Business Standard

Mauritius deepens India’s naval reach

- The writers are, respective­ly, vice-president for studies and foreign policy, and associate fellow, Africa, at ORF

On February 29, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Mauritian counterpar­t, Pravind Jugnauth, jointly inaugurate­d a new airstrip and jetty on the Mauritian archipelag­o of Agaléga, thereby underlinin­g India’s role as a net security provider in the Indian Ocean Region.

This infrastruc­ture developmen­t project, along with six more India-assisted developmen­t projects in Mauritius, is part of the Modi administra­tion’s Security and Growth for All (Sagar) policy. The policy aims to deepen India’s economic and security cooperatio­n with maritime partners, further helping them in improving their maritime security capabiliti­es. The new infrastruc­ture will also bolster India’s image as a maritime power and enhance its presence in the Indian Ocean Region.

Located 1,100 kilometres north of the main island of Mauritius, the archipelag­o of Agaléga consists of two islands. Surrounded by the Seychelles to the north, the Maldives, the US base Diego Garcia and Chagos Island to the east, and Madagascar, the Mozambique Channel, and the entire eastern coast of Africa to the west, its strategic location makes it vulnerable to terrorism, piracy and the illegal narcotics trade. Furthermor­e, recent years have seen massive deployment of foreign vessels in the region, particular­ly warships from China.

India has been pushing for the upgrade of this airstrip since 2005. However, in 2015, during PM Modi’s Mauritius visit, India eventually signed the agreement. Under the memorandum of understand­ing (MOU), India formalised the plan to develop the existing 800-metre airstrip into a full-length airfield capable of receiving larger planes. Previously, India had to station its large P-8I aircraft in neighbouri­ng French Reunion Island. With this upgrade, India will now be able to station and deploy these large carriers directly in the island.

Along with the upgraded airstrip, the MOU included building a port close to the current jetty, establishi­ng institutio­ns for intelligen­ce and communicat­ions facilities, and installing a transponde­r system to identify ships travelling through the Indian Ocean. In the words of the Mauritian Prime Minister, the new facilities would help to upgrade and reinforce maritime security in the region. The port would also be used by Indian ships passing through the region for refuelling.

However, the road to developing this infrastruc­ture was anything but smooth. In 2020, massive protests broke out in the country, accusing the Mauritian government of compromisi­ng national security. Some of these anti-india protests may have also had support from Beijing. Neverthele­ss, constructi­on commenced in 2019 and was completed within five years despite the challenges posed by the pandemic and other related issues. With the operationa­lisation of the infrastruc­ture, India reaffirms its commitment to enhancing regional maritime security.

Considerin­g the fierce contestati­on over influence in the sea, this infrastruc­ture would also help India to ameliorate some of the concerns arising from China’s rapid expansion in the region. Since 2008, Chinese warships have patrolled the Indian Ocean, and since 2017, China has maintained a naval military base in Djibouti.

The importance of this infrastruc­ture becomes even more marked in light of the Maldives’ pointedly anti-india posture, highlighte­d by the signing of an agreement with Beijing “on China’s provision of military assistance” and Indian military forces having been asked to vacate the island nation. With India’s relationsh­ip with the Maldives reaching its historic low, Mauritius becomes pivotal in India’s quest to retain its influence in the Indian Ocean region.

In fact, India and Mauritius share a long history, dating back to the arrival of Indian indentured labourers on the island nation in British boats to work as artisans and masons and later on sugar plantation­s. In honour of Mahatma Gandhi’s Dandi March, the National Day of Mauritius is celebrated on March 12. With over 70 per cent of the Mauritian population being of Indian descent, Indian influence in the island nation remains significan­t.

Beyond its historical ties, India is currently one of Mauritius’ top trading partners, with $554.19 million in bilateral trade in 2022–23. Over $200 million has been invested in the past five years by Indian enterprise­s. In 2021, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar signed the Comprehens­ive Economic Cooperatio­n and Partnershi­p Agreement (CECPA), marking India’s first trade agreement with any African nation. He also announced a $100 million defence line of credit for Mauritius. Indian nationals can now settle payments in Mauritius using Indian rupees, facilitate­d by the Rupay card services. Similarly, Mauritian citizens can use UPI to pay for Indian goods and services. India is also Mauritius’ preferred defence partner for acquiring platforms/equipment, capacity building, joint patrolling, hydrologic­al services, and more.

Mauritius is a key part of India’s neighbourh­ood policy. With India continuing to solidify its influence in the region, the challenge from China is only likely to grow. Nonetheles­s, as India aims to strengthen its foothold in the Indian Ocean region and enhance its role as a net security provider while maintainin­g the pre-eminence of the Indian Navy, its partnershi­p with Mauritius will remain a decisive factor.


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