Agalega, India and Geopolitics in the Indian Ocean

By Krishna Bhardwaj

We have a role to play on this chessboard. However, as in all games of chess, we have to make smart moves in order to establish a credible foreign policy that is both
realistic and pragmatic

A controversy sparked off locally last week after a local newspaper referred to an article appearing in the Indian Express of 14 October 2010 about ongoing negotiations between India and Mauritius for Agalega to be ceded to India (see the Indian Express report at the end of this article). The Prime Minister strongly denied that there was any negotiation of the sort. If one were to rise beyond petty considerations, there is much we can do by putting a premium on our geographical location and our existing privileged relations with the parties having a geostrategic interest in the Indian Ocean.

At one time, Mauritius used to be referred to as the “land of rainbows, waterfalls and shooting stars” as well as the “star and the key of the Indian Ocean”. To the kids who were being taught geography in such terms in those colonial days, the latter phrase conveyed a romantic view of the beauty of their island home. Little did they suspect that the real reference was to Mauritius’ location in the southern Indian Ocean as a strategic position in maritime trade in an era dominated by ocean transportation and travel. The Suez Canal had yet to become the alternative major passageway between the East and the West so that sea-going vessels went round the Cape of Good Hope, making Mauritius a key port of call during this long voyage of mostly sailing ships from Europe to its colonies. Once steamships and airplanes became more common modes of transportation, it was no longer necessary to pause in Mauritius over the long haul. Besides, Mauritius did not identify itself as an active entrepôt for international trade as did Singapore. We fell out of the mainstream of international transport, losing both the star and key positions.

Today, with a world closely networked through computing and the internet, we have missed the boat again as we did not develop ourselves into an important hub of international communications that cannot be missed. Instead of incentivising our own boys and girls to become smart software developer wizards of high international reputation, as it befits an essentially service-provider nation, we remained content to offer BPO services on the back of a communication infrastructure bent more towards maximizing short term profits than positioning the country outstandingly on the World Wide Web. The consequence is here to see: we have become a nation of mobile phone chatters having nothing to do with the production of the hardware or software that goes into such products of mass consumption. All is not lost yet. We have to reconfigure our priorities and present ourselves as a gateway for reconciliation of power pursuits in this part of the globe. Nature has put us in the near-middle of the Indian Ocean while our demographic composition and cosmopolitan culture can help to lift ourselves profitably beyond the power struggles of the different forces vying for pre-eminence in the world.

It may not be obvious on the surface but the Indian Ocean still holds a lot of interest in the post Cold War super power struggle. The Americans and, ironically enough, the British through them, are present in the defence of their geopolitical interests in this part of the world. This is in the shape of their presence on the Mauritian archipelago of Diego Garcia. Recently, the Mauritian Minister of Foreign Affairs aptly had some tough words on the increasingly openly paraded position of Britain to fully expropriate us of this part of our territory. The attitude posted by the Anglo-American interests in this matter shows that they consider it as an important physical fallback position if all else were to fail to give them the necessary backing in their now purposeless engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Casualties they are suffering in the latter places have become like retribution for the imbroglio into which they have thrust themselves in the Middle East. Jihadists of all sort are making them pay a heavy price for it, those in Pakistan not excluded. We do not have to take sides in the quarrels to sort out the Israel-Palestine issue although we cannot pretend not to see injustice wherever we see it being inflicted by one party on the other. However, we can adopt a calculated attitude of understanding of the diverse historical positions in the interest of geopolitical stability. This is where we must play our card, smartly. Obviously, we have to go far enough to state our position that we will not be supportive, neutral or be earning the sympathy of the international community in this power struggle in exchange for sheer peanuts. This is why we should play skilfully and smartly our small-island-developing-state card so as not to have to be treated on an equal footing with unduly advantaged better endowed international competitors as regards our access to international markets or preferential treatment notwithstanding all the big talk about WTO principles of free trade. To get to concrete results in this regard, our diplomacy will have to play even more smartly than, say India or China. Our Indian Ocean strategy will show whether we are really up to it.

The Anglo-Saxon West is not the only power that sees the Indian Ocean as a sanctuary for the fight it has to deliver in order to avoid being submerged by growing and unpredictable insecurity at home. Recently, the French struck a deal with us regarding their continued occupancy of part of our territory, notably the Tromelin Islands. They have agreed to a co-management of this part of our territory whereas they had squarely squatted on it up till now. It is a first step in the right direction, a step that will keep this delicate issue from coming under the glare of international floodlights. For long, French warships have scoured the waters of the south-west Indian Ocean in a bid to assert their presence in this part of the world. The Comoros were split into two in this struggle. At one time, Malagasy rulers were obliged to the French but that seems more distant after the departure of Didier Ratsiraka from the big island. Civilised cultural and trade relations with France will help keep another potential NATO (for whatever it is worth in the post Cold War era) member by our side with a view to enhancing our access to obtain support from and have enhanced access to the European market.

While we may not have capabilities to exploit the resources lying under Antarctica, the bigger countries may be nursing their own ambitions over there. India is one of them. We have however signed up a Comprehensive Economic Cooperation and Partnership Agreement with India out of which the Preferential Trade Agreement is yet to see the light of the day. Petty skirmishes about the India-Mauritius double tax avoidance treaty have apparently been standing in the way of implementing a mutually supportive trade arrangement between the two countries. In the past, India has shown that it is capable of rising above minor issues when deeper longer-term interests are at stake. India has a lot of high-tech which it can share to further our growth potential and make its presence felt in a part of the world from which it has been materially absent. We have no reason on our part to alienate it. There are several areas in which both countries can cooperate to drive out a mutually beneficial agenda for growth. The Indian Ocean is the most important link between the two countries in this regard. We need to ensure that this ocean becomes a field for generating more cooperation towards advancing both nations’ economic and strategic interests. There is no reason why a politically stable Pakistan cannot also become part of such an equation in a multi-nation mutually progressive arrangement.

It is being said that China which looks upon Africa as a potential economic partner has already done a lot of its homework to affirm this sort of relationship on the Continent. Other than having set down firm outposts on the African continent, China is even present in Mauritius through the Jin Fei project which is based on an area of land ceded by the government in the vicinity of Port Louis harbour. China is the number two global economic power. It has had ties with us for a long period. As in the case of India, we import a good part of our needs from China; as with India, we have a hassle-free double tax avoidance agreement with China. China has a lot of interest in the Indian Ocean because a lot of materials it employs for its industry are sourced from neighbouring Africa. There is no reason why both India and China should not employ those parts of the Indian Ocean over which we have exclusive rights for steering ahead to become global economic superpowers.

We have a role to play on this chessboard. However, as in all games of chess, you have to make smart moves in order to establish a credible foreign policy that is both realistic and pragmatic. Look at Singapore. It depends a lot for its economic well-being on its trade links with the West. It has for long been a gateway as well for finance and capital channelled to China. But it has signalled its position clearly enough in order not to allow itself to be checkmated by either of the two. Its leader recently stated that its sticking to free market rules is unquestionable but so equally is its attachment to Confucian Asian family values, rather than to atomised structures, to hold the fort together in moments of distress. This kind of position-taking makes it unassailable from both the East and the West. It is an art. We need to master it as well if we want to make the most of our strategic location in the Indian Ocean.

* Published in print edition on 22 October 2010

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