussions not only for us and the British but also for the international community, bearing in mind that there still are pockets of occupied territories around the world.

The opinion of the International Court of Justice, should it go the way we believe it will, though not binding, will have a high moral impact. The opinion will be sent back to the United Nations General Assembly which lodged the case at The Hague in the first instance as a result of the resolution tabled by Mauritius and passed last June. But clearly, the ball will be in the British court and hopefully they will do what is expected of a country that has such a high historical stature and professes fair-play and justice in its actions.

We dispose of a few months to fine-tune our strategy leading up to the determination of the case and the immediate aftermath of the verdict. I am sure that just as the mandarins of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, our own officials directly involved in this matter are busy charting our course of action.

On the other hand, MauritiusAfrica Strategy has taken a good beating with the Mutual Evaluation Report done by the Secretariat of the Eastern and Southern Africa Anti-Money Laundering Group (ESAAMLG). Restoring the trust and confidence of our African partners might prove difficult if this negative portrayal of Mauritiusfinancial sector is not rectified. What does your experience of Africa inform you about how the Africans will react to this matter?

I am not privy to what has been written in the Eastern and Southern Africa Anti-Money Laundering Group’s report nor to what the authorities concerned here did or did not do to warrant such an allegedly negative report. It should never have reached this kind of juncture at all, which means that we did not do what should have been done in the first instance to avoid being pinned down in this way.

Again, our system of communication has failed. I understand that we have scrambled to hold a meeting with the authors of the report with a view to correcting the negative aspects thereof prior to the Seychelles ministerial meeting in September which will scrutinise the report of the ESSAMLAG.

One should also bear in mind that there is an unfair hammering of our financial services sector in certain specialised quarters in view of the success we have registered so far. This kind of unwarranted onslaught has emanated at certain times from Europe, at other times from Asia, principally from the specialised press in India and from certain Africa-focused NGOs. If I am not mistaken, this matter of so-called exploitation by Mauritius of certain other African countries in the financial services sector has been the subject of attention at the level of the African Union.

Yet again, we need to sharpen our communication strategy to provide the right kind of information in the various fora of the regional organisations to which we belong. Coupled with that, we need to demonstrate our commitment to the development efforts of the Continent with an effective participation in the regular meetings that take place. By that, I do not mean a mere physical presence of Mauritius but a truly participative one at the appropriate levels.

According to press reports, it would seem that the diplomatic talents of Mauritius would have been noticed by no other than the Saudi princes, resulting in an offer having apparently been made quite recently to former minister Showkutally Soodhun to become a roving ambassador of Saudi Arabia on the African continent. This is too serious a matter involving a friendly country for Hon Soodhun to play about with, isnt it?

Yes, indeed. Like others, I have heard and read the information related to the alleged offer of an ambassadorship to Hon Soodhun by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. If that information turns out to be correct, and as much as I am tempted to tell the Saudis that I believe Mauritius would be only too happy for them to have him, I fear we shall become the laughing stock of the international community.

Hon Soodhun is a sitting Member of Parliament and has held ministerial positions in this government and previous ones with a vice-prime ministerial position to boot! As such he has been and is privy to a number of confidential state matters. Should the information be confirmed, the legitimate question we should be asking is: is it correct, leave alone ethical, for somebody at that level to serve another government as its envoy? This is simply not done! Maybe it’s his reckless unwarranted handling of the Qatar issue recently that may possibly have endeared him to this new surrogate motherland!

Should that alleged offer turn out to be true, with Hon Soodhun not playing pranks with his party colleagues and present leader as is his wont now and then, that would entail the holding of a by-election in La Caverne/Phoenix if he decides to go for it immediately. And that would be another warm-up match, after No.18, in view of 2020, that the Labour Party would probably look up to. What about the MMM?

In the first instance, he will have to resign his parliamentary seat. Will he do that just so close to the next electoral bout and place his party, the MSM, of which he is the president, in a situation of bis repetita following their decision not to field a candidate in the recent by-election in No.18 and which heaped a lot of criticism at their doorstep? I hardly think so and, as far as I am aware, there is no fire on the African continent in so far as Saudi Arabia is concerned that warrants the immediate despatch of Hon Soodhun, whatever his diplomatic skills and prowess may be, and of course, that is, assuming that there is such an offer on the table.

But in the eventuality of such a situation arising where a by-election is called, though I do not hold a mandate to speak for the MMM, I see no reason why it would not field a candidate. It would surely be in the party’s interest to throw itself in that bout.

When you put your ears to the ground, what echoes reach you from the various “bases” of the MMM about the recent elections within the party, about the choices Paul Bérenger had made and those he picked to assist him to lead the party?

First, I must say that I was not a candidate at the internal elections you refer to and therefore it would not be correct on my part to offer any opinion on the outcome of those elections.

Second, the MMM is probably the only party where regular internal elections are held, despite which it draws unsavoury comments that are not always fair from a certain section of the press.

Third, the ‘activists’ of the MMM forming part of the ‘bases’ constitute a political family and, elections or not, they are encouraged to express themselves during the various meetings of the party at branch, regional, that is constituency, and national levels within the parameters laid down by the party’s statutes.

Obviously, they have their preferences as to who they would like to see emerge during the internal elections. But these are elections and those who vote have the ultimate say. The results may be disappointing for some but that’s the name of the game.

The office bearers of the party are all members of the elected Political Bureau. Any Leader should have the freedom to determine who he should work with.

Do you also hear the militantssaying: Go for it, Paul!” – meaning going it alone, with him as prime ministerial candidate?

More than you can imagine, more than in 2014, when they initially rebelled against the alliance with Ramgoolam. But the majority rallied around the leadership thereafter. Today, they would not like to see their party face a similar situation where reference was made to the fishing of a ‘requin blanc’, if you recall!

I personally think that the electorate, all matters considered, has an opportunity in the upcoming elections to do the right thing and vote Bérenger in!

 


* Published in print edition on 27 July 2018

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