The Fuss about Agalega! 


By Atma Doolooa

Any deal on Agalega engineered between Mauritius and India will be decried and denounced by the learned and wise opinion leaders and the press as a sell-out to India, perhaps even by some from the civil society of Indian ancestry and the pseudo secularists of modern Mauritius. I don’t give a hoot about those who would certainly tax me as being unpatriotic for my uninhibited and unconventional views and submission in favour of a deal between Mauritius and India. But I will certainly defend their rights to articulate such views. That’s democracy and freedom of speech! Although they were all blind when the Dragon was given red carpet! There is the question of balance of power in the Indian Ocean to take into account. The long term interests of Mauritius require that that there should be some balance between the powers that hold sway over the Indian Ocean, and India must be one of those powers. The superpowers are very active in this part of the world for a number of reasons.

The Americans possess Diego Garcia through British designs and intrigues, who extorted the territory from SSR before ceding independence under his leadership. In the 1960s, America’s naval policy in the Indian Ocean had many ingredients. The foremost was to deter Russia from interrupting the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf countries to America and Europe. Politically, this entailed American support to Iran to counter Russian influence in Iraq. It entailed maintaining a naval presence in the Persian Gulf, and wherever possible, in the countries on the rim of the Indian Ocean, not only to secure the sea lanes of communication which crisscrossed the Indian Ocean but also to inject military force from seaward when required. By 1968, the American navy had effected the necessary adjustments in its global naval deployment. The 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait marked the most intense operational period in Diego Garcia’s history.

The French have Reunion Island, Mayotte and Tromelin, another Mauritian owned islets, 9 000 kms from its metropolitan borders. France is geographically present in the area in the Department of La Réunion, but also in six other groups, some of which are inhabited islands, others only rock. But whatever the importance of these territories may be, they carry with them a wide oceanic exclusive economic zone.

One may also note the deployment of the French forces all over the world, and particularly in the Indian Ocean region, at a strength of about 3 500 in La Réunion, Mayotte and Antarctica, and around 1500 embarked on board the ships present in the Indian Ocean maritime zone. Why such a presence, particularly from the maritime point of view?

Two major factors account for the deployment of French naval forces in the Indian Ocean. France has economic and political interests in the whole area and may direct her envious eyes on Rodrigues one fine day – now that Port Mathurin is autonomous, a jargon for semi independence?

The oil traffic, which follows two major routes flowing east and south bound from the Gulf, is of vital importance to the country’s economy. Two thirds of the whole Brent traffic transit through the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea. Half of the world container ship traffic and one third of the bulk carrier traffic flow through the Indian Ocean.

Therefore, France has defense needs, sovereignty obligations and economic stakes in the contiguous Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ). These cover 2 700 000 sq km, hence up to one fourth of the French economic zones throughout the world

Remember that the Indian Ocean has 75 000 000 sq km of surface.

Thanks to the Department of La Réunion, France is a member of the Indian Ocean Commission (IOC), which is an organisation for regional co-operation including France, Mauritius, the Seychelles, Madagascar and the Comoros.

The new self-asserting Dragon, China, has come to play havoc with its own designs in the Indian Ocean and Africa and beyond. It sends feelings of awe and chill down the spine because it is still a totalitarian regime, with no transparent policy!

Maritime power represents military, political, and economic power, exerted through an ability to use the sea or deny its use to others. It has traditionally been employed to control “use-of-the-sea” activities undertaken by nations for their general economic welfare and, often, even for their very survival. Maritime power and naval power are not synonymous, the latter being a sub-set of the former.

Traditional land powers are more and more focusing on developing their maritime capabilities to safeguard their economic interests and extend their sphere of influence. Historically, China has been a land power. However, over the past two decades, it has found itself increasingly dependent on resources and markets accessible only via maritime routes. This has left Beijing with the dilemma of how to safeguard its trade routes and flow of resources in a world in which the United States is the dominant naval power, and both India and Japan — China’s neighbours and strategic rivals — are stepping up their own naval capabilities.

Ensuring a continuous supply of energy has come to become one of the most important prerequisites for China in building an advanced, industrialized state. Despite being the world’s sixth largest oil producer, China has been a net importer of oil since 1994. It imported 40 million metric tons in 1999 and is projected to import over 100 million tons beyond 2010.

China’s dependence on seafood is another major interest that has increased in recent years. China will therefore have both to ensure security of its sea-lanes and shipping industry and fishing areas to ensure its continued development. As of today, 85 percent of China’s trade is sea-based. Also, with its 26 shipyards, China has emerged as the world’s fourth largest shipbuilder. Thus, for both reasons, China needs assured access and control over its adjacent oceans.

Besides, China’s perceptions regarding other major powers, especially Moscow and Washington, have been the most important external factor shaping its Indian Ocean vision and policy initiatives. While initially it was American containment that explained all their activities in the Indian Ocean, the Sino-Soviet split in the early 1960s made China suspicious of Moscow’s initiatives and intentions in this region.

In recent years, a new great game has begun between India and China to bring the Maldives and Sri Lanka under their respective sphere of influence in the Indian Ocean Region (I.O.R.). After Myanmar and Bangladesh, to complete the “arc of influence” in South Asia, China is determined to enhance military and economic cooperation with the Maldives and Sri Lanka.

In Sri Lanka, China has successfully obtained large exclusive zones, with oil exploration rights, and the development of port and bunker facilities at Hambantota, the strengthening of military cooperation and boosting bilateral trade with Colombo which are all against Indian interests and ambitions in the region.

Although China claims that its bases are only for securing energy supplies to feed its growing economy, the Chinese base in the Maldives is motivated by Beijing’s determination to contain and encircle India and thereby limit the growing influence of the Indian navy in the region. The Marao base deal was finalized after two years of negotiations, when Chinese Prime minister Zhu Rongzi visited Male’ in May 2001. Once Marao comes up as the new Chinese “pearl,” Beijing’s power projection in the Indian Ocean would be augmented, writes Dipanjan Roy Chaudhury, a special correspondent working with the India Bureau of the Kuwait News Agency, in Delhi.

Sri Lanka‘s recent allocation of an oil exploration block in the Mannar Basin to China connotes a Chinese presence just a few miles from India’s southern tip, thus causing strategic discomfort. In economic terms; it could also mean the end of the monopoly held by Indian oil companies in this realm, putting them into direct and stiff competition from Chinese oil companies. At Hambantota, on the southern coast of Sri Lanka, Beijing is building bunkering facilities and an oil tank farm. This infrastructure will help service hundreds of ships that traverse the sea-lanes of commerce off Sri Lanka. The Chinese presence in Hambantota would be another vital element in its strategic circling of India already enhanced through its projects in Pakistan, Myanmar and Bangladesh.

It is Sri Lanka’s strategic location that has prompted Beijing to aim for a strategic relationship with Colombo. Beijing is concerned about the growing United States presence in the region as well as about increasing Indo-US naval cooperation in the Indian Ocean. China looks at using the partnership with Sri Lanka to enhance its influence over strategic sea-lanes of communication from Europe to East Asia and oil tanker routes from the Middle East to the Malacca Straits.

With Tianli’s exclusive economic zone in Mauritius, China has consolidated its access to the Indian Ocean and totally disarmed India through the Karakoram Highway and Karachi, through the China-Burma road to Burmese ports and through the Malacca Straits, especially once they have established their supremacy over the South China Sea.

By 2020 China plans to deploy task forces consisting of two aircraft carriers, two nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs), six general-purpose fast attack nuclear-powered submarine (SSNs), 18 destroyers and about 30 frigates in the Indian Ocean Region. And now with the opening up and deepening of ties between the New Delhi and Washington the policy makers in Beijing feel India is further facilitating and consolidating the American presence in the Indian Ocean region as a means of countering Beijing.

Where does Mauritius stand in this cobweb? Who is our friend and benefactor?

* Published in print edition on 22 October 2010

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