Originally Published Business Standard Published on Mar 08, 2024

With Maldives veering towards China, Mauritius is emerging as a decisive factor in ensuring India’s dominance in the Indian Ocean Region

Mauritius deepens India’s naval reach

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 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. 

The new infrastructure will also bolster India’s image as a maritime power and enhance its presence in the Indian Ocean Region.  

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, 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. thanks to the logistics exchange agreement with France. 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 completed within five years despite the challenged 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.

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.

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 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 2022–2023. 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 IOR 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. 

This commentary originally appeared in Business Standard.

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Harsh V. Pant

Harsh V. Pant

Professor Harsh V. Pant is Vice President – Studies and Foreign Policy at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. He is a Professor of International Relations ...

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Samir Bhattacharya

Samir Bhattacharya

Samir Bhattacharya is an Associate Fellow at ORF where he works on geopolitics with particular reference to Africa in the changing global order. He has a ...

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