Indian Ocean: New realities, Cooperation and Power games

Geopolitical intelligence, all-weather friends and awareness of complex inter-locking issues are vital as we navigate the headier waves of the world’s new and emerging realities

The Indian Ocean, from being a lively trade and naval domain of importance to European and US powers, lost a fair bit of its shine and strategic importance in the post-war period. The pre-independence illegal and controversial excision of Chagos islands by the UK and their lease to the US towards the Diego military base and the variety of local French Outre-mer outposts afforded the naval, military and security presence Indian Ocean rim countries were familiar with for decades. Against this backdrop, the concept “Océan Indien, zone de paix” was bound to remain a rather idealistic slogan and the Ocean, in effect, received little more than a benign but cursory ear in regional and international geopolitical spheres. This millennium has seen a rapid reversal of that trend.

The reasons for this startling shift in global perceptions of the Indian Ocean are well known and are of several orders – one of which is the dependency of all energy-hungry traditional and fast-growing Asian powerhouses on the strategic oil reserves in the Middle East, up to 40% of which pass through the Indian Ocean. While European and some other states may benefit from overland pipelines, many countries across the world and most particularly the dynamic economies of South and South-East Asia, Australia, China and Japan, depend almost exclusively on safe maritime oil-trade routes in the Indian Ocean. Ensuring security of maritime oil-trade through our Ocean is a vital imperative for all concerned nations, whether they are legitimate border nations (like India, South Africa or Australia) or much farther afield (like China, Japan and the Far East).

Oil, while more vital than almost anything else, is not the only important element in the re-emergence of the Indian Ocean. The latter has become a critical waterway for global trade and commerce, hosting heavy international maritime traffic that includes half of the world’s containerized cargo, one third of its bulk cargo and two third of its oil shipment. Safe maritime trade and transport of mineral and other resources from Africa towards the world’s hungry factories situated most notably in mainland China is therefore another important factor. Coastal sea lanes from West Africa, Angola, Tanzania or Mozambique are supposed to ferry huge amounts of material resources to China through the Indian Ocean waters.

While many countries have no choice than to accept that the Indian Ocean waters are and will be mostly marshalled by the US, French and Western global players, China, as a fiercely nationalistic global superpower of enormous economic clout, a tier-one Security Council member, has clearly stated its ambitions not to rely exclusively on that Western umbrella for such strategic resources.

Its naval ambitions are evident in its aggressive stance in the international waters of the South China Sea. It is also common knowledge that it has embarked on a policy requiring naval bases, outposts and friendly ports of call allowing refuelling, berthing and facilities for Chinese naval warships, submarines and vessels to criss-cross the Indian Ocean. Many countries felt the maritime Silk Road or OBOR initiatives were primarily designed to suit those Chinese strategic interests.

China participated eagerly in the regional naval cooperation initiatives to patrol piracy in the Malacca Straits and the Somali seas, giving itself a good testing ground of Chinese long-distance naval operational abilities. Last July, China opened its first foreign military base at Djibouti. The base includes a naval port, large helicopter base, and accommodation for 10,000 troops. Its establishment was a big step for Beijing which had long decried foreign bases as the domain of Western imperialists. This month, a US report claimed that China is about to start construction of a new naval base and military airfield at Jiwani, next to the China-financed Gwadar port on the Pakistan coastline.

Indian PM Modi, deeply concerned on taking office that a sleepy or unconcerned Congress-led regime had left India staring at a noose of proposed and pipelined Chinese ports and bases (Sri Lanka, Maldives, Seychelles, Mauritius, Pakistan,…) around its immediate vicinity, was unquestionably rapid to react. A legitimate Indian Ocean rim country with a major but sub-regional role in comparison to major league players, it nevertheless had to limit the damage and, if at all possible, reverse the treacherous geostrategic situation facing India. And indeed, Modi’s first important overseas trip in 2015 was to Indian Ocean islands, including Mauritius and Seychelles, offering both island governments a new strategic pact towards common regional stability and security. A variety of instruments (naval patrol vessels, communication outposts, airstrips and berthing ports on remote islets for our respective Coast Guards) were packaged with the more general economic development and cultural initiatives.

While strategic security cooperation were offered to both island nations, Seychelles probably remained the preferred Indian target as it is geographically closer to the strategic maritime sea lanes to its north and west and suffers far more from coastal piracy, over-fishing and illegal depletion of its fish stocks and inability to monitor adequately its huge oceanic economic zone. A cooperation treaty, offering to develop air, sea, communication and surveillance facilities to be used by India and the Seychelles Coast Guard on Assumption island (just slightly north of Mayotte) through a 20-year lease was signed in 2015, subjected to some fine-tuning and its final version released last month, ready for ratification by the Seychelles Parliament.

It is worth pointing out that contrarily to what takes place here, the Seychelles President and head of Government shared the proposed lease and security agreement with the nation’s Leader of the Opposition to ensure everybody was on board and all possible concerns catered for. Mauritius has yet to evolve greater maturity in strategic decision-making when key national interests are at stake and could borrow a leaf from the Seychelles handbook, particularly over the simultaneously signed agreement between Mauritius and India over sea and air infrastructure development in Agalega.

Geopolitical intelligence, all-weather friends and awareness of complex inter-locking issues are vital as we navigate the headier waves of the world’s new and emerging realities, strategies and power games. India, China, France and the EU are and have been our traditional allies which have stood by our sides in all weathers. With some of them, and India is a case in point, we must recognise that the relations and bonds run deep into history, population, language, culture and shared values or traditions. India’s contributions in numerous fields have been exceptionally generous over the years even when there was nothing asked in return and little we could actually offer. Our foreign policy knows how to acknowledge that special bond while weighing our own sovereign interests and steadfastly maintaining a “friends to all, enemy of none” attitude.


* Published in print edition on 9 February 2018

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