The inauguration of the new Supreme Court building the Prime Ministers Pravind Jugnauth and Narendra Modi during a virtual event yesterday is yet another milestone in the long list of cooperation between our two countries. The relations between India and Mauritius date back to 1730, when the first Indians came from Pondicherry to work in the island. It was the recruitment of Indians to work in the sugarcane industry as part of the ‘Great Experiment’ which saw the first batch of Indentured Labour arriving on November 2nd 1834 that subsequently resulted in the bulk of the island being populated by the descendants of these hard workers.
It was but natural therefore that our two countries developed close, strong and cordial ties based on shared culture and values. These were further enriched by the inputs from the colonizing powers, France and England, and from the diaspora of African and Chinese origin, with whose countries similar strong ties evolved along with newer links with countries such as Russia and others in Europe, as well as the Middle Eastern ones.
It would be no exaggeration to say that other than the two colonial powers, it is India which has emerged as the biggest development partner of Mauritius. The new Supreme Court building is one of the key projects of the special economic package of $353 million, the other infrastructure projects that were part of the package being the Metro Express project, an ENT Hospital, a social housing project with nearly 1000 units and other healthcare projects in the pipeline. All these are a continuation of the longstanding support and collaboration between our two countries in so many other fields under the Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation programme, among others.
As if this was too good to be true, other competing interests both in India in the neighbouring countries and their business partners undermined the DTA agreement that had served the two countries for so many years, such that at one time the largest FDI flows into India were from Mauritius. The result is that the DTA agreement practically does not hold anymore.
Much as this setback cast a gloom over the economic situation of the island, this is fortunately not the end of the story, for the evolving geopolitical landscape of the Indian Ocean (IO) has created new challenges – and opportunities — for the countries in the and bordering the IO. There are good reasons which support the assessment that is now made of the IO as the region of the future: average age of people in the region’s countries is under 30, compared to 38 in the US and 46 in Japan; countries bordering the IO are home to 2.5 billion people, which is one-third of the world’s population; some 80% of the world’s maritime oil trade flows through three narrow passages of water in the IO, and the economies of many countries in the region are expanding rapidly as investors seek new opportunities. India is one the fastest growing economies in the world, and is considered as the one with the most potential.
Politically, the IO is becoming a pivotal zone of strategic competition between the major players in the world today. It was already facing the thrust of Chinese ambitions to upend itself as a maritime power, with a military base in Djibouti, access to the Gwadar port in Pakistan and also via agreements with Sri Lanka. China is investing hundreds of billions of dollars in infrastructure projects across the region as part of its One Belt One Road initiative. However, the forays of China in the South China seas that have rattled several neighboring countries which have claims on the islands that China has occupied militarily. Now the traditional powers – US, UK, France – have been joined by Australia and Japan to jointly face what they perceive as the threat from China in the Indian Ocean, where cooperation with India is inevitable as it is also a major player in this region’s geopolitics. This goes on to explain part of India’s development and security cooperation with smaller Indian Ocean island states.
Darshana M. Baruah (a nonresident scholar with the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International, focusing on maritime security in Asia and the role of the Indian Navy in a new security architecture) has spelt out this dimension in an article originally published in South Asian Voices in January 2020: ‘Islands in the Indian Ocean are located near key transit routes providing access and influence over important chokepoints and waterways, and thus, their key geographies have the potential to impact geopolitical competition. Developments in 2019 indicate that traditional powers are increasingly taking this under consideration and have made a determined effort to highlight the strategic value of these islands, be it those generally discussed such as Sri Lanka, Maldives, and Mauritius or the little-known Vanilla islands and other territories in the Western Indian Ocean. Recognizing their own significance, the island nations have been vocal in highlighting their priorities and challenges, pushing back against traditional players and actors in the region to carve out their national and strategic interests.’
She adds further, ‘For the Indian Ocean’s traditional powers, it is important to understand that island nations emphasizing their maritime identity underlines their willingness to break out of subregional spheres of influence and invite new actors to balance existing power dynamics in the region. Thus, historical and diaspora ties may no longer be enough to engage with island nations and traditional powers would have to take more cognizance of the interests and concerns of these islands and be creative and equitable in these partnerships.’
This is the new setting in which we as a country will have to view and weigh our relationship with India – and the other major players in the IO, but the longstanding cultural and other ties between our two countries will surely continue to be as strong.
* Published in print edition on 31 July 2020