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India’s Maritime Power Projection in the Southwest Indian Ocean Gets a Boost

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India’s Maritime Power Projection in the Southwest Indian Ocean Gets a Boost

An India-funded airstrip and jetty was inaugurated last week in Mauritius’ Agaléga island that will enhance its capacity to surveil and carry out military operations in the region.

India’s Maritime Power Projection in the Southwest Indian Ocean Gets a Boost

Mauritius Prime Minister Pravind Kumar Jugnauth waves at the inauguration of the India-funded airstrip and jetty at Agaléga island, Mauritius, February 29, 2024.

Credit: X/Pravind Kumar Jugnauth

On February 29, in a virtual ceremony, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Mauritian counterpart, Pravind Kumar Jugnauth, jointly inaugurated an airstrip, a jetty, and six community development initiatives on Mauritius’ Agaléga island.

The projects, which are fully funded by India, are expected to boost economic opportunities in Mauritius, improve connectivity between its islands, and enhance its capacity to “initiate counter-piracy, counter-terrorism, counter-narcotics actions, combat human trafficking, combat illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing,” Jugnauth said.

Importantly, India’s foothold in the southwest Indian Ocean is poised to expand. The projects will boost India’s maritime domain awareness in waters that are frequented by Chinese ships and improve India’s capacity to project maritime power far from its shores.

While inaugurating the projects, Modi spoke of “various traditional and non-traditional challenges emerging in the Indian Ocean region.” China’s military forays into the Indian Ocean region have surged over the past decade, as have incidents of piracy in the waters off the Somalian coast, north of Mauritius.

Mauritius is located in the southwest Indian Ocean to the east of Africa and Madagascar. It lies near international sea lanes linking Europe and Africa with Asia via the Cape of Good Hope. The importance of this route has grown in recent months with ships avoiding the Red Sea route due to attacks by Houthi rebels.

India and Mauritius enjoy a strong relationship. People of Indian origin comprise 70 percent of Mauritius’ population. India has been the first responder in several crises in Mauritius. It has a free trade agreement with the country and has contributed substantially to its infrastructural development.

India has robust military ties with Mauritius. In addition to deputing Indian military officers in Mauritius, New Delhi has supplied it with helicopters, ships, aircraft, fast interceptor boats, and helped set up its Coastal Surveillance Radar System. In February 2021, India extended Mauritius a $100 million line of credit for procuring Indian defense products. The inauguration of the airstrip and the St. James jetty will further strengthen this military cooperation.

India has built the new 3-kilometer-long airstrip and a jetty at Agaléga island at a cost of $192 million. According to a report in Indian Express, the old airstrip “was suitable for the Indian Navy’s Dornier aircraft operations, but the upgraded airstrip will allow the Navy to also operate the larger P8I maritime reconnaissance aircraft… significantly improving India’s maritime domain awareness in the region, and its ability to carry out a range of maritime operations.” The P-8I aircraft can be deployed for surveillance, anti-surface and anti-submarine warfare.

It was during Modi’s visit to Mauritius in 2015 that the two sides signed a Memorandum of Understanding, which provided for “setting up and upgradation of infrastructure for improving sea and air connectivity” that would enhance “capabilities of the Mauritian Defense Forces in safeguarding their interests in the Outer Island.”

Reports emerged soon after that India was building a naval base in Mauritius, undermining its sovereignty. Drawing on satellite images, financial data and evidence on the ground, Al Jazeera reported in 2021 that India was indeed building a secret naval base on Agaléga.

Activists and opposition parties in Mauritius protested on the streets and in Parliament. Jugnauth has refuted these allegations strongly. “Let me reiterate, most emphatically and in unequivocal terms, that there is no agreement between Mauritius and India to set up a military base in Agaléga,” he said in Parliament in 2018.

At the recent inauguration of the projects, he slammed “some ill-minded persons both in and outside Mauritius” for spreading the canard that the government “would relinquish the sovereignty over the Agaléga Island and allow India to build a military base there.”

Indian officials deny that India is operating a naval base in Mauritius. “The current infrastructure is not adequate for the facilities to function as a full-fledged base,” an official told The Diplomat.

Ruling out that Agaléga would function as a naval base, retired Vice Admiral Biswajit Dasgupta, who was the commander-in-chief of the Indian Navy’s Eastern Naval Command, wrote in the Indian Express that India “understands the importance of sovereignty, and the sensitivities of smaller nations when they interact with larger ones.” However, “if requested by Mauritius” India would assist Mauritius to enhance its security, he said, pointing out that “India has never forced its security apparatus upon any country.”

If India has indeed set up a naval base in Mauritius, it will not be the only power to do so in the region. While the United States has been operating a major military base at Diego Garcia, the largest island in the disputed Chagos archipelago, over which Mauritius lays territorial claim, for several decades, China opened its first overseas naval base at Djibouti in 2017.

While the inauguration of the airstrip and the jetty at Agaléga island is a reason to celebrate for India’s diplomatic and security establishment, New Delhi needs to tread cautiously for several reasons.

One is that small countries, especially small island-states with a history of colonialism, are sensitive on sovereignty issues. This is particularly the case with Mauritius, which has been fighting a decades-long battle against the United Kingdom over its continuing occupation and subsequent lease of the Chagos archipelago to the United States.

Besides, India’s attempts to operate bases, establish military facilities, or even deploy military personnel overseas have repeatedly run into trouble.

This was the case with Seychelles, for example. India signed an agreement with the Seychelles government in 2015 and a revised agreement in 2018 on setting up a naval base at Assumption island. The agreement was never ratified by its Parliament, putting India’s ambitions of a base in that country on ice.

India’s military cooperation with another strategically located Indian Ocean archipelago has been in deep trouble since late last year. Maldivian President Mohamed Muizzu dug in his heels on evicting Indian military personnel stationed in the Maldives to operate helicopters and aircraft gifted to the archipelago, and suspended an agreement with India on conducting hydrographic surveys in Maldivian waters. In addition, Muizzu has signed a defense cooperation agreement with China that will see Beijing’s influence and military presence in the Maldives grow at the cost of India.

Whether in Seychelles, the Maldives, or Mauritius, India and China are locked in a fierce rivalry. And in all three countries, India suspects a Chinese role in the anti-India protests. In the Maldives, India is losing out to China, while in Seychelles the base agreement with New Delhi, while not cancelled, is hanging in limbo. It may be too early for New Delhi to celebrate the inauguration of the airstrip and jetty in Agaléga.