Mauritius: “Stella, Clavisque, Maris, Indici” again

In other words, the Indian Ocean will be where global power dynamics will be revealed. Together with the contiguous Near East and Central Asia, it constitutes the new Great Game in geo-politics.

— Robert D. Kaplan – ‘Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power’

The above extract from Kaplan’s book which first appeared in 2010 has been on the dot in its prediction of how the Indian Ocean would evolve into a key theatre of geo-political competition if not latent conflict over the years. The end of the Cold War has transformed the nature of the competition without, as some had expected, really reducing the covert tension among a growing number of players like India and China that have among others joined the US and France which already have substantial naval presence in the region. The recent phenomenon of the rise of populism in European nations will add a new nationalistic dimension to the already complex issues as has been aptly illustrated by the intervention of Marine Le Pen’s Front National on the question of the established “co-gestion” of Tromelin by France and Mauritius.

Looking at the bright side of things, the fact that Mauritius is presently engaged with two large powers (Britain and France) over territorial disputes can be viewed as a testimony to the centrality of Mauritius’s position in the region. In the larger scheme of things, the position of Mauritius will ultimately be dictated by some of the same concerns which presently animate some of the main protagonists (the US and its traditional allies and India) while attempting to keep a “neutral ”stance towards China. As Mauritius emerges again in its erstwhile envied status as the “star and key” of the Indian Ocean, an intelligent handling of this new situation could be hugely beneficial to a future development strategy which is based on optimum exploitation of our huge Economic Exclusive Zone.

We are already embroiled in what looks more and more like being a protracted diplomatic tussle with the British government regarding our sovereignty over Diego Garcia. Marine Le Pen’s Front National has recently challenged the French government in the “Assemblée nationale” on the matter of the “co-gestion” formula heretofore applied as an amicable compromise on the difference opposing our two nations on the issue of the territorial appurtenance of the tiny atoll. The French government has been forced to withdraw its proposal to get the accord formally approved by the Assembly.

While all diplomatic resources should be deployed to safeguard our interests, it would probably be unwise to engage in a public commotion with the French authorities on that issue at this particular juncture. Not only can it be surmised that our limited diplomatic resources are already stretched with the dispute over Diego Garcia in addition to their routine tasks, but more importantly there is no reason to allow Ms Le Pen to dictate the agenda and draw us in this battle at this most inopportune time. With a presidential campaign raging, there is little chance that even our potential allies in France would dare to come out in open support of a position which could be perceived to compromise French national interests.

Apart from its geographical position at the very heart of what is emerging as a defining zone of global geo-politics, the strength of Mauritius is founded on the diversity of its population originating from several of the protagonists of what Kaplan calls the new Great Game. The “special relationship” which Mauritius endeavours to maintain with those diverse nations is based on the notion of “pays de peuplement”. Of these, the relationship with India has probably been the most significant not only because of the fact that Mauritius has a largely predominant population of Indian origin. Probably more significantly it is because since it has unabashedly embraced openness and globalization the foreign policy of India has been dramatically transformed. Its increasingly affirmative role as a major regional actor has been facilitated by the convergence of US and Indian political interests: countering terrorism, promoting democracy and regional economic integration and ensuring the security of sea-lanes, to name but a few.

The history of Mauritius, as former colony of France and Britain, and the economic “integration” of our respective economies  – based initially on the “plantation economy” model of the colonial era and then the post-colonial “Lome” and “Sugar Protocol”  global regimes –  have maintained Mauritius in a state of economic dependence on those two countries. Although some efforts at diversification and the new ideology of globalization has meant that such dependence has formally lost some of its worst negative connotations, , in political and economic analysis it nevertheless remains a significant determinant of our foreign policy options. It has actually introduced what one may describe as a “structural bias” for a pro-Western stance in our foreign policy making since independence.

Any significant departure from this stand is bound to have consequences. We believe it would be terribly naïve, for example, to presume that the recent warning issued by the British about risks of robbery and larceny against tourists visiting Mauritius, is devoid of malice and unrelated to the tough stand taken by the Prime Minister of Mauritius on the Diego Garcia saga.

To come back to the “structural bias”, it may be interesting to observe how the changes in India’s own foreign policy, whose objectives are increasingly accepted as being compatible with the interests of the West in the Indian Ocean, may eventually reduce some of the “psychological barriers” to further alignment of the interests of Mauritius and India in this part of the world. The well respected Indian author C Raja Mohan, writing in ‘Foreign Affairs’ (August 2006) stated the following:

“India is arriving on the world stage as the first large, economically powerful, culturally vibrant, multi-ethnic, multi-religious democracy outside of the geographic West. As it rises, India has the potential to become a leading member of the  ‘political west’  and to play a key role in the great political struggles of the next decades. Whether it will, and how soon, depends above all on the readiness of the Western powers to engage India on its own terms.”

To those familiar with the matter there is no space for doubt about how the situation has evolved concerning the attitude of the West over the decade since those words were written and how this significant trend should impact Indo-Mauritian relations going forward.

Rajiv Servansingh

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