Interview: Vijay Makhan – Former Secretary for Foreign Affairs
* Electoral Petitions: ‘The law may be an ass but neither the judges nor the people are fools’
* ‘Both India and China are close to us. We need to ensure that in the rivalry that underpins their relationship, we are not caught in between’
In light of the signing this week during the visit of Dr S. Jaishankar, External Affairs Minister of India, of the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation and Partnership Agreement (CECPA) between Mauritius and India, Vijay Makhan, former Secretary for Foreign Affairs gives his views on the implications for both our relations with India and China – which outpaced India in signing an equivalent agreement earlier – as well as for the business sector. He expects the latter to get out of their comfort zone and rise to the opportunities that the CECPA will unleash. He also comments on the local political scene, feeling that Mauritians will tend to stick to the traditional parties to the detriment of the new formations that are sprouting.
Mauritius Times: The Comprehensive Economic Cooperation and Partnership Agreement (CECPA) between Mauritius and India has been signed this week during the visit of Dr S. Jaishankar, External Affairs Minister of India. We have had earlier this year the Mauritius-China Free Trade Agreement. Such trade agreements can be significant to our economy if Mauritius business can tap to the maximum the potential of the access to and opportunities in the respective markets. What does past experience tell us about Mauritius’ performance in that regard?
Vijay Makhan: I have had the opportunity of underlining the paradox of the trade system within the context of overall international relations in the past, especially with the advent of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) way back in 1995.
The Organisation was reputedly expected to create an international rules-based environment where each member state would have a voice and a vote, and the international trading system would be regulated by consensual agreement reached by all participating members. Yet, since then, the world has witnessed a number of trade agreements, bilateral as well as multilateral, between countries and regions. The number of such agreements has grown exponentially while the WTO has failed to move ahead, and if at all, at a snail’s pace. The Doha Round of negotiations which was launched with great expectations and meant to wrap up conclusively within three years, with Development at its core, is still struggling decades later!
The CECPA finally signed during the Indian External Affairs Minister’s visit here must equally be seen contextually, as indeed should the Mauritius-China FTA.
It is true that it is for governments to facilitate market access wherever opportunities and advantages present themselves, but it is for the businesses to tap into these and derive the benefits that potentially exist. It is up to them now. Past experience does show that we have been rather slow in the uptake. Our business sector has so far been more conservative in its approach, and is rather timid to wet their shirts and exploit the new avenues thus provided.
Some of these agreements that we enter into cover so many openings, but they are hardly ever ventured into. We are content to stay within the comfort zone of known experience.
* You must have been in office at the Ministry of External Affairs when negotiations started on the Mauritius-India CECPA. Why has it taken so long to finalise in spite of the “special” nature of the ties between our two countries? Do you have the feeling that its resolution was somehow tied up with the Double Taxation Avoidance Agreement (DTAA)?
I was Secretary for Foreign Affairs when the CECPA negotiations were launched (2004). CECPA had both a political and an economic motivation. However, very shortly after the process had started, the talks stalled and stayed in abeyance for a number of years.
I left in 2005 and we are now in 2021…
The DTAA has since been modified with the results that we know and under circumstances not as flattering as those from our side, who renegotiated and signed it, would have us believe. Indeed, the consequences are there for all to see. Mauritius has lost its prime position in the field of Foreign Direct Investment to India much to the glee of our competitors and segments of the specialised media which had made it their mission to have the DTAA renegotiated under new terms.
So, yes unless the contrary is proven, the DTAA issue, according to me, was the reason for the standstill in the conclusion of the CECPA, despite the assurances at the highest level that nothing would be done that would jeopardise the economy of Mauritius.
* It could be argued that the “special relationship” between Mauritius and India cannot however escape inevitable adjustments that would result from the new role and ambitions which India is setting for itself in the new emerging world order, and in particular in this part of the world. History as well as affective and cultural affinities may henceforth have less weight in that relationship. What do you think?
We have always held very enviable relations with India and indeed our two countries are very close from different perspectives, not least the affinities you mention. But the geopolitics of the world has undergone tremendous change and we would be naive here not to recognise that and adjust our own approach to international relations.
International relations and diplomatic practice are never static. There is always a dynamism that propels them and we need to adjust accordingly. Again, as I often repeat, there is no permanent friendship at that level, but rather permanent interests. India, being an emerging country to be reckoned with, while not belittling its long-established friendship with Mauritius, adjusts its policies in accordance with the exigencies of the moment and its own medium- and long-term objectives and interest. One cannot hold that against them.
* As regards the Mauritius-China FTA, which came into effect since 1 January and will allow Mauritius to gain access to its equally huge market, it’s Beijing’s first with any African country. Foreign observers who keep a tab on developments in the region have intimated that with this FTA Beijing is set “to get a strategic foothold in Mauritius, which traditionally has enjoyed close economic, military and cultural links with India”. How does competition in that regard benefit the long-term interests of Mauritius?
It may be perceived that, in that respect, that is, in regard to the Mauritius-China FTA, India may have lost the edge in terms of timing. There must be some regret somewhere that the CECPA was not finalised earlier than and ahead of the Mauritius-China FTA. But I don’t think that it will change the status quo in so far as our relations with these two emerging giants are concerned.
Again, at the risk of repeating myself, Mauritius has a policy of ‘Friends to All’. It has no other option when you consider size, population, geography and remoteness from major markets. We have to play it as openly as possible. Both India and China are close to us. We need to ensure that in the rivalry that underpins their relationship, we are not caught in between, one way or the other. We simply cannot afford it.
But of course, on major issues of importance and significance on the world scene, we will need to take position in our larger interests, fully aware of all the consequences of our actions.
As regards the strategic foothold that you mention, Mauritius has always, since independence and through successive governments, played its cards face up and I don’t think this strategy will or should change. Indeed, it’s not in our interest to indulge in secretive or backdoor diplomacy.
* So much time and energy are lost in petty political squabbles here that one wonders if the political leadership is alive to the threats and opportunities present or may be derived from the competition for a strategic foothold in the region involving countries with which Mauritius has had friendly relations and historical ties. What’s your take on that?
You are quite right. As I mentioned earlier, we have been following the same pattern in our dealings and, as it appears, we are happy to allow matters to run their own seemingly natural course. Our country has been politicised to extremes and everything that is done or undertaken is politically motivated. By this, I mean on the local political scoreboard and not necessarily in the larger interest of the country. So, we are happy to let matters run on beaten tracks.
There are a few issues of national concern which should transcend party political perspectives and considerations and which require a commonality of purpose. Yet, our political leadership is hell-bent in going at cross purposes, instead of putting up a common front. The Government is not interested in what others outside of it may think or contribute to the advancement of the country regarding those issues. And that is very unfortunate and regrettable. Previous governments have, on occasion, also played very egoistically, though maybe to a lesser extent.
It has come to my attention that the government has even interfered in the manner of functioning of diplomats accredited here. Should that aver, it is highly condemnable, both for the government and the diplomatic representation which may have succumbed to the desiderata of the powers that be. Who, where and how a diplomatic agent accredited here meets falls very much within the purview of his/her attributes unless of course such meetings are subversive elements and may disrupt social harmony or undermine the security of the country.
* On the other hand, the British have dug their heels in the sand as regards the Chagos Archipelago despite the pronouncements of the UN, the International Court of Justice, etc. That was to be expected, and so would the continuity of American interest prevail under Joe Biden. We seem to be in for the long haul, right? Or would you have an alternative option in mind?
On this score, the British government is clearly on the wrong side of the equation. And the mantra that they keep on repeating – to the effect that they have always held sovereignty over the Chagos but that they would revert/return/cede sovereignty to Mauritius when the archipelago is no longer required for the defence of the West – has been blown to pieces by the UN, the International Court of Justice, etc.
It is in our interest to constantly refer to the issue in all possible ways even if we have to undress the UK’s double standards on that score. This episode of the dismemberment of the territory of Mauritius prior to independence in contravention of U.N. resolutions and the dislodgement of our citizens of Chagossian origin is a bleak and shameful one in the history of the UK. It has the opportunity to make honourable amends, but it is hell-bent on its ego trip and continues to act in defiance of international law, which it is duty-bound to uphold considering its position on the international scene and its permanent membership of the UN Security Council.
The Biden administration has yet to pronounce itself clearly on the Chagos issue, and I do hope that we are doing everything that we should to reassure them as to our intentions. We need in that perspective to use all possible avenues open to us including soliciting the assistance of common friends in that endeavour. I do hope that this matter has been given prime of place on the agenda of discussions with Minister Jayshankar, who himself has been a career diplomat and knows the intricacies of the issue.
We also need to act in concert with other groups that have a keen interest in this matter including the UK All Party Parliamentary Group on the Chagos at the House of Commons which has a very proactive approach to this whole matter. I understand that shortly the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Commons will be reviewing and debating the whole issue of the UK policy regarding the Chagos. I do hope we seize this opportunity to enlist a hearing at the appropriate level.
We should not give up on trying to open a dialogue with the UK with a view to upholding the findings and conclusions of the various Courts and the General Assembly of the United Nations. After all, we are both members of the Commonwealth, for whatever that is worth.
* It would appear we are also in for the long haul on the local political front – at least for another three years, unless the Supreme Court changes the equation with its rulings in relation to the electoral petitions. How do you see things evolving on the political front in the months ahead?
It is true that the government of the day has the numbers in Parliament and despite the numerous scandals that besiege it, all the elected members of the majority, Best Losers included, have pledged their unflinching support to the Prime Minister following the resignations of Sawmynaden and Bodha, albeit for different reasons.
We are now well into the second year since the elections were held. Electoral petitions have been dutifully lodged in the Supreme Court, and these have been dragging on beyond reasonable time on account of the delaying tactics and other subterfuges used. Recounts have been asked for, yet matters are being stretched ad infinitum. But all these fall within the parameters of the law and there is nothing one can do about it and the judges have to allow all avenues provided for by the law to be exploited.
As they say, the law may be an ass but neither the judges nor the people are fools. Let’s see how the cookies finally crumble.
* There’s already, as the French would say, ‘rififi’ in the so-called‘‘Entente LP-MMM-PMSD’ following the remarks of one relatively obscure Labour MP, who might have voiced out the current views of the Labour leadership itself about the political weight of the LP and its capacity to go it alone and win the next municipal elections. If that is so, why would the Labour Party want to finish off the ‘Entente’?
Frankly speaking, I am at a loss to understand the posture of the Labour Party with respect to the view expressed by the MP in question. As we speak, I have not heard the MP being rebuked and called to order. So is the view expressed the line of thought within the Party? No wonder, people are simply fed up with the way the mainstream parties behave.
The time has come for all to let go of their ego and agree on what’s best for the country and our people. We are losing so much time in quibbles that people will soon give up on the political leadership. I think it is also high time for some to realise that their active shelf life has expired. That they may still be useful is in no doubt, but in other capacities. As is said, while the going is good, the good should get going. For the Entente to work, the parties involved would be well-inspired to elaborate the alternative programme they want to propose to the people and not be solely concerned with ridding the country of the present regime.
Having said that, I think the political debate is being skewed by the upsurge in the call to rid the country of “dinosaurs”. But who are the so-called dinosaurs? Are they found only in the political field? Would you qualify those who have been around for decades in certain institutions like trade unions as dinosaurs? Would those captains of industry who have been around leading their enterprises be qualified as dinosaurs?
Would you get rid of all the parliamentarians who have been around for a few terms to make room for some of the so-called new blood who, at every given opportunity, especially in the majority, open their mouths to either sing the praise of their leader or blabber nonsense, or come up with new mathematical formulae to explain the unexplainable? That debate is sterile and will lead us nowhere.
*What you are saying is that the so-called “traditional” parties remain our best bet in spite of their ageing “dinosaurs”?
What I am saying is that there is no perceptible vacuum yet in the political arena. The people are used to the traditional parties that they have grown up with. It is true that some of those who have been with the parties in good times and against all odds for ages should gradually make space for new blood. And, that has nothing to do with age. Such stalwarts can still contribute to the advancement of their respective parties in other capacities while ensuring that the new elements are properly coached, advised and groomed.
No one is indispensable, but one doesn’t change one’s parents simply because they have aged, no?
* What do you make of the recent enthusiasm of so many of our politicians or erstwhile politicians to launch a political party of their own? There’s the Alan Ganoo-Tania Diolle combine, which attracted a good crowd last Sunday; Rama Valayden and Nando Bodha will also have their parties soon. All this is happening despite the fact that the elections may not be held anytime soon…
Most will end up as a flash in the pan… Our political history since independence has witnessed the birth and demise of many such groupings. At best, they will become appendices to the mainstream parties if they do survive and are not subsumed.
Let’s face it, people are generally self-motivated… and will always turn up to be seen by those who wield temporary power at the point in time, much to the satisfaction of the launchers of these parties whose ego is massaged in the process. The real gauge lies with spontaneity as the recent citizen marches demonstrated. There was no ‘rent a crowd’ phenomenon, if you know what I mean.
* Published in print edition on 23 February 2021