Mauritius and the Rivalry in the Indian Ocean

US, France, India and China are considered friendly capitals, and we have to keep a close tab on their individual naval and geo-political strategies if we want to remain in a position to either avoid blunders or intelligently advance our own national interests

The wider canvas of secure, free maritime travel and trade through the Indian Ocean has witnessed several key events in the past few months which deserve mention, if only as a follow-up on previous contributions in Mauritius Times, including that of TP Saran last week.

They are intricately linked to global competition and rivalries between superpowers, more particularly in the context of China’s legitimate but increasingly aggressive assertion of a global status equivalent to the US and Russia. The South China sea is the primary region where the Chinese are intent on flexing muscle and establishing an exclusive regional strategic domain by deliberately playing “Big Bully” in their immediate sphere. They can contend that the US consider the Caribbeans and Latin America as their strategic influence areas while Russia tries hard to do the same with the former East bloc countries.

In the snow-clad Himalayas, and as part of the same immediate vicinity strategy, China tested but ill-guessed India’s resolve on the Doklam plateau, where it had to back down when the latter firmly stared down the Chinese military threat, showing clearly that the Indian Army, Defense and Security forces are not (or no longer) a push-over for hostile bullying “provocateurs”. It was imperative for India, both as a country facing twin uncomfortable if not hostile neighbours, and as a nationalistic regional player of note, that the message got through to other Asian nations, friend or foe, and to more distant world capitals.

To come back to the naval front, the South China sea constitutes a permanent test of the US resolve to defend the rights of its allies (Japan, Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam…) and those of the international community for free maritime waterways in that volatile region. That is and remains the Asia-Pacific conundrum, with artificial Chinese islets, naval projections and displays, eye-ball to eye-ball tense confrontations between the US Pacific Fleet and the Chinese PLA-Navy. Under the unscripted Trump administration and the unlimited Chinese presidency of Xi Jinping, and with the simultaneous challenges in the Korean peninsula, it is difficult to predict how this situation will resolve and stabilise in a relatively balanced equilibrium. Managing rivalries for nuclear superpowers in that region seems to imply constant testing but always knowing the confrontational red lines not to cross.

We have a vast expanse of oceanic waters and their potential resources to manage with scarce means, limited aerial surveillance capacity, no structured navy, limited oceanic and under-sea survey capacities and few high-sea patrol frigates or trained personnel. We face a long ongoing battle with the UK over the recognition of our sovereignty on the excised Chagos-Diego archipelago, which has to be pursued by all means in international fora, even if we have acknowledged that the US base in Diego will remain pivotal to US naval and air forces in protecting and marshalling this increasingly strategic ocean…”

It is the more ambitious “second sphere” of China’s geo-political planning that interests us here in the Indian Ocean, where the bullying philosophy will be strongly contested by other key players being forced into some form of joint collaboration. Below are some of the important recent developments that may matter to us:

  1. Quadrilateral Security Dialogue: End 2017, after a quadrilateral security dialogue (QUAD), India, the US, Australia and Japan issued separate statements marking a radical shift from Asia-Pacific to Indo-Pacific as the major area of security concern, resolving to expand cooperation to “uphold a rules-based order and respect for international law in this strategically important region”. Quad was first mooted a decade back but it somehow did not materialize until late last year with PM Modi and the USA giving the push, both agitated by the prospects of China importing here the aggressive tactics evidenced in the South China Sea.
  2. Maritime Safety and Security in IORA: Almost simultaneously New Delhi hosted a strategic and technical meeting of the IORA concerning Maritime Safety and Security issues in the Indian Ocean region and the tangible and feasible solutions to successfully manage those challenges. The overall outcomes were amalgamated in the “Blueprint for Maritime Safety and Security in IORA”. Undoubtedly the QUAD will have a key role to play in our region and we cannot afford to ignore it. For our exposed state and its maritime zone, we would go further and believe the QUAD represents a key security guarantee.
  3. India-Singapore Strategic Relation: In November 2017 again, after “overwhelmingly successful and productive” (Sg Minister of Defense) talks, India and Singapore signed a historic agreement to deepen cooperation in the common defense and maritime security domains and called for ensuring freedom of navigation in critical sea lanes, resolving to boost overall defence cooperation with a particular focus on combating terrorism and piracy. Governing the Malacca Straits and access, it takes the India-Singapore strategic relation to another level.
  4. India-France Strategic Partnership: The bold and wide-ranging defense and cooperation agreements agreed and signed during French President Macron’s visit to India this month mark a major “game-changer” for both India and France in the Indian Ocean. Although the defense agreement is similar to that signed by India with the US in 2016 which allows the two militaries to use each other’s installations for repair and replenishment of supplies, this is the signal of a far broader naval, military and defense agreement between India, a QUAD participant, and France, a nation with significant bases and military presence in the Indian Ocean.

The joint statement by the two world leaders “recognize the crucial role that the multi-dimensional India-France strategic partnership will play in ensuring peace, security and stability in, and in bringing robust economic growth and prosperity to the Region.” The allusions and concerns about Agalega being used for military purposes should be allayed, even if the anti-Indian streak in some local circles will not.

We have a vast expanse of oceanic waters and their potential resources to manage with scarce means, limited aerial surveillance capacity, no structured navy, limited oceanic and under-sea survey capacities and few high-sea patrol frigates or trained personnel. We face a long ongoing battle with the UK over the recognition of our sovereignty on the excised Chagos-Diego archipelago, which has to be pursued by all means in international fora, even if we have acknowledged that the US base in Diego will remain pivotal to US naval and air forces in protecting and marshalling this increasingly strategic ocean.

The Indian Ocean is an area where competition for vital resources and commodities, import and export trade to Africa and the Middle East, free and secure maritime routes, coincide therefore with military bases, naval presences and strategic projections mostly by the US, France, India and China. These are considered friendly capitals, in particular France and India, and we have to keep a close tab on their individual naval and geo-political strategies if we want to remain in a position to either avoid blunders or intelligently advance our own national interests.

We trust either at Foreign Affairs or as an extension of the Diego cell operating under the experienced helm of former Cabinet Secretary Seebaluck, there may already be a specialised nucleus dedicated to other Indian Ocean matters. Otherwise it seems overdue.

Its mandate would be to develop information networks locally and internationally to follow and monitor strategies, operations, competitions, rivalries and shifting alliances of friendly powers in the region. It might usefully receive and centralise copies of all marine and sub-marine surveys conducted on our behalf, assist the data and monitoring of fish and marine resource exploitation in our Economic Zone. Obviously it could liaise with other Indian Ocean institutions and associations (COI, IORA) and should keep tab on the various regular venues like the Raisina Dialogue or the Shangri-La Dialogue, where top world planners expose their strategies and orientations as they impact our region.

 

* Published in print edition on 23 March 2018

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