From time immemorial to the present day, oceans, seas and rivers have been of strategic importance as waterways for war, commerce and fishing. The Indian Ocean has seen much intense maritime activity for thousands of years and its importance has increased manifold since World War 2 when it was a British lake. Much has changed since.
The US is now the dominant power and has obvious interests in the Indian Ocean such as the safeguard of vital sea lanes, the use of the Diego Garcia naval base as a logistic support for its never-ending wars in the Middle East, the containment of Iran, and to check the growing importance of India and China in the region. The latter two countries are critically dependent on Indian Oceanic trade routes and keen to expand commercial links with African and Asian countries.
As the economies of India and China grow, their needs for natural resources and markets will grow concomitantly. Competition is inevitable and already underway. Of course there are other naval powers in play in our ocean, such as France, the UK, South Africa, Australia, Pakistan and Indonesia. In short the Indian Ocean is now the new front line between different countries with diverse and often diverging interests.
Right in the middle is Mauritius with an extremely small population on an over crowded strings of islands of minute size, a dwarf amongst giants. Only its vast Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of about 2 million square kilometres makes it visible in any way.
Since Independence, the foreign policy of Mauritius has been to be friends with every one and enemy of no one. There is much wisdom in that approach for it has enabled Mauritius to get international assistance from the West, the Soviet Union, India and China at the same time. It has been quite a feat especially during the Cold War. This approach is still valid but a twist is now needed concerning Agalega, oceanic fisheries and ultimately the Chagos Archipelago.
Mauritian naval vessels or aircrafts…
Whilst Mauritius will always remain a dwarf, it has a number of cards to play of some significance. For the sake of discussion let’s assume that in the foreseeable future the balance of power in the Indian Ocean will not change much.
It is obvious that India is deeply interested in Agalega for aero-naval purposes. It would make an ideal way-station to refuel its vessels patrolling the seas and thus extend the reach of its air force and navy. However, we suspect that India is very wary of having a full scale naval base there. It would shock Mauritians who are used to perceive India as a benevolent power and it would be political suicide for local politicians allowing it.
Yet, from a security perspective, it makes sense for Mauritius to have a naval presence there. The country badly needs to patrol the high seas to fight illegal fisheries, piracy, terrorism and trafficking. If an aero-naval base is to be, it ought to be a Mauritian one, staffed and manned by Mauritians with Mauritian naval vessels or aircrafts. In addition, the rights of the locals ought to be strictly respected and the environment protected. We agree that to balance out naval imperatives, with social and environmental factors would be quite a challenge.
Friendly nations like India, China or France would be cordially invited to use those Mauritian aero-naval facilities. It would be quite interesting to see vessels from these nations criss-cross each others’ paths in and around Agalega. Government could commission local shipyards to build oceanic patrol vessels equipped with military hardware from friendly nations. We even think that regional countries might very well be interested in such local expertise.
Let us now turn to the pesky issue of the Chagos archipelago and the UK-US naval base there. In view of the importance of the base, it is unlikely that the UK-US will ever voluntarily relinquish their hold on the Diego Garcia Island. This base is critical for the US to project its power on the whole of the Indian Ocean, on countries bordering it and onto the Middle East. The UK-US alliance will prefer to ignore international law, treaties, court rulings and UN resolutions rather than to voluntarily vacate the base. Raw hegemonic power always comes ahead of all legal and humanitarian niceties. Such is the reality of geopolitics.
Yet, once more, Mauritius has one or two cards up its sleeve whilst the UK-US giants rely exclusively on raw power. The detachment of the Chagos in 1965 and the subsequent expulsion and deportation of its inhabitants were both abhorrent acts of naked high seas piracy and aggression. The resultant of which is that part of the Mauritian territory has been under foreign military occupation ever since.
The first wild card Mauritius ought to have played but never did, was to raise awareness of the plight of the Chagossians to the British public. By making the expulsion of the Chagossians a public issue in the UK via the British media, quite some sympathy could be gotten from the voting public. This sympathy could have resulted into meaningful leverage of use during high level discussions.
Secondly, outside the main island of Diego Garcia, we are led to believe that the remaining islets are unoccupied by UK-US forces and left open to ocean going sailing ships that regularly drop anchor there with adventuring tourists on board. If so, there are no valid reasons either to object to the return of these islets to Mauritius or to prevent Chagossians from attempting to live there. The issue of the main island would be left for future discussions. A partial return of sovereignty to Mauritius would also offer a face-saving exit for the UK which due to its pig-headedness finds itself in a corner from which it cannot escape. It is forced to defend the indefensible.
Oceanic fisheries have become important for the local economy, and in view of the fact that fisheries elsewhere are fast collapsing, the interest for Indian Ocean fisheries can only grow significantly. In that perspective, Mauritius ought to have its own oceanic research vessels to ascertain fish stocks, survey the marine wildlife, monitor pollution or the weather on the high seas amongst other tasks. After all, if GreenPeace can afford to have several large ocean going vessels, why shouldn’t Mauritius? Local shipyards could be commissioned accordingly and friendly nations would probably be delighted in participating in such an endeavour.
In summary, this country has to establish its presence in its own EEZ to be taken seriously by other powers. That means a Mauritian naval presence in Agalega, a concerted effort to win over the support of the British public for the partial return to Mauritian sovereignty of the Chagos Archipelago and an independent scientific presence in its EEZ. To dance with giants is the fate of Mauritius and it is high time for this country to step up its game.