Geopolitics and security in the Indian Ocean

We can hardly harbour expectations about our autonomous capacity to defend our outlying islands and territories, protect their environment, manage and tap their ocean resources. We rely on external support and agreements with traditional allies who have the capabilities and respect our sovereignty

Much has been said and written about the PM’s recent mission to India and the possible memorandum of understanding (MoU) that would have been signed between representatives of our two governments regarding usage of Agalega facilities financed and currently under construction by India. Some comments have been way off bounds in their communal slant and undertones, while others have been impassioned while the PM, restating that Mauritius was neither considering a naval base, nor a long-term lease to that end, has not yet fully cleared the air. Let us try to get our bearings straight on this issue.

 

There is no doubt that most of the world’s maritime trade routes criss-cross the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans, but the Indian Ocean ferries a sizeable proportion of the world’s energy supplies from the Middle-East to various destinations. With globalisation and rising growth engines in South and South-East Asia, container-loads of raw materials, commodities, foodstuffs, apparel and manufactured goods ply daily between Asia, Africa and even Europe through the Suez Canal or round the Cape.

Maritime Choke Points

As the map (‘Indian Ocean Key Passages’) illustrates, contrarily to the other open oceans, the Indian Ocean traffic is characterised by three main “choke points” of import from logistics and economic perspectives (traffic congestion, delays and costs), security issues (coastal and high-sea piracies) and strategic concerns (who controls those critical passageways in turbulent times?). On the East, the Malacca Straits ensures Singapore’s port affluence but controls China’s westward maritime trade; along the narrow Persian Gulf and at its mouth Iran, the Saudis and all the Gulf emiratis face each other uneasily; at the southern entrance to the Red Sea and the Suez Canal lies another choke point in a troubled, highly militarised zone. A fourth pivot of lesser importance is the Cape, where the passage is not narrow but the weather and the seas can be treacherous. Armed maritime or coastal piracy is not uncommon both around Malacca and along the Somali and East African coasts, although it has been damped down in the latter case with the setting up of an international task force.

 

The rising dependence on Middle-Eastern oil reserves for the newer Asian tigers makes the Indian Ocean a growing nerve centre of geopolitics. The current world political situation, with prolonged ISIS warfare and terrorism in the Middle-East, a spate of general elections in Europe, the Putin regional ambitions, growing Chinese naval “blue ocean” muscle-flexing and the Trump unknown in the USA, have heightened short-term uncertainties and risks as key players may take some months to adapt, define or reshape strategic geopolicies.

Tier One Superpowers

 The days of Indian Ocean as a peace or warship-free or nuclear-free zone have all floundered on the realpolitik imperatives of securing strategic fossil fuels and raw materials, securing maritime Lines of Communication (SLOCs), projecting naval and military capabilities and some superpower jostling. Of the five Tier One superpowers (those with a veto right at the UN Security Council), the USA has a major base at Djibouti and the centrally located one at Diego, courtesy of the British pre-independence excision of our territory. France considers itself a legitimate I-O border country through a base in Djibouti, and its overseas territories like Reunion, Mayotte and even disputed Tromelin. The UK has long moved out east of Aden and, were it not for the Diego issue, would be a minor I-O player. The Russians, a net energy exporter with numerous on-land pipeline options, have little strategic interest in this oil-nerve region, being largely content with an occasional Russia-India joint naval exercise.

The last Tier One superpower is China which has been extremely busy under President Xi Jinping positioning itself as a global superpower with at least equivalent ambitions, status and privileges as the other four. In other words, the ability to establish its spheres or zones of strategic interest where it feels entitled to run the roost, bully neighbours and lay its own law, like its other superpower peers have always done over the past 50 years. Vietnam, Philippines, Japan and Taipei have and will continue to feel the attempts by China to establish a pax sinica in its immediate vicinity even at the cost of dismissing maritime tribunal rulings as happened recently.

But Chinese ambitions run much further and deeper. Xi and his Politburo aim to overtake the USA as a global leader within a generation and, on the strength of China’s economic performance as the world’s preferred factory, that horizon is clearly within view. To accompany that claim, President Xi has realised the vital necessity and heavily invested in the making of a strong professional People’s Liberation Army Navy able to project that superpower status onto the wider oceans, a fully-fledged blue waters navy, including aircraft carriers and nuclear propelled submarines.

The latter routinely prowl the Indian Ocean; China has volunteered to participate in Somali piracy surveillance and has begun construction of naval bases at some I-O islands and as far away as Djibouti. Here, naval shows and displays serve a twin purpose, since secure LOCs are even more vitally important to Chinese trade and economy as they are to Western powers.

“The Indian Ocean is strategically important to China because of its economic stakes in the region. China imports 82 per cent of its energy requirements, in the form of oil and gas, through the Indian Ocean. Thirty per cent of its sea trade, worth some US$300 billion each year, is shipped through the Indian Ocean. China is also a manufacturing hub and is dependent on open trade routes with African and Indian Ocean littoral states for the supply of raw materials and minerals, and for the marketing of its products to those regions,” writes an Australian Civil Defense analysis (Oct 2015).

In the new I-O geostrategic power games, all Tier One superpowers informally recognise that some countries have their own legitimate spheres of regional interests to protect, so long probably as these are neither directly confrontational nor competitive to superpower playouts. India certainly at present, both as an I-O border country and by virtue of its economic robustness and its technological prowess, certainly qualifies as an I-O regional power.

PM Modi and his team have awoken India from a sort of foreign policy slumber but it still has to catch up on multiple fronts while guarding its frontiers from sponsored terrorism. Modi in particular had to scramble to loosen the deeply unsettling noose of Chinese bases threatening to surround India. But ultimately India Inc realises that securing energy supplies, raw materials or selling finished goods can only be safely undertaken in an accepted multi-polar competition-cooperation environment.

Within the confines of the Indian Ocean that means cooperating for a maritime security that is ultimately beneficial to all nations, whether bordering or not. No doubt also one of the reasons why Modi’s India Inc engages representatives of superpowers, high-level diplomats and key strategic or military think-tanks to an annual Raisina Dialogue, where common security and development concerns can be discussed and views shared. The second edition in January 2017, even better attended, was centred on ‘The New Normal: Multilateralism in a multipolar world’.

 Bases, Stations and Agalega

 The Indian Ocean rim countries are literally peppered with naval and/or military outfits, either full-fledged bases with full military and support contingents, or air and sea facilities or communication and surveillance outposts. From Tanzania through Kenya, to Oman, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Burma most mainland I-O Rim nations have granted to superpowers some form of a naval or military base or port facility, many courted by promises of China funding, management and operation of the facility as part of the Silk Road euphemism, now rebaptised OBOR.

Islands like Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Seychelles have been equally keen to lease out facilities to either India or China for a naval station or a communication outpost. The whole of Djibouti’s economy literally thrives on bases which have been leased and developed by seven nations at latest count: USA, China, Italy, France, Germany, Japan, Spain and even their Saoudi neighbours. Except for USA which forks out a handsome 63m US$ annually as lease, the lease for the others run in the 10-20m US$ range, which combined, gives Djibouti a sizeable share of its national income. There is no religious, sanctimonious or ideological fatwa that prevents any two sovereign states, to explore possibilities of a joint agreement which serves the interests of both parties. Even Mauritius has acknowledged that in exchange for sovereignty recognition and possible movement of Chagossians, we would be happy to renegotiate a long-term lease of Diego to the USA directly.

But, with the scar of illegal pre-independence excision of the so-called BIOT and renting out of Diego for a US air and naval base still rankling, Mauritius finds it extremely uneasy to come to terms with the subject of anything that smacks of a naval or military base. According to the former PM Navin Ramgoolam, our foreign policy, despite deep bonds with India, resisted deals centred around the leasing of Agalega to such or similar purposes. This may be less of a priority for the Indian government now that it seems to have secured a deal with Seychelles, a few hundred miles to the north. India is anyway aware of such sensitivity and has always stood by our sovereignty claims over the Chagos.

For Mauritius, Agalega is certainly a prime Outer Island on several important fronts. We have an impressive ocean economic zone to manage and maritime security is of equal strategic importance to us as to others. When our national coast guards, without belittling them, can hardly control drug and other trafficking by pleasure craft around Mauritius, we can hardly harbour expectations about our autonomous capacity to defend our outlying islands and territories, protect their environment, manage and tap their ocean resources. We rely on external support and agreements with traditional allies who have the capabilities and respect our sovereignty.

The new port and airstrip infrastructure being graciously built by India will not only “desenclaver” the island and its inhabitants, but if they are efficiently run, managed and operated by Mauritius, they will be a considerable asset in patrolling that part of our economic zone. If India were to oblige, a communication and listening outpost would certainly be an added benefit to our maritime, economic and strategic security. Neither should we disbar potential Indian request for air or sea patrols berthing for rest and refuelling in Agalega, when India has been consistently and perhaps far more generously than its means allowed, on our side in sovereignty, development and cooperation matters. It has cows, slums and poverty still, but it has made giant technological strides in many high-tech domains. However, the caveat is to discuss, negotiate and, where advisable, reach agreements with any foreign power primarily from the standpoint of our own strategic interests.

Two years ago, on his first overseas trip, Indian PM Modi stopped here and amongst other things, offered 700m US$ of concessionary credit, commissioned the Indian built Barracuda for naval patrols and offered to develop a full-fledged petroleum hub in Port Louis. More significantly, he invited Mauritius to join India in taking our traditional ties and relations to a new strategic partnership level. The outcomes of the PM’s mission to India indicate that what fell on deaf ears then, may at last have seeped through. But, having linked the mission to India as a pressured quest for further financial assistance, it was the worst of positions from which to negotiate with a generous bigger brother. We need to remain cautious on the trade-off terms.

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