By Nita Chicooree-Mercier
The question of sovereignty comes up in public discourse in independent nations when agreements with other countries are perceived as a threat to self-determination or internal security. On a world stage where leaders try to cut out the best deal for their respective countries and their partners, every move is watched by citizens in case a clause might impel their country to step aside for the higher interest of another country.
The world is also a stage where everyone plays a part, some sad ones because of lack of stature and power, some for lack of ambition, and some are happy as the grasshoppers and content themselves with everyday survival. Others bag bright roles and strut across the stage smilingly, their pockets tinkling with coins and their brains bubbling with visions and projects; and then are rogues with a nuisance-value who have more than one mischief up their sleeves. Heroes, anti-heroes, villains, clowns, court jesters, secondary characters and followers pace up and down the stage, shake hands and sometimes, rattle swords to settle scores. Some refuse to leave the stage and take off their shining apparels and trappings when the show is over and their days of glory, too. Sometimes roles are reversed depending which centuries we are living in. What matters is not to live in a delusional dream world and keep barking at the wrong tree.
The question of an agreement between Mauritius and India over Agalega looks like a bone of contention stuck up the throat of a few people to the point of choking them. ‘Our sovereignty’ is the buzzword in the arguments put forward, and despite annoyance at the secrecy of the deal and claim for public disclosure of its clauses, this sounds more like an approximate interpretation of its implication. It implies that if need be in the future India may make full use of the airport infrastructure in which it has invested. It is not clear whether the outrage stems from the lack of explicit and clear information to the public before the deal was struck or from the possibility of India’s use of the runway in times to come. Maybe both.
It is generally assumed that there should be complete transparency in everything governments undertake. The truth is that there has never been total transparency even in advanced democratic countries regarding deals in foreign policy.
Sovereignty: an increasingly fuzzy concept
What do we mean by ‘sovereignty’ today? And what does China’s President Xi Jinping mean when some time back he stated that China is the only sovereign country in the world? The fact of holding trillions of dollars in its banks, more than all US debts combined, power to dictate policy to its banks and state-owned companies, its disregard for world opinion on its eviction of its citizens from their homes for construction purposes, the single-minded decision of the CCP to give lifelong tenure to the President in February 2018, the resilience of its export sector, the upper hand in foreign policy deals which will keep debtors from Asia to Africa on their knees for decades, the financial means to sustain gigantic projects of the Belt and Road Initiative across the world, its space technology ambition, the number of nuclear heads able to strike every town of enemy countries East and West — a combination of all these elements, presumably?
Sovereignty is linked to the notion of nationhood, independence, territorial borders, internal decision-taking and national pride. It has been increasingly blurred in a world driven by market economy, liberalism and military alliances.
1994 Oklahoma City bomber Timothy James McVeigh, a far-right wing partisan, justified his desperate act by his belief that the US was losing its sovereignty in compromises with supra-national bodies like the UN. The US also pumped lots of funds into the coffers of NATO, pulled the strings of the conflict in Afghanistan, intervened directly in former Yugoslavia and Iraq in 1990. Sporadically, American citizens have a surge of nostalgia for the isolationism defined by the Monroe doctrine which keeps their country away from the affairs of the Old Continent and the rest of them.
For some years now, discontent across Europe springs from a feeling of loss of sovereignty in policies put in place by respective governments following the guidelines of Brussels technocrats. Anyway, how sovereign is a country when it sells its airports, palaces, vineyards, football teams to other countries? At the peak of its financial power as world economy No. 2, Japan went on a buying spree of other countries’ property in the 80s, followed by oil-rich Gulf countries in the early 2000s and now by China taking the lead. In such situations, the national pride of countries which sell off their property takes a back seat.
The Imperial enterprise
Further back in history, like in India, China’s governors were dismayed by the inexhaustible greed of foreign powers who gate-crashed inland and on their waters. In the 19th century amid tension raised by the Opium Wars, the ruthlessness of the red-haired barbarians from the West, Britain, the US and France prompted the Chinese Emperor to write to Queen Victoria to complain about the military aggression on its territory by her subjects. Little did he realize that she was part of the imperial enterprise and was insensitive to the plea of her faraway counterpart.
In January 2019, the far-left newspaper Libération in France raised an alarm by publishing false information on the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, accusing President Macron of giving away Alsace-Lorraine to Germany. Seasoned leftist journalist Laurent Joffrin splashed the fake news in a magazine without verification and aroused unnecessary concern over the loss of French sovereignty.
The international geo-political situation is far from reassuring and the onus is on individual countries to rally with the right partners, and it may mean sharing territory for defense purposes. It is no news that American military bases are scattered around the world on other countries’ territories since the Cold War era to deter the “Red devil” which Communism represents, and now focused on China’s expansion and adventures in international waters and elsewhere. To the dismay of France, China laid its hands on the port of Djibouti.
The Syrian quagmire has given new ambitions to Russia and Turkey. Autocratic political régimes including that of Philippines’ Duterte have been normalized in recent years. Iran still views the US as Satan incarnate and Israel, its protégé, a nation to be wiped out from world map. Jewish lobbies in the US and Israel do not intend to let history repeat itself. The US has left unfinished work with two rogues still at the helm in the Middle-East. Iran and Saudi Arabia are harbouring a 14-century-old enmity which sees no sign of ending. They are both vying for influence in the religious sphere.
Western countries are unpredictable and often unreliable, so much does self-interest overweigh all other considerations when it comes to take sides. China vows it has peaceful intentions and is committed to dialogue with different partners in win-win deals. The West is suspicious that China might tear up the rule book abroad on trade and territorial disputes just as it muzzled dissent at home by locking up lawyers and rights activists. From India’s point of view, China remains the backstabbing slit-eyed devil of 1962.
Seeking security in the midst of distrust
As things stand, there is lot of distrust among different partners on the world stage and the overall situation looks rather dangerous – with innumerable trade wars, clashing interests, monopoly on precious natural resources, the advance of autocratic régimes, anger sparked by crippling sanctions in Iran, North Korea and Russia, religious extremism bent on pursuing its agenda across the world, far right-wing rising influence, angry loners dying to take revenge, uncontrolled migration and warmongering countries.
At the end of the day, every country endeavours to get the best deals to ensure the security and welfare of their citizens, and rallies with like-minded countries on the basis of shared principles, political ideology, economic interests and cultural affinities. No democratic country feels like sacrificing its model of free society to kneel down in front of autocratic tyrants and religious extremist psychopaths. Mauritius is closer to India on many points, including pluralism, tolerance and multi-culturalism. All major powers seek geo-strategic allies to counter attacks by opponents.
Why double standards?
Not much fuss was raised in Mauritius when an agreement was made to share Tromelin with France for specific purposes. Part of the public bristles whenever India comes into the picture. That’s probably why official discourse refrains from debating the topic of Agalega publicly. What is at stake is the type of civilization we want to contribute to and promote, and where our general interests lie. Europe and US are still key trade partners. Mauritius may have to bond up with other forward-looking and liberal countries to safeguard its cyber security system and enhance cooperation in promising sectors of knowledge.
What matters in the long run is all efforts should be made to promote understanding and peace in one’s country and in the world.
* Published in print edition on 10 May 2019