PM Pravind Jugnauth’s first visit to India: Special Relationship Rebooted

 “The Indian Ocean is where the rivalry between the United States and China in the Pacific interlocks with the regional rivalry between China and India, and also with America’s fight against terrorism…”

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

 The Indian Ocean and its adjacent waters will be a central theatre of conflict and competition.

— US Marine Corps “Vision and Strategy 2025”

Rarely has a state visit by a Prime Minister to a foreign country raised so many questions and concerns. First, the rather sudden announcement of the visit by the Minister of Finance who is purportedly taken up by the preparation of the Budget Speech to be presented in about two weeks’ time came as a surprise. Second, the statement that he would seek to obtain funds for the repayment of investors of the Super Cash Back Gold from the Indian authorities was quite shocking. One would think that he would have been much better off not making such a statement even if he was envisaging using any sums obtained from India to that effect. Be that as it may, the fact is that the first visit of Pravind Jugnauth to India has been eventful to say the least.

Two main issues have retained the attention of observers concerning this trip to India. The terms of the agreement signed regarding the construction of infrastructural facilities which India proposes to finance on the island of Agalega and the USD 500M line of credit extended to Mauritius for public infrastructure development in the country. In a next article we shall deal with the latter issue.

Agalega: Construction of Jetty and Runway

The MOU signed between India and Mauritius regarding the proposed financing of these infrastructural development in the island of Agalega has caused hackles to be raised in many quarters.

Some of these reflect genuine concerns expressed by people who have the interest of Mauritius at heart. Given our past traumatic experience with Diego Garcia, which was excised from our national territory in contravention of international law just before independence against a paltry compensation from the British, these concerns are understandable even if one has to keep in mind that the circumstances are far from comparable.

Such genuine apprehensions, however, need to be given due consideration, and it is the duty of both governments to provide the assurances being sought especially as regards the preservation of our territorial integrity.

What is more disturbing is that there have unfortunately also been a number of innuendos if not outright attacks both in the social media and conventional newsprint in which the most sinister motives are being imputed to the protagonists of the agreement. Such inopportune comments can only serve to blur the issues and mar the debate by reducing the issues to the usual lowest common denominator of irrational communal sentiments.

The geo-political importance of the Indian Ocean has historically been a key preoccupation among superpowers. The call for its “demilitarization” of which India was a lead advocate in the days of the Cold War was always heavily politically loaded. With globalization and the rise of China and India as second-tier economic powers and their avowed ambitions for extending their respective “sphere of influence”, the situation in the Indian Ocean has become even more complex. Added to this, the changing nature of global threats and the emergence of the “war on terror” as a major determinant of foreign policy among Western nations have resulted in a significant re-alignment of global “alliances.”

India, for example, has clearly shifted from its leadership position of the Non-Aligned Movement to being explicitly aligned on the “war on terror” agenda. Writing in Foreign Affairs (2006), the respected analyst Raja Mohan states: “Today all the great powers, including the United States and China, support the Indian objective of promoting regional economic integration. The Bush administration has also started to defer to Indian leadership on regional security issues. Given the new convergence of US and Indian interests in promoting democracy and countering extremism and terrorism, New Delhi no longer suspects Washington of trying to undercut its influence in the region.”

It must therefore be acknowledged that this new positioning of India will impact on its actions in the Indian Ocean and add a new dimension to its presence in Mauritius.

It is undeniable that the new context has brought many threats nearer home for Mauritius. The trial of Somali pirates in Mauritius has been a concrete reminder of this. The onus is on Mauritius, however, to look for the opportunities which this renewed intense interest in the region opens up.

It can be postulated that there are three key elements which define the contours of our national foreign policy as regards the Indian Ocean – our special relationship with India; our historical, commercial and economic relations with Europe, and the increasing presence of China in Mauritius and the region. As far as the primary objective is concerned it would be the preservation of peace in the region and the eventual beneficial exploitation of the resources of our vast Exclusive Economic Zone.

The fact that there has been a convergence of US and Indian political interests: countering terrorism, promoting democracy and ensuring the security of sea-lanes, to name a few, constitutes a tectonic change from the past patterns of the pre-globalization and Cold War years. It therefore warrants a radical reshuffle of the cards in relation to the three determinants of our foreign policy mentioned earlier. Failing to grasp these intricacies of the underlying geo-political confrontation can lead to hasty and emotional conclusions.

While there is no doubt that the officials at our Ministry of Foreign Affairs have come to grasp with this new paradigm, there is clearly a lot of resistance from different quarters.

Rajiv Servansingh

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