India is fully financing a new three kilometre long runway on the island of North Agalega to develop the Agaléga islands and resolve infrastructural problems faced by the inhabitants
|The Author is Former Director General of Information Systems and A Special Forces Veteran, Indian Army|
During the two-day visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Mauritius in 2015 on invitation as Chief Guest at the Mauritian National Day celebrations on March 12, five agreements were signed between the two nations including in Ocean Economy and Traditional Systems of Medicine. PM Modi commissioned the OPV ‘Barracuda’, built by an Indian shipyard and financed by a GoI Line of Credit, into the Mauritian Coast Guard. A Line of Credit of $500 million to finance civilian infrastructure projects was announced during the visit. As part of infrastructure development, India is also to assist in development of Agalega Island in Mauritius. A tweet from PMO India on March 11, 2015 read, “Our agreement today on the development of Agalega Island is a major stride in our cooperation in the infrastructure sector.”
Agaléga are two outer islands (total area of 2,600 ha or 6,400 acres) of Mauritius about 1,000 km north of Mauritius. The North Island is 12.5 km long and 1.5 km wide, while the South island is 7 km long and 4.5 km wide. Agaléga is connected to Mauritius by air and sea. The airstrip on the island in the north allows takeoff and landing of small aircraft. There is no functional port on Agaléga islands, only a pier at St. James Anchorage on the island's north. Vessels of the Mauritius Shipping Corporation (the Pride Mauritius and the Mauritius Trochetia) cast anchor about 500 metres from this pier in the deep sea, during refueling. One India-Mauritius Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed in 2015 was to develop the Agaléga islands and resolve infrastructural problems faced by the inhabitants.
Coastal Surveillance of the Indian Ocean is of mutual benefit of India and Mauritius both of which are sovereign nations
On May 18, 2021, the Mauritian government confirmed through a press release that India is fully financing a new three kilometre long runway on the island of North Agalega. Foreign analysts have been calling North Agalega island as an Indian military base since 2015 on the premise that it will eventually see some relevant military use in one way or another. In his article dated March 17, 2015, David Brewster, Senior Research Fellow at National Security College, Australian National University, wrote that the head of Mauritius Navy and the Mauritian National Security Advisor are Indian officers, while the Seychelles Maritime Security Advisor is also an Indian Naval officer.
Mauritius is part of India’s Coastal Surveillance Radar (CSR) network to monitor the Indian Ocean, which is also being interpreted in some quarters as the Indian Navy’s National Command Control Communication Intelligence network. However, to call it a military base is not appropriate in the strict sense looking at Chinese bases at say Djibouti and Gwadar. Developing an airstrip on North Agaléga Island cannot even be equated with the Chinese infrastructure, which includes an airstrip, in Myanmar’s Coco Islands that Beijing uses to monitor India’s satellite launches. Coastal Surveillance of the Indian Ocean is of mutual benefit of India and Mauritius both of which are sovereign nations. Such cooperation also helps Mauritius in managing its Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ).
India and Mauritius enjoy a cordial and healthy relationship and are aware of the Chinese moves to militarise the India Ocean Region (IOR)
Therefore, to call North Agaléga Island as India’s military base on the plea that the airstrip can be used as a staging post by India’s surveillance aircraft is not appropriate since such terminology impinges on the sovereignty of Mauritius; such narratives can give rise to anti-India sentiments in Mauritius whether it is by design or default. India and Mauritius enjoy a cordial and healthy relationship and are aware of the Chinese moves to militarise the India Ocean Region (IOR) as also Beijing’s strategic conquests in countries like Pakistan and Sri Lanka through debt-trapping.
India has been helping Mauritius in infrastructure and development projects like constructing the Supreme Court building, the Metro Express project, an ENT hospital, social housing and healthcare projects and the like. In August 2020, when Mauritius declared an environmental emergency because of an oil spill in the area, India sent 30 tonnes of technical equipment to Maldives for supplementing the oil containment and salvage operations while France responded immediately from nearby Reunion Island which is just 226 km from Mauritius. On January 22, 2021, India dispatched consignments of Covid-19 vaccine to Myanmar, Seychelles and Mauritius as part of the donation program to its neighbours and key partners.
With the Indian Ocean becoming a pivotal zone of strategic competition, India’s relations with Mauritius and other countries in the region are set to grow including in the defence and security spheres
With the Indian Ocean becoming a pivotal zone of strategic competition, India’s relations with Mauritius and other countries in the region are set to grow including in the defence and security spheres primarily due to China’s aggressive move. China is already using Sri Lanka as a conduit to pump narcotics and assault rifles into Lakshadweep to destabilise the island. On May 25, 2021, the Indian government approved opening of a new Consulate in Addu City of the Maldives this year to augment the country’s diplomatic presence in the Indian Ocean archipelago.
It may be recalled here that because of political naivety of Indian politicians in the past, India has repeatedly lost strategic opportunities. Oman had first offered Gwadar to India, which India refused, following which Oman sold it to Pakistan. India gifted away Coco Islands to Myanmar little realising how China would use it, distance from Coco Islands to Andaman being 2,684 km. According to a senior veteran-scholar, at an event in recent years at the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), now renamed as the Manohar Parrikar Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA), which functions under the Ministry of Defence (MoD), the Kuwaiti Ambassador offered land to India. This would have been an ideal base for India providing some access to Central Asia for which India is running around especially after US exit from Afghanistan and the latter falling under the sway of Pakistan-supported Taliban. Apparently, the issue was not pursued because nothing has been heard since then.