Clearly the first thing that we must take into account when the issue of developments taking place in Agalega comes up is that we have to pragmatically acknowledge the new circumstances that have developed in the Indian Ocean region. There are new regional players, an endemic hostile environment north of the Gulf states, and a geomilitary thrust by large powers, along with the constant threat of piracy along the African coast. Definitely we cannot ignore this changed and evolving context, and our focus must perforce be on our security as a small island state, which depends on the geopolitical balance in the region. Our goal should be to ensure that we are strategically aligned with the equation which is in the country’s interest both politically and economically on a long-term basis.
In this context we have to acknowledge some realities that have prevailed in the Indian Ocean region since long, as they were spelt out by Jan Arden in an earlier article in this paper. There is a considerable Western military and naval presence in the Indian Ocean, such as the USA through its Fifth fleet based in Bahrain, its military base in Djibouti known as Camp Lemonnier, guarding the Red Sea, and its aero-naval base in Diego Garcia. Besides playing a deterrent and defensive role in safeguarding security in the aftermath of the Iraq-Kuwait invasion and the generally volatile Middle East, it is also 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.
Then there is France which, through its overseas departments and ‘territoires outre-mer’ inside the Indian Ocean, notably Reunion, Mayotte and a string of small islands further south, has 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.
On the other hand, through the initiative of President Nelson Mandela and his Indian counterpart, a multilateral treaty called the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC) was officially launched in 1997 and among its major areas of concern were maritime security and the Blue Economy, and that may be how India became drawn more strategically in the Indian Ocean in recent times.
In the meantime, the most significant change that has taken place, has been no doubt 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. And ‘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 (officially launched around September 2017), 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.’
It is worth noting that China is the only power which is entirely non-bordering of the Indian Ocean, but that has not prevented it – nor has there been any local outcry – from establishing its ‘String of Pearls’ extending from the Chinese mainland to Sudan Port, with military facilities in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, where it is creating the large Port City of Humbatotha, which is an autonomous region in the country. Sri Lankan citizens who will be working there need a passport – in what is their own country!!
But has there been any coverage by Al Jazeera about all these military developments? Not that we know of. Whatever Al Jazeera says about India is with a heavy bias against that country – as were its invariably negative coverages about the Covid situation there. It is therefore no surprise that, as pointed out by Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth, it allegedly did not present the latter’s version fully regarding the questions that it had put about Agalega. Why?
It would therefore be better to stick to the official version given in answer to PNQs by the PM, namely the development of the infrastructural works at Agalega and their use by both Mauritian and Indian authorities, that there will be no stockpile of weapons at Agalega which would thus not qualify as the development of a military base – unlike what obtains in the case of US/Chinese/French engagement when they set up their military bases in the region and elsewhere.
We must reiterate the importance of maintaining a geopolitical balance in the region, and as an important riverine state directly concerned by the security aspect for our country, we must play our role adroitly, between allies and friends, each with its own geo-strategic interests, so that we are in a win-win situation. Either way and whatever further developments take place we must obtain guarantees on some key fundamentals: that we retain absolute sovereignty over Agalega, that the rights and dignity of the inhabitants of Agalega as Mauritian citizens will be unconditionally upheld (that is, Agalega will not be another Diego Garcia), and that they will fully benefit from any facilities that become available there, such as health, education and employment locally.
* Published in print edition on 31 August 2021
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