Geopolitical Arena of the Indian Ocean

The PM’s answers in Parliament are reassuring: No military base in Agalega, no long-term lease…The league of India-bashers, we suspect, will continue to fret


By Jan Arden

Most of us know what we understand by the Indian Ocean, intuitively at least. More formally, the idea of a platform regrouping states bordering the Indian Ocean, and sharing common interests around peaceful and conflict-free development seems to have taken root around 1995 through the initiative of President Nelson Mandela and his Indian counterpart. Soon after, the multilateral treaty called the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC) was officially launched in 1997 with seven initial signatories, later expanded to fourteen and now it seems at 23, with 10 additional “dialogue partners”. Mauritius had the honour and privilege to host the event in 1997 as most of us would remember while agreeing perhaps that despite the best of intentions of its founding godmothers, the IOR did not mature and flourish.

However, it is being signalled upfront as a rejoinder to the “narrative” being pushed in some quarters, that somehow Bharat or India considers itself as some owner or privileged proprietor or naval and military guardian of the Indian Ocean. Whatever the geopolitical issues we have to consider in this zone, such a simplistic storyline runs counter to history and simple facts. There are indeed several major countries, whether from a population or GDP standpoint, that border the Ocean that colonizing powers termed Indian. Australia, Indonesia and Malaysia on the eastern front, South Africa, Madagascar and our brotherly ocean-bordering African states are neither mince-lings nor just pieces of cake for some type of pressure politics or maritime law imposed by a towering ogre, India. Narratives should not obscure facts nor run counter to them.

Diplomats will know better what factors were behind the floundering of the IOR-ARC, but we can take note of both the guiding intentions at birth and their relevance after a quarter of a century of geopolitical evolution. We can recall here that the IOR had identified six priority areas namely:

  • maritime security,
  • trade and investment facilitation,
  • fisheries management,
  • disaster risk reduction,
  • academic and scientific cooperation, and
  • tourism promotion and cultural exchanges.

while the IOR-A identified two focus areas, namely Blue Economy and Women’s Economic Empowerment.

Most of these could be said to be among the chief issues in regional cooperation and peaceful development even today and some significant achievements can be partly attributed to those original concepts: sharing and managing common fisheries resources of the zone and keeping predatory industrial fleets under close check is one of them. The last Council of Ministers Summit in Doha, UAE in 2019 stated “We recognise the importance of ocean health for a sustainable blue economy and well-being of Indian Ocean communities. We share concern about the pressures on our oceans, including the impacts of marine litter, illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing and climate change.

Resolving peacefully issues about maritime economic and extended zones, particularly between island nations, is another. Agreeing Seychelles, Mauritius, Comoros and Mayotte economic maritime zones has perhaps been made easier sailing. Clamping down maritime piracy around the Somali area and descending down the East African shores and strengthening regional cooperation against maritime piracy and drug trafficking has been another. Again, as summed up in Doha, “We underline our strong condemnation of terrorism and extremism in all its forms and manifestations and reaffirm the solidarity of Member States’ in combating terrorism.” It remains a threat despite the cooperation of several navies operating in the region.

The floods, monsoons, cyclones, earthquakes and tsunamis to which the region’s bordering states are prone, as evidenced by several recent tragic episodes, are certainly still another area of greater cooperation and rapid information sharing. The Indian Ocean is a climactic and seismologic area of concern. To quote from the IOR website: “The year 2018 and 2019 saw tsunamis and earthquakes in Indonesia, severe droughts in Madagascar, floods and landslides in India, seasonal cyclones in the Islands of the Indian Ocean, and many more calamities. The 2008 Super Cyclone in Myanmar and the December 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami have forever been etched in public memory.” In the IORA Action Plan 2017-2021, the development of Disaster Risk Management in IORA has been given focused direction, adds the website, although we fail to see any evidence that such actions and coordination have had any effect in preventing the Wakashio digressing from its southern ocean route to head for a disaster on our coral reefs.

Unfortunately then, the IOR has remained low profile, even though the organization is headquartered in Ebene, Mauritius which also provides all the support and secretarial staffing. But the geopolitical scene has evolved considerably in the past two decades and this may have contributed to the fact that the shared Indian Ocean Rim concept and initiative has not fully delivered on its initial expectations.

Security in the Ocean

It is no secret that either in 1997 or today, the USA remains the most formidable Western military and naval presence in the Indian Ocean, most notably through its Fifth fleet based in Bahrain, its military base in Djibouti known as Camp Lemonnier, guarding the Red Sea, and, of course, through its aero-naval base in Diego Garcia, leased as we know by a UN-condemned subterfuge from the excision operated by the British prior to our independence. Although, being a non-Indian Ocean bordering state, it had legitimate claim to play a vital deterrent and defensive role in safeguarding security in the aftermath of the Iraq-Kuwait invasion and the generally volatile Middle East and as a key stabilizing force for ensuring safety in the North Indian Ocean Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs) in a zone through which vital oil supplies are routed.

It is neither a secret that France, through its overseas departments and “territoires outre-mer” inside the Indian Ocean, notably Reunion, Mayotte and a string of small islands further south, has legitimate claims to have its fleet, submarines or nuclear-powered aircraft carriers patrolling this Ocean, and, in particular, the pirate-infested areas off the Mozambique channel and up the Somali coastline.

For much of our post-independence period, these two Tier-1 superpowers (those five  countries with veto power in the UN Security Council) have in a way provided the shield and umbrella under which most trade and maritime traffic could flourish unhampered by conflicts elsewhere. Both were riverine powers through their bases and possessions although France only decided to join the IOR and was admitted in late 2020.

What has changed is China’s stupendous economic growth since the nineties with an insatiable demand for massive oil and raw materials from Africa and the Middle-East, to be necessarily routed through the Belt and Road Initiative and the Indian Ocean. That is the core of Chinese anxiety: that its economic powerhouse might be throttled up by any other superpower through its exposure to the SLOC in northern Indian Ocean. It may have been one reason it leased Djibouti land for its first overseas military and naval base, allowing its naval fleet, including aircraft carriers and, reportedly nuclear-powered submarines, to offer some patrolling capacity towards international security in trade routes so vital to its own needs. The base was officially launched around September 2017.

It is worth noting that China is the only power which is entirely non-bordering of the Indian Ocean without such naval expeditions eliciting alarm of the level and toxicity being arraigned here against India, a legitimate Indian Ocean country, much as Australia or South Africa.

China, India and traditional allies in the IOR or wider in Europe, remain essential to our security and development. They are indispensable partners if we are really intent on maximizing opportunities offered by the Blue Economy or manage and safeguard the security and defense of our vast expanse of territorial waters. However, it should be understood that friends and allies understand each other’s sovereign concerns, and this in itself pleads for far greater transparency in our government’s dealings with India over Agalega. The PM’s answers in Parliament are reassuring: No military base, no long-term lease and a PMO control over all operations, but they sound standard, perfunctory and extracted. Secrecy and confidentiality ends up being the object of amalgamation, accusations and suspicions on real motives.

The league of India-bashers, some of whom haunt our shores, we suspect will continue to fret. But secrecy has given it fuel and it continues to blur the larger picture of what should have been a cardinal meeting of both Mauritius and India needs in common maritime security enabling peaceful development of our outer islands and our potential in the future prospects of the Blue Economy.

* Published in print edition on 25 May 2021

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