KWANG POON, Geopolitical Strategist

In a recent paper by the Australian Think Tank, the Lowy Institute, it is revealed that the setting up of a base in the Chagos Archipelago by the USA was a direct consequence of the Sino-Indian border conflict of 1962.

“India had for long resisted basing Indian military hardware on the Island (Agalega). That is about to change,” argued Nitin Gokhale, an Indian security analyst. « The Indian Navy is accordingly gearing up for the forthcoming competition with the Chinese PLA in the Indian Ocean, » he added. Similar to the 1960s, an escalation in tension in the Himalayas might thus push India to initiate the militarization of Agalega.

In another recent issue of Australian Journal of International Affairs dated the 29th of May 2020, geopolitical analysts, Darshana Baruah et Yogesh Joshi, remarked : “India cannot continue to follow a Janus-faced strategy of supporting US presence (in Diego Garcia) on the one hand and championing decolonization on the other, as it did during the Cold War.”

In other words, Mauritius can only rely on India to purely pay lip service to its sovereignty claim on the Chagos while, in fact, India would really like the Americans to stay here. Despite all the « Chota Bharat » sweet talking, Port Louis can expect only superficial and lukewarm support from Delhi on the Chagos issue. Thus, it seems that for the Indians, sovereignty may change but the US base must not.

Former Mauritian minister of foreign affairs, Jean-Claude de l’Estrac, also opines that for most stakeholders to get on board — with the notable exception of China — it might be opportune to re-engage with the US on the return of ownership back to Mauritius with the proviso of preserving the US base in Diego Garcia. The Mauritian government has already gone on record on several international platforms in making this pronouncement. In particular, during the UN General Assembly in 2019, Mauritian Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth, during his speech stated that Mauritius is prepared to enter into a long-term arrangement with the UK/US duo which would permit the ‘unhindered operation’ of the defence facility in accordance with international law.

However, the Lowy Institute has highlighted the “small matter” of the Pelindaba treaty which might have to be considered. Adhering to an African Nuclear Weapons-Free Zone (ANWFZ) is considered a sacrosanct principle and would be difficult to change, to say the least. Perhaps, Mauritius might have a better luck at appending a footnote which would take into account the history and current geopolitical realities of the Diego Garcia base.

From a Mauritian political perspective, it is also important for the Chagossians/Mauritians to have access to its own territory and even be able to find work on the base. It would certainly be odd if sovereignty reverts to Mauritius but its citizens are not free to go visit. A change of labelling on the World Map is far from satisfying for Mauritians in general and Chagossians in particular. The right of visit, live and work is still very much on the agenda although it is understood that certain security issues would have to be ironed out for this to happen.

In the light of the new realities, Mauritius must be able to play its card right. Mauritius is a Small Island Developing State (SIDS) and should be doubly cautious about taking sides or perceived to be taking side. It might perhaps be judicious for Mauritius to play out its role as the « Switzerland of Africa » and adopt a more or less neutral stance vis-à-vis all the incumbent and future superpowers.

To paraphrase US Admiral Mahan: “He who controls the Indian Ocean shall control the world.” Since China put forward its 21st Century Maritime Silk Route (MSR) initiative, Japan, USA, Australia has followed suit with the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP). India has come up with the Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR) and the European Union has its Maritime Security (MASE) program. It is noteworthy that all these programs have the Indian Ocean as their region of intersection. Given the geostrategic importance of the region, maintaining a free, open, inclusive, safe, stable and inclusive Indian Ocean Region (FOSSIOR) must be a concern of utmost importance and shall stay high on the diplomatic cum geopolitical agenda in the foreseeable future.

In March 2019, during the state visit in Mauritius, Malagasy President Rajoelina seemed to see eye to eye with his counterpart, Mauritian PM Jugnauth, and underlined the geostrategic importance of the Indian Ocean. A certain willingness to join hands on sovereignty issues and the concept of a ‘multilateral security entity’ involving all stakeholders in order to ensure peace and security in the Indian Ocean started to emerge. At this juncture, it would appear that this idea might be worth exploring further to maintain strategic balance. The holding of a conference on the Geopolitics of the Indian Ocean (GEOPOIO) might be just the right platform to have a dialogue on these matters and to promote the FOSSIOR agenda.