Three hundred people live on the small Mauritian archipelago of Agaléga. They watch as their home is turned slowly into an Indian naval base. There is little that they can do. The government of Mauritius knows that there is far more to be gained from India than from the people of Agaléga. Mauritius is one of the main routes for foreign direct investment (FDI) into India. It earns Mauritius a considerable fortune in fees — money that is enough for Mauritius to renege on its pledge to its own citizens.
In 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Mauritian counterpart Anerood Jugnauth watched as Navtej Sarna (Ministry of External Affairs) and Sateeaved Seebaluck (Cabinet Secretary, Mauritius) signed an agreement that allows India to “develop infrastructure” on the islands. The phrase is a euphemism for the building of military bases, which India is doing not only on Agaléga but also on Assumption Island (Seychelles).
Mauritius is the largest source of FDI into India, since multinational corporations have been able to take advantage of the India-Mauritius Double Taxation Avoidance Treaty and the lax tax regime to avoid paying taxes. After having given over Agaléga, Mauritius signed an amended treaty on taxes and by 2019 will effectively lose its status as the main funnel for FDI into India. Agaléga, which was the price for the extension of the treaty, will now be surrendered without benefit.
On March 1, a group of Mauritians, Rodriguans and Agalégans met to form the Koalision Zilwa Pou Lape (Islanders Coalition for Peace). Solidarity with the people of Agaléga, as well as those in Chagos (Diego Garcia) and Assumption (Seychelles), animates this group. They have called for the Indian Ocean to be declared as a “zone of peace”.
The “zone of peace” idea takes us back to the 1970 Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit in Lusaka, Zambia. Various NAM members called upon all states “to respect the Indian Ocean as a zone of peace from which Great Power rivalries and competition, as well as bases” be excluded. They had in mind the 1965 excision of the Chagos archipelago from Mauritian territory by Great Britain, which was then — in a 1966 treaty — handed over to the U.S. On Diego Garcia, one of the largest islands of the archipelago, the U.S. built a major naval base that quickly became essential in the Vietnam war. For the U.S., the “zone of peace” was a “very dangerous idea”. France, still a colonial power, did everything to stop this idea; La Réunion, south-west of Mauritius, became the centre of French naval military operations in the Indian Ocean after Djibouti won its independence from France in 1977. Nonetheless, the UN General Assembly voted a resolution in 1971 on the Declaration of the Indian Ocean as a Zone of Peace.
The idea of the Indian Ocean as a demilitarised area is not anachronistic. In 2014, National Security Adviser Ajit Doval evoked the idea of the zone of peace in his speech at the Galle Dialogue in Sri Lanka. What did he have in mind? A Chinese submarine had docked in Colombo, which raised the hackles of India.
In its “string of pearls” policy, China has built significant relations across the Indian Ocean, from Gwadar (Pakistan) to Hambantota (Sri Lanka) to Kyaukpyu (Myanmar). A rattled India wants to exert itself in the same region and has developed reciprocal agreements with Australia, France and the U.S. to take advantage of bases as far flung as Cocos Islands (Australia) and La Réunion (France). Nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines from India (Arihant) and from China (Song, Shang and Jin) will soon ply these waters. They will join the Ohio class (U.S.) and the Rubis class submarines (France) that already operate here.
China and India are bit players in the Indian Ocean. The main naval facilities here are held by the U.S.; their own string of pearls runs from Bahrain to Singapore. In the middle of this arc is Diego Garcia, from where Afghanistan and Iraq were bombed. Focus on the rivalry between China and India misses the long-standing problem concerning the U.S., which was the focus of the Lusaka resolution. In Lusaka, the NAM resolution said this base constituted “a direct threat to the independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity and peaceful development of States of the region”. It remains a threat in exactly this way.
The Koalision Zilwa Pou Lape’s statement evokes the full measure of the NAM statement but also goes beyond that. It speaks of the need to recognise the people of the Indian Ocean as one people with a “common past and a common destiny”; where the waters are treated as common property rather than as corporate and military property.
Mr. Jugnauth left the office of the Prime Minister not long after he oversaw the deal over Agaléga. He has been a fierce defender of the rights of Chagos, the islands that house Diego Garcia. When Chagos was taken by the British, Mr. Jugnauth’s predecessor, Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, had essentially given up the island to win independence for Mauritius.
Mr. Jugnauth has done the same with Agaléga, forfeiting it to India. India, which championed the zone of peace concept at Lusaka, has now fallen into old colonial habits. In a decade or so, the people of Agaléga will take their case, like the Chagosians, to the UN General Assembly. Like them, they will ask for their rights. India, like Great Britain, will then be in the dock.
François Vergès, of Réunion, is a political scientist and Chair, Global South(s), Paris. Vijay Prashad is a historian and the Director of the Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research
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