Indian Ocean Geopolitics & China’s OBOR
Our people, cultural and trade relations with China plunge without doubt into history. With the end of the international diplomatic tussle about the Taiwan (ROC) entity and the latter’s expulsion in November 1971 as China’s representative at the UN, Sir Seewoosagur and Mauritius acted rapidly. In April 1972, despite being heavily dependent on Western influence and outlook, our recently independent state rapidly recognised the People’s Republic as sole and legitimate national entity governing China.
That historic backdrop has often been recognised by the highest Chinese authorities as our cultural, economic and trade relations started their course, despite the distances and travel difficulties. Those deep ties, born of many sources, have, since some ten years ago, become pregnant with new expectancies of economic, strategic and geopolitical import.
They were manifest some ten years ago when the country was honoured to welcome the first State visit of a Chinese President to our shores in 2009. It was probably no easy times for the then Finance Minister Rama Sithanen, barely out of trying to subsume the 2005 “état d’urgence économique” left by his predecessors, when we were hit by the world’s most massive financial crisis of 2008-2009, whose stormy tailwinds were still being felt around most developed economies.
Among the consequential announcements of President Hu Jintao, was the promised funding and development of a mega-platform for Chinese light manufacturing industrialists wishing to avail of our SADC-COMESA status, our offshore and financial robustness, our trade, cultural and people bonds with China and our travel corridors to export towards the African continent.
The Jin-Fei manna
In those still shaky periods, the Jin-Fei proposal was obviously a manna out of the blue, a strategic development offering which, both in Navin Ramgoolam’s government and in the wider population, might have been seen as a potential “game-changer”, even if it meant some sacrifices on our part. As our island-state had been selected as one of five such proposed pan-African platforms, there seemed, after all, little that could be construed as a geostrategic “quid-pro-quo” with an invisible iceberg of political, military or diplomatic strings. Even if China Inc. might have viewed it as some counterpoise to Indian involvement in the development of our Cybercity in the making, there was no harm in harnessing our own development from different traditional friends and allies.
We are obviously reduced to unproductive speculation as to the underlying reasons why Jin-Fei over the succeeding years failed to materialise, in any case not at anywhere near the rates expected during the enthusiastic phase. Even our best political and diplomatic cadres and insiders may not have the full picture but the confluence of internal turmoil at highest Chinese politburo levels may not be entirely ruled out.
International media reported that, by October 2010, Xi JinPing, long groomed for the ultimate office, was already in the saddle and President Hu, in the last of his two five-year terms, was assailed by a variety of problems (allegations of fraud or corruption against close allies and his chosen PM, human rights violations, severe repression in Tibet, amongst others) which enfeebled any of his residual influence and hold on the Chinese politburo.
Appointed by the XVIIIth Chinese Communist Party Congress with his own team in November 2012, President Xi Jinping was quick to comprehensively consolidate his internal hold on the different power centres of the country, party and military. What maybe concerns us more, in the process, he rapidly shelved former President Hu’s rather grand plans for industrial and light assembly mega-development platforms generating value-added and productive employment across Africa. It is quite probable that the Jin-Fei light industry platform also fell by the roadside in the birthing of President Xi’s new self-confident era in the international sphere.
The new Chinese vision
In a country hungry for oil, resources and commodities from across the globe, in an economy whose GDP was surpassing that of the USA, backed by the immense Central Bank reserves secured through being the world’s factory, supported by the entrepreneurship of Chinese conglomerates which were merely State-supported extensions, President Xi was expected to formulate the new Chinese vision of trade, commerce, economic development and define the contours of its geopolitics as one of the five veto-wielding permanent members of the UN Security Council. And he didn’t fail to do so from 2013 onwards as he defined and pushed forward his “Chinese dream” agenda.
On the military front, China’s “first sphere” (the immediate neighbours and the South China seas) were treated with some high-handedness, while the “second sphere” seemed to cover Korea, Japan and the Philippines to the East, South-east Asia and the Indian Ocean to the south, the latter gaining prominence as China, through a “string of pearls”, tried to secure shipping routes for vital oil and resources from East Africa and the Middle-East. Although we might have felt empathy for the new Modi government finding itself in 2014 surrounded by planned Chinese naval ports (Aden, Gwadar in Pakistan, Colombo, Bangladesh, Burma…), we were probably not close enough to vital resource lanes in the north Indian ocean or to Indian shores to be a disquieting part of the geostrategic picture.
On the international development front, President Xi’s new narrative of One belt, One Road (OBOR, also more delicately termed the new Silk Road) promised a variety of massive infrastructure investments by Chinese conglomerates in roads, rails, ports and airports, energy, mining or agriculture on different continents, poised as a “win-win” booster for cash-strapped Third World countries. Supported by bullish if not unreal Chinese forecasts of feasibility and returns on investment, these were mostly private Chinese conglomerate investments on quasi-commercial loans and terms against heavy collaterals. There has been a spate of mostly US-led accusations and warnings since 2017 of a “debt-trap diplomacy”, cornering such diverse places as Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Maldives and Sierra Leone to either cede control of sovereignty and territorial assets, or reassess and cancel planned massive Chinese investments with unrealistic pay-back scenarios.
We are hopefully not on that path, even if we have been invited to be part of OBOR, with the promise, among others, of a large Chinese-built “port de pêche” (which in Chinese-read might be a multi-purpose port for both commercial and naval flotillas) at Bain des Dames. Again, it may be suspected, given the scant information provided, that there might have been some mighty heady forecasts of traffic and upbeat financial returns. This project, which has hit some snags and hitches since its inception in 2015 by former Finance Minister Vishnu Lutchmeenaraidoo, would have a major strategic interest for China looking for a friendly or china-managed port facility for both its regular naval and commercial fleet towards the Cape and the African West Coast, bringing naval games far closer to home than many of us might wish for.
Agalega and India
India is, among others, financing and conducting the complex port and air-strip development of Agalega. It is a major development for the longer-term welfare of our inhabitants there, for our National Coast Guards and for our national security over a maritime zone exposed to piracy even if temporary inconveniences at such distances are inevitable. While India Inc. may be eyeing the possibility of a friendly port for berthing or refuelling of Indian ships, assisting us in monitoring of maritime traffic and pirate activity, or as a forward base for marine resource surveys of our extended maritime zone, we can only at this stage trust that our national and sovereign interests have been at the fore of what remains a not altogether transparent agreement.
There is no doubt that matters have evolved since 2015, with both our traditional friends and allies, India and China, vying to provide inward development, technical and financial assistance, including massive grants and loans on preferential terms for major infrastructure projects, virtually of our choosing. While we cannot but be grateful for the unprecedented scale and the undoubted generosity of our partners, there remain lingering questions about the “quid-pro-quos”, if any, that might have been entertained by the Mauritian government in its dealings, particularly over sensitive matters which may have strategic bearing and interest to both our allies as they tussle on the new geopolitical environment of the Indian Ocean.
* Published in print edition on 3 May 2019
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