Will Success in Agalega Compensate for India’s Assumption Island Debacle? 

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Will Success in Agalega Compensate for India’s Assumption Island Debacle? 

New Delhi has faced setbacks in military access to Seychelles and the Maldives, making the deal with Mauritius all the sweeter.

Will Success in Agalega Compensate for India’s Assumption Island Debacle? 

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi held a bilateral meeting with Pravind Kumar Jugnauth, prime minister of Mauritius, at Gandhinagar, Gujarat, India, Apr. 25, 2022.

Credit: Indian Ministry of External Affairs

The small, remote Mauritian island of North Agalega, located in the southwest Indian Ocean 1,122 kilometers north of the main island of Mauritius, is currently seeing a frenzy of development activity. On February 29, Prime Minister of Mauritius Pravind Jugnauth and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi virtually inaugurated a jetty and an aviation strip on the island.

The Indian Navy’s staging base at Agalega will enable marine patrols over the Mozambique Channel and allow the navy to keep an eye on commercial corridors throughout southern Africa. This could be seen as a significant development in light of the fierce and ongoing Sino-Indian competition in the Indian Ocean. The advent of Indian-built infrastructure in Agalega is perceived as having put an end to India’s long-standing quest to establish a naval facility in the center of the Indian Ocean. 

This development is even more significant given that the Maldives has turned its back on India in favor of China, while another Indian Ocean state, Seychelles, rejected a deal to host Indian military infrastructure. 

India Falls Short in Seychelles and the Maldives

India considers the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) as its strategic backyard. Due to its geographic position above the Indian Ocean and the presence of a vast peninsula, India is increasingly seen as a maritime power in the region.

In recent years, to counter the growing Chinese presence in the IOR, the Indian Navy has reoriented its Indian Ocean naval strategy. Driven by its great power aspirations, New Delhi is expanding its maritime capabilities and strategic partnership with the Indian Ocean littoral states. The objective is to pay greater attention to building relationships with countries that are key entry points to the western Indian Ocean, which is a strategic subtheater connecting the African Indian Ocean littoral states with the broader IOR. The Mozambique Channel, Strait of Hormuz, and the Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb are important passageways for commercial vessels and oil tankers, and are expected to shape the future dynamics of the Indian Ocean power struggle.

As a result, the strategically-located small island states of the Indian Ocean have become the center of major power competition in the Indian Ocean. Seychelles, Mauritius, and the Maldives have been particularly part of this tug of war between great powers. 

In Seychelles, India desired to establish a base on Assumption Island to guard major sea lines of communication off eastern Africa’s coast, and to counter China’s growing influence in the western Indian Ocean owing to China’s overseas military base in Djibouti. Nonetheless, India’s pursuit of Assumption Island was floundered by a change in the leadership.  

There were basically two broad rationales in Seychelles for opposition the Indian infrastructure. First, there were environmental concerns stemming from Assumption Island’s close vicinity to Aldabra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The other worries were centered on sovereignty concerns, and the possibility that this coast guard station might eventually turn into an Indian military installation. It was the second of these two issues that eventually sank the project.

India tried to explain that the infrastructure was “a joint project” that India was only “executing at the request of the Government of Seychelles,” but the opposition’s charge against the base gained a great deal of public support. The project became so entrenched in the debate over sovereignty that no government was likely to find it politically feasible, but it had no chance once Wavel Ramkalawan, one of the leaders of the anti-base movement, won Seychelles’ presidential election in 2020. In a post-election interview, Ramkalawan made it clear that “our sovereignty is sacred, there will never under my watch be a foreign military base in the Seychelles.” 

India has apparently given up and moved beyond Assumption Island to strengthen its relationship with Seychelles on other issues. 

More recently, India faced a similar setback in the Maldives. A wave of anti-Indian sentiment has swept the Maldives since Mohamed Muizzu was elected president in September 2023. In the last few months, New Delhi has been made fully aware of the current allegiances of the Muizzu government. Muizzu followed through on his pledge to remove Indian military personnel from the country, demanding that India withdraw 77 troops stationed in the Maldives to help operate helicopters and aircraft donated by India.

Agalega Island Base and the Western Indian Ocean

In the context of these setbacks, India’s successful inauguration of a jetty and an airstrip in Mauritius is a welcome development for New Delhi.

Mauritius and India have worked closely together on a number of issues, including marine security. Around 20 Indian defense officers are on appointment to Mauritius; according to the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, as of October 2023, “An Indian Navy officer heads the Mauritian National Coast Guard; an Indian Air Force officer commands the Police Helicopter Squadron and an Indian Naval Officer heads the Mauritius Hydrography Services.” India is also credited with helping to establish a Coastal Surveillance Radar System in the country.

In addition to a few other community development projects, India and Mauritius have jointly opened an airstrip and jetty that India constructed on the pair of islands known as Agalega in the western Indian Ocean. The bigger North Island and the smaller South Island together make up the Mauritian dependency of Agalega. They are located roughly 1,100 kilometers north of Port Louis, the capital city of Mauritius, and 2,500 kilometers southwest of Male, the capital of the Maldives. Important strategic initiatives such as the renovated jetty and airstrip could help India better cover the waters off the east coast of Africa and increase its influence in the Indian Ocean.  

Access to Seychelles’ Assumption Island would have placed the Indian Navy in a position to guard both Bab-el-Mandab and Mozambique simultaneously, and to neutralize China’s influence in the region. However, using infrastructure on Agalega, India can still improve its access to the Indian Ocean on both sides of Mauritius. 

The Indian Navy could base Dornier aircraft at the current airfield on North Agalega Island, but the expanded airstrip will enable the Indian Navy to additionally use P-8I maritime surveillance aircraft. Operating out of Agalega, the Indian Navy’s long-range aircraft will be equipped to keep an eye on the western and southern Indian Ocean, along with the eastern and southern shores of Africa. 

The facilities on Agalega will enhance India’s capacity to conduct a variety of marine operations and its maritime domain awareness in the area, especially vis-a-vis the Mozambique Channel lying between Comoros and Madagascar, an important chokepoint. The timing could not be more crucial: Unrest in the vicinity of the Red Sea has resulted in an increase in transits and ship activity throughout the western Indian Ocean, with many commercial vessels on east-west trips rerouting to the Cape of Good Hope. 


Along with North Agalega Island, India has inaugurated a new base on its own Minicoy Island, part of the strategically crucial Lakshadweep Islands. The renovated naval base, INS Jatayu, which Naval Detachment Minicoy will commission, will be a significant step toward the Indian Navy’s goal of gradually enhancing regional security. 

In addition, India has been attempting in the past several years to strengthen its military and diplomatic relations with Seychelles and other African countries, such as Madagascar. 

Small island states have a significant influence in determining the approach of major powers, and the Indian Ocean has emerged as a noteworthy example. The island states are key assets in the emerging geopolitical, geoeconomis, and geostrategic environment of the Indo-Pacific. Therefore, engagement with these states is necessary to help to realize India’s potential in the Indo-Pacific and contribute to fulfilling its aspiration as a net security provider in the region. 

The naval base at Agalega could serve India’s needs and can monitor China’s gray-zone activities in the Indian Ocean. However, China’s influence in the Indian Ocean is not limited to the Maldives only. China’s military based in Djibouti, control of the port at Gwadar, and suspected activities in Sri Lanka and Myanmar signal that India faces profound competition in the Indian Ocean. Agalega and Minicoy will prove to be particularly helpful in maintaining India’s access to the entire western Indian Ocean.