The race for Francophone Western Indian Ocean Region
China wants a physical presence whereas India has strong political and diplomatic ties with these Francophone Western Indian Ocean island states. As the geopolitics of the Indian Ocean heats up, the importance of smaller yet geo-strategically important islands have grown. Under these intense circumstances, the small island states must navigate the geopolitical tides swirling around the region. Among these islands, the nations like Mauritius and Seychelles are very important.
The competition in the Indian Ocean is not a new phenomenon. But now the ground for competition has changed significantly. Recently the Indian Ocean has witnessed a tug of war over the establishment of naval bases. China wishes for a forward presence in the Indian Ocean while India is trying to minimize China’s influence in the region which is not an easy task. China wants a physical presence whereas India has strong political and diplomatic ties with these Francophone Western Indian Ocean island states. As the geopolitics of the Indian Ocean heats up, the importance of smaller yet geo-strategically important islands have grown. Under these intense circumstances, the small island states must navigate the geopolitical tides swirling around the region. Among these islands, the nations like Mauritius and Seychelles are very important.
In recent times, Seychelles and Mauritius have emerged as an important ground where India and China are wrangling over naval bases and physical presence. The response of both the states varies. But the pragmatic and smart policies opted by Seychelles has managed to put the competing powers on their toes. This article will focus on the rise of Sino-Indian competition in the Francophone Western Indian Ocean.
The economic giant China with its pragmatic idea of “Shared Development” has been able to enlarge its influence in the Francophone Western Indian Ocean as well. China is trying to hold its foot strong in order to develop its maritime reach. China’ strategy to blend its maritime expansion with regional economic development and multilateralism is giving in rich dividends. China’s engagements with foreign ports under its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) are mostly regarded as either a debt trap policy, an encirclement policy or more specifically as components of the String of Pearls strategy.
The centerpiece of China’s policy is revolving around the economy which is its tremendous strength and greatest vulnerability at the same time. To sustain its ever growing energy needs and economic growth, it has to rely on external sources for its energy demands. Moreover the Sea Lines of Communications are equally important that run the Chinese economic engine. Thus, to keep the economy running energy is important and therefore the security of SLOCS is mandatory.
China’s presence in the Western Indian Ocean is deeply rooted in the expansion of its economy, securing SLOCS, and attaining a strategic presence in the region. These interests of China have compelled it to prioritize its protection of seaborne trade.
Mauritius and Seychelles are now caught in the tug of war between China and India. With the launch of a free trade agreement with Mauritius this year, China has gained another foothold in the strategic Indian Ocean region. Mauritius is the first African country with whom China has signed FTA. Therefore this agreement is not only important in terms of trade but also for its implications on the geopolitics of the region. India has strong diplomatic ties with Mauritius. With the entry of China, India’s influence in the country will diminish slowly.
On the other hand, China’s relations with Seychelles have also grown over the past few years. Since 2012 China’s engagement with Seychelles has expanded over a diverse area. This year, China visited five African countries that included Seychelles as well. The gist of the tour was to emphasize the positive trajectory and future initiatives. This visit also aimed to demonstrate China’s new role in “steering a new era of globalization”. China has signed various MoU’s with Seychelles that revolve around diplomatic ties, economic development; marine cooperation. China’s influence in the Francophone Western Indian Ocean is multifaceted. China built a new parliament building and a supreme court in Seychelles. It doesn’t include the economic aspect only but it is a wide array of political, cultural and social presence.
For India, the Western Indian Ocean is its maritime security axis. India has old and structural relations with the island states of Seychelles and Mauritius. It has a very active diaspora in both the island states, especially Mauritius. India has been very keen to ensure that its maritime primacy in the region remains intact.
Mauritius wants to maintain political and security links with India and on the other it wants smooth ties with China so that it can reorient itself as a financial centre for Africa. Economic engagement with China has strategic consequences. But it is likely India will press Mauritius hard to maintain distances. India and Mauritius have deep and historical ties and this can be seen when PM Modi called Mauritius as “Little India”. Moreover, India and Mauritius have recently signed defence and trade agreements worth $100 million. This Defence Line of Credit for Mauritius will enable it to procure the defence assets of India. This is because India thinks that Mauritius is an important and rising maritime entity in the Indian Ocean. Moreover this country hosts an Indian military base as well. India acquired access to the island of North Agalaga in 2015. The aim to develop this port was to have a military presence in the Western Indian Ocean in order to monitor and counter China. For this purpose it has developed an air and naval staging point for surveillance. The jetty and port services are also constructed by India on this island. And thus, the two countries are strongly tied together.
India wishes the same kind of arrangement with Seychelles as well. But Seychelles is navigating very smartly between the competition of India and China. Since the independence of Seychelles, India has maintained very close and cordial relationships with Seychelles. After the PLA Navy’s operations in the Gulf of Aden against piracy and Xi’s multi-faceted BRI, the Indian cooperation with Seychelles has increased. Both the countries have signed trade and defence pacts. Seychelles also participated in the MILAN exercise for the first time, in 2014. In 2015, just after visiting Seychelles, Indian Prime Minister announced a new maritime vision for the Indian Ocean in Mauritius. The so-called ‘Security and Growth for All in the Region’ (SAGAR) was an arrangement that included Sri Lanka and Maldives as well. Nonetheless, India wanted to go further. India considers Seychelles not only a maritime neighbor but a trusted strategic partner as well. Further, India views Seychelles in her own maritime security axis. Furthermore, India plans to build a military facility on Assumption Island, as it competes for regional influence with China. But the current government is reluctant to have any foreign military base in the country.
Thus India is trying to build a sophisticated network of bases on the Francophone Islands of WIO as part of its design to stretch and develop the maritime security axis in the Indian Ocean where China’s involvement has been quite significant.
China’s rise and growing presence in the Francophone Western Indian Ocean has been a game changer for the archipelagic states as well as for India. Both the states are caught in these proxy battles of titans. China has economic and diplomatic activism in Francophone WIO whereas India is the growing naval power in the region. Both the states are trying to adopt some non-escalatory strategy. China has remained cautious, avoiding openly challenging India’s security cooperation with these states. In other words, the security dilemma between India and China is not as severe as feared. But it is also true that the region has witnessed the upsurge of naval coalitions as that of never before. This rising militarization of IOR is the point to ponder. Both the states need to embark on the maritime confidence building measures. Thus, the conflict can only be avoided through mature and pragmatic decisions taken by both the states.