Indian Ocean: From confrontation and rivalries to cooperation?


Western powers, like France and the US will have to accept a more complex interplay of regional powers and their strategic interests in the Indian Ocean. How the strategic interplay and its revision pans out remains to be seen but all power-brokers hopefully realise that competition and rivalries cannot exclude sensible cooperation for common good


At the 50th anniversary of our free and sovereign nation, it has been suggested to spare some thoughts for the evolving Indian Ocean stage.

Trading Empires: from Venice to Britain: Let us step back a moment: prior to the European colonial adventures in Asia and Africa, Venice was the cornerstone of the spice, textiles, gem and bullion trade coming into Europe from the East, a flourishing business. Aided by the fabled Marco Polo overland expedition to China, the maritime and trading empire created by that Italian city-state had, by the end of the 13th century, become the greatest Mediterranean power since Rome.


“India and the Modi government had in 2015 offered both island nations a strategic common regional and maritime security platform which included, as we understand, a number of important give-aways such as frigates and armed corvettes for their coast-guards, naval training, the construction of communication facilities, the disenclaving of distant islands through dredged seaports and airstrips, amongst other things. Whatever strategic canvas India was operating on, and however friendly and deep our relations, Mauritius and Seychelles, as sovereign nations, had naturally to weigh and play their cards in terms of their own strategic interests…”


If we recall it here, it is to underline a commonality of approach with UK, as Mauritius continues struggling over the illegal excision of Chagos, the sovereignty and the Chagossian rights issues. A relatively wealthy, small state dependent on tricky long-distance trade routes, Venice developed a key security strategy characterised by shifting alliances with its more powerful or larger overland neighbours in a quasi-permanent power-balancing act. That vital art had its limits as it could create longer-term animosities and there was never any certainty which side would ultimately prevail. But the strategy would certainly have impressed itself upon emerging Great Britain in its efforts to handle and immunise itself from rival continental European powers. From one trading Empire to another, the lessons were not lost.

Whatever their merits in other domains – the humanistic trends, the abolitionist forces or the suffragette movement come to mind – the British easily mastered the Venetian diplomatic and geo-political art of “no permanent friends, only permanent interests”. “Perfidious Albion” and its “divide and rule” philosophy and practice were born. They still condition the inner workings of the Foreign Office (FCO), which seems to have a strategic agenda of its own whatever government is in office. The treatment of the Chagos and Diego question by the FCO is a typical illustration.

If Venice was battered by jealous Italian states and the Ottomans, other Western European powers sought alternative maritime routes through the Indian Ocean for such a profitable trade from the Far East, and their success would ultimately deal the final blows to the Venetian trading Empire.

Explored by the Portuguese in the sixteenth century and rapidly followed by others (namely Dutch, French and British), the maritime route round the Cape of Good Hope between Asia, East Africa and the colonial powers in Europe gave maritime significance to the Indian Ocean both as an important trade route and as an area of jostling rivalries and continuous warfare episodes between rival European colonial powers.

Piracy as policy instrument in the Indian Ocean

As we reflect on the past to better gauge the future, we can recall that, prior to the digging and opening of the Suez Canal in 1872, circumnavigating the southern tip of Africa and the treacherous Cape of Good Hope was a risky venture but the spice and bullion trade was lucrative. With the growth of the Indian Ocean trade routes, came the growth of coastal and high-sea piracy: not only from annoyed Arab and Muslim traders whom the Europeans sought to eliminate, not only because some notorious pirates and free-wheeling buccaneers migrated here from the Caribbeans, but more so because rival European colonial powers began to issue “lettres de marque” to Indian Ocean based corsairs, who were thus legitimised to attack, capture, sell and pilfer rival trade and naval vessels. High-sea piracy had become an instrument of national foreign policy for European countries: a sort of naval guerrilla without actually declaring war on a rival power!

Pirates made their bases mainly on the eastern seaboard of Madagascar and Seychelles while corsairs were more common in Mauritius and Reunion waters. If Robert Surcouf was perhaps the best known corsair, we cannot ignore that Mahe de Labourdonnais in his 1741 expedition to India was effectively acting as one and so it seems were several British naval commanders. To paraphrase from Denis Piat’s book on the subject, “As from 1780, French Corsairs took Isle de France (Mauritius) as their base. Their daring, bravery and patriotism aroused the admiration of the inhabitants of the island, but enraged the British Crown. The decision was taken: Isle de France would be English. On 3 December 1810 the island’s last French governor signed the terms of surrender.” 

From Western dominance to balanced strategies

The Indian Ocean Region has been always been central to the trade, security, marine resources of the littoral states as well as dominant world powers of the time. If it served as a strategic domain for the establishment and maintenance of colonialism by rival European powers in South Asia and South East Asia, the Indian Ocean has come back to the fore of superpower rivalries and competition for import and export trade of essential commodities and vital resources. Robert Kaplan in 2011 accounted that the Indian Ocean rim land from the Middle East to the Pacific accounts for 50% of the container traffic and 70% of the traffic of petroleum products for the entire world.

For decades, with the Soviet Union edged out, Western powers, most notably France, the UK and the US have by and large, through their fleets and naval/military bases, been accepted as the “natural” Indian Ocean marshals ensuring maritime free trade, high-seas security and defence purposes. That tenet is now challenged as emerging world powers like India and China can no longer rely solely on that foreign determinant for strategic commodities so vital to their own economic development. Today China and India are poised to be the world’s biggest oil importers after the US, 80-90% of which flows through the Indian Ocean. This sole factor has and will condition much of geo-political strategising and military-naval planning in distant capitals.

Western powers, like France and the US, though still largely predominant, will have to accommodate this new reality and accept a more complex interplay of regional powers and their strategic interests in the Indian Ocean, even when, like China or the USA, they are not Indian Ocean rim countries. The only common exchange platform – the Indian Ocean Rim association (IORA) – has sadly underperformed and has not lived up to its expectations. How the strategic interplay and its revision pans out, particularly with an unpredictable Trump administration, remains to be seen but all power-brokers hopefully realise that competition and rivalries cannot exclude and may in fact demand sensible cooperation for common good.


“By virtue of its convenient location on the Cape to Far East routes, and through the operational base of corsairs, Mauritius (which included the Seychelles archipelago) had historically earned its motto “Stella Clavisque Maris Indici” (the star and key of the Indian Ocean). It has and maintains friendly if not deep relations with all those decisive world capitals even if it needs to continue locking horns at all international fora with the British who proceeded with the unilateral excision of the Chagos prior to independence. As a sovereign state, Mauritius has an extended maritime Economic Zone which it is largely unequipped as yet to monitor effectively…”


The treaties of strategic security with India

By virtue of its convenient location on the Cape to Far East routes, and through the operational base of corsairs, Mauritius (which included the Seychelles archipelago) had historically earned its motto “Stella Clavisque Maris Indici” (the star and key of the Indian Ocean). It has and maintains friendly if not deep relations with all those decisive world capitals even if it needs to continue locking horns at all international fora with the British who proceeded with the unilateral excision of the Chagos prior to independence. As a sovereign state, Mauritius has an extended maritime Economic Zone which it is largely unequipped as yet to monitor effectively, either from a national security standpoint or as an exploitable natural reserve for ocean stock or resources. The Seychelles government faces a very similar issue, being even closer to the pirate infested areas and the maritime traffic in the northern waters of the Ocean.

India and the Modi government had in 2015 offered both island nations a strategic common regional and maritime security platform which included, as we understand, a number of important give-aways such as frigates and armed corvettes for their coast-guards, naval training, the construction of communication facilities, the disenclaving of distant islands through dredged seaports and airstrips, amongst other things. Whatever strategic canvas India was operating on, and however friendly and deep our relations, Mauritius and Seychelles, as sovereign nations, had naturally to weigh and play their cards in terms of their own strategic interests for such proposed assistance.

It has been done with some measure of transparency in Seychelles, where the Leader of the Opposition was made party of the treaty proposing to lease Assomption island for joint use by the Seychelles Coast Guards and the Indian navy. The agreement has, per provisions of the island’s Constitution, to be ratified by their National Assembly sometime this month. There may be grounds to assume Mauritius had been offered and has signed a similar treaty, but in our more sensitive context due to the Chagos issue, there was every reason to adopt a more transparent approach and it may not be too late to do so.

 

* Published in print edition on 9 March 2018

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