Expert Speak Health Express
Published on Apr 10, 2020
Mauritius: Old and new challenges in a post-pandemic world

These are indeed unprecedented times that we are living in, with the pandemic Covid-19 engulfing the entire globe in economic loss, near social collapse and overwhelming uncertainty. As the dominant power in South Asia, there is now both a challenge and an opportunity for India to lead the way, as epitomised by the SAARC video conference it initiated. India should further use this time and opportunity to revise its vision for its extended neighbourhood, by examining equations with its smaller island neighbours. As Mauritius becomes a key part of India’s renewed Ocean Diplomacy at a time when the world is changing in fundamental ways, what should be India’s approach to this island-nation?

Much has been written about the positives in bilateral relations between India and Mauritius – some highlights being CGS Barracuda, India’s first warship export, the high-level diplomatic visits between the two countries, several lines of credit for infrastructure, joint patrol and surveillance operations in the EEZ, Defence and Marine Commando Training, MoUs for hydrographic cooperation and joint development of the blue economy. India-Mauritius ties are undoubtedly close, largely conflict free, and driven by its diaspora.

Neighbourhood challenges 

However, there are certain common foreign policy challenges that India faces across its immediate neighbourhood and with regards to its smaller neighbours that are worth bearing in mind when dealing with Mauritius. If there are indeed lessons to be learnt and important course-corrections to be undertaken in India’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy, it may well pay greater dividend to test-drive this approach in a country like Mauritius where relations are already on an upward swing.

India has often been accused of being self-centred in its relations with its smaller neighbours, as well as being interested in them only when China becomes a big enough presence in these countries. This is not an unfair criticism. Much of the momentum underlining India’s move of reaching out to its littoral neighbours such as Mauritius, Seychelles, Maldives and Sri Lanka, has been driven by China’s increasing involvement in this region mainly through large and ambitious infrastructure projects.

As the power dynamic in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) is changing, India has come to view Mauritius as an integral part of the new security architecture that it would like to see emerge here. Most foreign policy analyses on Mauritius over the last decade have narrowly focused on escalating global competition and great power rivalry in the Indian Ocean. Any mention of Mauritius is invariably linked to an obsessive focus on China and its activities in this region, more or less beginning with Hambantota in 2008.


The Indian Ocean is no doubt a region of great strategic importance. It is difficult to view this region through anything other than a security-centred lens, given that it is dotted with naval outfits, communication and surveillance outposts, and/or port facilities/developments, from Tanzania, Kenya, to Oman, Iran, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Bangladesh and Myanmar. However, an obsessively security-driven policy towards its neighbours has not helped in the past. As India struggles with mixed results when it comes to its Neighbourhood Policy, certain common challenges that have arisen over the last decade should be reconsidered in India’s approach to Mauritius.

Further, constant emphasis on the geostrategic significance of its smaller neighbours, tends to give weight to an existing and well-established narrative of a purely self-interested dominant power. India’s approach to Mauritius must take into account not just New Delhi’s concerns alone, but also those of Mauritius and the Mauritian people. How does Mauritius see itself? What are its biggest concerns? What path to growth would it like to take? These are questions India must consider.

Multiple identities

Doing so, in part, will make clear that Mauritius, much like India, sees itself in many dimensions. It sees itself as a sovereign nation, as a vibrant democracy; as multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-religious nation too. It further sees itself as a resurgent nation and views both its politics and its economics, i.e. its independence and its structural transformation, with great pride. With its mountain ranges and turquoise blue beaches, Mauritius sees itself as a tourist paradise. It is important for India in its approach towards Mauritius to embrace its multitude of identities.

Mauritius further sees itself as an African nation and is fully committed to regional integration through SADC and COMESA, and therefore it must be seen as an investment gateway between Africa and Asia. Perhaps, more crucial than anything else, as a founding-member of the ‘Small Island Developing States’ (SIDS), first and foremost, this is how Mauritius would like to be seen by its bigger neighbour. While India frets about China’s growing presence in the IOR, being a microdot in this vast ocean, Mauritius’ immediate concerns, in contrast, are about climate change and sea level rise. According to a World Bank Report in 2018, Mauritius Ranks 16th highest disaster risk country, being highly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change.

An existential threat 

For much of these SIDS, the impact of natural disasters, the degradation of coastal and marine ecosystems and sea level rise are their biggest security threats as these threaten their very existence. At a policy discussion at ORF-Chennai, Maldivian Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid explained, “For us, climate change is a serious security issue and an existential threat. We need the entire international community with us in dealing with this issue.” This is also true of Mauritius, and also Seychelles, the other Indian Ocean nation in the immediate neighbourhood. 

The passage of Cyclone Enawo that ultimately made landfall on Madagascar in March 2017, triggering floods and landslides at 250 km/h posed a major threat to the main island of Mauritius. More recently, in February 2019 Cyclone Gelena hit Rodrigues island with gusts up to 160 km/h, leaving nearly 40,000 of its residents without electricity, blocked roads due to fallen trees as well as more than 200 displaced people, according to a UN report. Floods are the second largest risk after cyclones for Mauritius. The greatest costs are damage to people’s homes, particularly sewage infrastructure and drainage systems.

Global integration 

Additionally, being island nations physically cut off from the rest of the world, the challenge of integrating effectively into the global economy is a very real one. Author and Africa Analyst, Percy S Mistry, said of Mauritius, “Anything that happens in the world affects Mauritius.” World economic crisis, declining FDIs, trade wars, trade imbalances, infrastructure and inadequate transportation are just a few examples. Therefore, it is important when dealing with Mauritius, particularly in the current global crisis, for India to broaden its perspective beyond just the maritime security of IOR.

The coronavirus pandemic is materially changing the world in ways we are not yet fully able to grasp. Several analysts have predicted ‘the end of globalisation as we know it.’ In an analysis for Foreign Policy magazine, of what the world will look like post pandemic, IR Professor Stephen Walt writes, “COVID-19 will create a world that is less open, less prosperous, and less free.” The fallout and fragility of long-distance supply chains are being demonstrated to a scared and vulnerable world that in all likelihood will turn inwards for extended periods of self-isolation. And if anti-globalisation is the direction in which the new world order will choose to go as it rebuilds, India has much to re-think.

What will this mean for the IOR and in specific how should India re-imagine its goals? Will the great powers gradually disengage from this region? India’s own history suggests this could well be the case. Emerging from this pandemic, trying to rebuild their economies, governments are likely to turn inwards both politically and economically. Will China’s focus shrink back to its traditional sphere of influence and if so, how will this affect India’s focus on the IOR? With this and several other critical uncertainties to contend with, India must take a more long-term perspective when engaging with its neighbours, as well as undertake a regional approach when dealing with its problems, as it seems to be doing in the present crisis.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.


Vinitha Revi

Vinitha Revi

Dr. Vinitha Revi is an Independent Scholar associated with ORF-Chennai. Her PhD was in International Relations and focused on India-UK relations in the post-colonial period. ...

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