The commemorations around France’s three centuries of presence in Mauritius and, more generally, in the Indian Ocean are welcome and should be a moment to reflect not just on the richness and complexities of past and present, but also to take better cognizance of its geo-political ambitions for the future in the region and how that might impact us as a sovereign friend and ally.
Obviously, all countries have long-term strategic interests beyond the tapestry of geographical, cultural, historical and economic ties that may link them. We need to know how we take stock and keep an intelligent finger on the pulse, not just as a national imperative for the long battle to establish sovereignty over the illegally excised BIOT, but as an instrument for economic and development planning beyond political horizons and vicissitudes.
Democracies in western countries have a significant array of structures and policy think tanks which analyse and carve out longer-term thrusts that influence if not downright overrule political game-players. Obama could neither close Guantanamo, nor would he have ever dared to peek into the US command in the Diego base and in the Indian Ocean. US presidents operate under very tight geo-strategic straightjackets. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has, we believe, the real behind-the-scenes authority to influence British policies and even thwart the wanderings of politicians they feel might jeopardise those longer-term interests as they perceive them to be. Upcoming emerging economies of South-East Asia, including India, China, Singapore and Malaysia are of particular interest in our spheres and have most surely developed their own strategic think-tank mechanisms, structures and processes. So we would expect have the bordering rim economies of South Africa and Australia.
There is no doubt that Reunion, with the addition of Mayotte, constitutes, a lynch-pin of French strategic interests, particularly in this Indian Ocean zone, where economic, financial and trade dynamism has been growing over the past decade. Mauritius, once termed “star and key of the Indian ocean” always had a slightly better geographic location which history attested to by handing us our resulting alliage of French and British administrations leading ultimately to our national sovereignty as opposed to l’ile Bourbon’s DOM status within France and the EU.
Up till the early eighties we could be considered as economic backwaters and poor parents to Reunion Island within an overall French presence that weighed heavily if not included, the Comoros, Madagascar, Djibouti on the African coastline. The SSR airport and the Port-Louis harbour for instance were vital but modest umbilical cords with the rest of the world. Things started changing from the mid-eighties with a succession of factors and the intelligent foresight of able politicians and policy planners at various levels including the BOI, the Tourism Authority and the MEDIA.
The development and entrenchment of tourism, the pace of the first wave of industrialisation through foot-loose East Asian textile investors were inoculating agents. They were backed up by existing preferential agreements with the EU and were rapidly followed by a succession of associated economic pillars, in the financial services sector, in offshore operations in the harbour area, in call centres and the still largely untapped IT industry as such.
Today, with immense investments, the airport has become a hub that better reflects our real regional status concerning traveller flow in the region. The national airline, although trapped in regular controversies over political interferences and shaken by some ill-advised hedging decisions taken despite its high-paid Boards and Executive staff, has managed to avoid unfathomed depths that have gobbled up many carriers in the past twenty years. Strapped by conflicting demands from hoteliers, investors and travellers, it has generally resisted newcomers with some success and attempts by France to tap into air-traffic generated by the country’s industries and tourism, two-thirds of which emanate from France and Reunion island. Numerous questions about its strategic role and future in a dynamic context require an intelligent strategic analysis of options and scenarios for the future.
Maritime Mauritius, as government rightly believes, holds promise of even greater potential impact as the country evaluates options for generating employment, wealth creation and economic growth. Economic and trade liberalisation, the rise of South Asian “tigers”, the increasing commercial traffic through the Indian Ocean, the troublesome piracy areas off the African coastline, the volatile aspects of Oman and Middle East politics, the Chinese wish for a foothold in this part of the world, the French desire to boost its presence, and extended Economic Zones of all island states, combine to confer a particular importance to sound strategic planning of our sovereign development interests.
France, backed by the EU, has initiated an ambitious program to develop its Outre-Mer ports, most particularly in the Grand Port Reunion where massive funds have been injected over the past ten years. Reunion Port has less depth access to larger container ships, less port back-areas for handling containers, less berthing quays, higher port handling costs, and is constrained by the fact that a large proportion of its containers (mostly filled from EU) have empty return trips. Nevertheless, with considerable financial, economic and think-tank resources, with key international armateurs like CMA-CGM (third largest worldwide), the French are known to harbour vast ambitions for tapping into regional economic dynamism through harbour development in Reunion as has been reported by Eco-Austral and French media. They are naturally extremely watchful of Mauritian plans and have ample means to do so.
On comparative scales we remain a small island with limited resources but we certainly can be proud that Port planners and politicians intelligently drove the port’s development up till now. There is every reason to believe that the MPA is fully cognizant of the risks, challenges and opportunities by this bristling area of confluence, cooperation and competition between the two sister ports in the Indian Ocean. The ambitious plans that are being presented today by government are probably the result of planning that has been ongoing and continually adjusted over the past decade. Eco-Austral makes an informed synthesis of Mauritian ambitions in its October 2014 issue under the heading “Port-Louis veut renouer avec son glorieux passé maritime”.
More than ever, this ability to plan strategic developments over and above the political horizon, must be safeguarded. One could even consider that some non-sectoral permanent think tank, unfettered from political interference and horizons, able to analyse geo-strategic interests of powerful allies (Europe, US, India, China and others) and project scenarios and options for safeguarding our own, might well, under the complex dynamics of today, serve the country’s development and strategic interests.
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