Agalega and the lndia-China control of the Indian Ocean

By a twist of history, the acceleration of globalization and the geographic shift of global economy from West to East, the Indian Ocean has regained the geostrategic importance it had prior to the European domination on the world. Whether the idea is arguable or not, it is undeniable that the I.O. is back on the global chessboard; about 70% of worldwide seaborne oil traffic and almost half of commercial cargo transit here bringing along rivalries between regional powers wanting to assert their control and influence, India and China for that matter.
The so-called Indian backyard
India has positioned itself as the natural power of the ocean bearing its name. This major maritime environment, critical to international shipping routes linking the Persian gulf to energy hungry economies of Eastern Asia, has been long looked at by Indian strategists as the natural turf to affirm the influence of their country. As outlined in its 2007 Maritime Security Strategy, New Delhi’s ambitions are clear. In 2013, Manmohan Singh, then Prime Minister of India, stated in a speech at the newly created Indian National Defence University that “we (India) have also sought to assume our responsibility for stability in the Indian Ocean Region. We are well positioned, therefore, to become a net provider of security in our immediate region and beyond”. In the same line and in the first year after his election as Prime Minister in 2014, Narendra Modi completed several tours in the Gulf region, secured a deal over the India-Bangladesh enclaves, opened discussions with Sri Lanka and of course visited Seychelles and Mauritius in March 2015.
This focus is very much understandable for India is surrounded by the ocean carrying 90% of its foreign trade. If in the past, the country was more focused on its borders with Pakistan and China, recently, with the increased military activity of the latter in its own backyard, there is no doubt that India wants to set the rules.
A string of pearls as game changer
China’s presence in the Indian Ocean is the greatest factor triggering India’s objectives to take control of the Indian Ocean. From the mid-2000s onwards, China’s ambitions in the region started with series of negotiations for use and investments in port facilities in Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Sudan, and Seychelles, in order to establish its so-called “string of pearls” theory. This economic and diplomatic progress is indeed coherent with the development of the new Maritime Silk Route it further wants to create from Beijing to Athens. By the end of this year, China is expected to open its first-ever permanent military base overseas in Djibouti therefore securing both the Bab el Mandeb Strait and Eastern Africa. Although presented as a logistic support base to counter-piracy activities, one can be doubtful of these official intentions in particular with regards to China’s lack of transparency in the South China Sea and, closer, the surfacing of submarines in the ports of Colombo in 2014 and Karachi in 2015.
These moves have kept New Delhi on high alert and understandably nervous. While China is moving towards the West, India is turning East by consolidating its presence on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, a strategic outpost controlling one of the major choke points of the Indian Ocean, the Malacca Strait. These sea lanes carry 40 per cent of China's oil and gas imports. Beijing has publicly mentioned its "Malacca dilemma" whereby any navy that blocked the straits off Singapore could bring their economy to its knees – an indirect but clear message.
However, controlling sea lanes is only one aspect, the Indian Ocean faces growing security challenges, including piracy, illegal fishing, people, goods and weapons smuggling. The conflict in Yemen is the most explosive security threat in the region and involves either directly or not several countries of the Gulf, terrorists organisations (Daech and Al Qaida) and numerous uncontrollable militias.
The ocean also includes a number of small island states, Maldives, Seychelles and Mauritius for whom India has long provided for their security and subsequently influenced local politics to ensure governments are aligned with Indian interests.
Developing Agalega is NOT for development
Although tiny, the small island states in the Indian Ocean, in particular the three above mentioned can boast themselves of millions of square kilometres of Exclusive Economic Zones largely ungoverned except for small pinhead-size islands of strategic importance; potentially rich in oil the cost of offshore drilling in the area and record low price of oil are major hindrances to exploring the sector. Nevertheless, both countries have had long ties with India and have allowed Indian Navy vessels to dock and conduct “hydrographic explorations” in their maritime zones.
More importantly, Mauritius has an even closer relation with India. Not only is the majority of its population originally from India but the national security advisor since the 1980s has always been an ex-Indian intelligence officer and its coast guard includes deputed Indian naval personnel. More recently, this year, the Government of Mauritius contracted tens of billions of Rupees of debt with India to develop its public transport infrastructure and officially to bail out victims of an unprecedented financial scandal. The government also announced that “with the assistance of India”, a new airstrip and new jetty facilities will be built on the islets of Agalega together with “state-of-the-art” telecommunication equipment and installation of accommodation for Indian workers. Similarly, on the Seychelles island of Assumption, closer to the Canal of Mozambique, another major choke point in the Indian Ocean, Modi already announced the start of infrastructure work.
Officially, the Government of Mauritius wants to enhance the quality of life of its 300 citizens living on Agalega but remains very vague when reply to questions from the Opposition. Meanwhile Indian press keeps boasting of a finally brokered deal to lease Agalega and provide a permanent Indian presence. One should not expect any official statement from New Delhi until only Port-Louis does so. But after the disastrous renegotiation of the double taxation agreement to the detriment of Mauritius and the now huge bilateral debt of the country, India knows it has the upper hand on the weakened ruling party. If the Government of Mauritius has indeed leased part of its territory, it would not only lose chances for a next mandate but more importantly it would have compromised its own sovereignty.

Sources:
European Union Institute of Security Studies (EUISS); Government Information Service, PMO, Mauritius; CIA factbook; Grenoble ESC; Revue Hérodote 2012/2; Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University; Lowy Institute for International Policy; Le Monde Diplomatique.