Resistance is building up among the residents of a small island in Mauritius against a proposal by the Indian Navy to build a base on their land. Six organizations have come together in the Agalega islands, nearly 3,100 km away from the Kanyakumari coast in south India to form a coalition called Koalision Zilwa Pou Lape(Islanders Coalition for Peace) against the militarization of the Indian Ocean. They are actively campaigning to ensure that their citizenship rights, as well as their homes and livelihoods, are not disrupted by this development. The resistance has to be seen in the context of the strategic outlook of key power in the region, and attempts by the United States to extend its influence and India’s role in that project.
Since it initiated a policy of liberalization and globalization in the 90s, India has extensively focussed on maritime security. The 2009 Maritime Doctrine of the Indian Navy has explicitly given the central position to the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), and further asserted the need for it to be the biggest force in the region.
The Indian Ocean is of strategic importance to not only India but to many other big powers such as the USA, China, and the France, among others. A look at the resources in countries abutting the Indian Ocean clearly shows the reasons for these interests. The 30-odd countries in the IOR hold the key to 55% to the world’s proven oil reserves. This is in addition to 40% of all gold reserves in the world, 35% of its gas and significantly, 60% of global uranium reserves. Around 90% of all oil transported from the Persian Gulf region (Approx. 17 million barrels a day) passes through the IOR into Europe and Asia. The abundance of industrial raw materials such as iron, bauxite, cobalt, nickel, titanium, lithium, rubber, and tin found in these countries further adds to its importance. Every year, almost one-third of all oil shipments and half of all containerised cargo of the world passes through the IOR.
In 2015, India and Mauritius signed an MoU to “improve the sea and air transport facilities” at the Agaléga islands and “build an airstrip and jetty facilities in the island, with the assistance of India, along with state-of-the-art telecommunication equipment and accomodation for the Indian workers on the island”. Officially, the Government of Mauritius says it want to improve the lives of the 300 citizens living on the island but it has consistently evaded the questions from the opposition on the issue. At the same time, the residents of Agalega are clear the government’s aim is to see the construction of a naval base, which will lead to their displacement.
The reason for the Mauritian government being deaf to the pleas of the residents of Agaléga is simple - Mauritius is the largest source of FDI into India as multinational Companies have taken advantage of the India-Mauritius Double Taxation Avoidance Treaty to avoid paying taxes. Mauritius is believed to have been willing to allow India to build a base in return for the continuation of this financial system of routing money (black and white) through the country, which bought a lucrative amount of fees to the government. However, after the publication of the Panama Papers, there was sustained pressure on the Indian government to curb the practice of tax evasion via the routing of money through Mauritius. The treaty was amended to make it difficult for future investors to do so, forcing these companies to look at new options such as Cyprus. But the new law will not apply to existing investors as it gives them ‘grandfather’ rights to continue with the existing model (Read the entire Protocol that amends the treaty here).
India’s aggressive push in the IOR is fuelled by a variety of factors, the key being the presence of the Chinese in the region. The Chinese presence in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea has been referred to as the ‘string of pearls’ strategy and is principally aimed at securing their own Sea Lanes of Communication (SLOCs) that pass through the IOR. China’s deeping relations with Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal and Myanmar has thrown India into a tizzy and is one of the key factors that has led to strong Indo-US collaboration in the region.
For the United States, throughout the 20th century, the Pacific and the Atlantic regions were vital in its attempt to contain the wave of communist movements that were emerging throughout the world. In recent times, the Indian Ocean has replaced the Atlantic Ocean in its two-ocean focus tradition. The Neo-Nixon doctrine that the US takes inspiration from calibrates “American interests and regional commitments by devolving primary responsibility for regional security to the major democratic powers in the Indian Ocean, whom the US would bolster with aid and advice”, according to proponent Walter C. Ladwig III. ‘Advice and aid’ is of course just a euphemism for advancing US interests in the countries in and around IOR, which it has sought to manipulate for their resources.
The United States also maintains a controversial military base in the Diego Garcia island in the British Indian Ocean Territory, which forms part of the Chagos Archipelago. One of the primary aims of the base is to keep a close watch on the major trade and energy SLOCs from and to China. Ironically named Camp Justice, the base has also been used as a nodal point for military operations in Yemen and Afghanistan, and also as a stopover for the CIA’s rendition programme. The possible exile of the Agalegans needs to be seen in the light of what happened to the Chagossians, 6,000 of whom were evicted when the land on which they lived was transferred by the British to the United States. The lease which was supposed to end in 2016 has been extended till 2036 and the islanders continue to fight legal battles to return home.
The 5th fleet of the American Navy, based in Bahrain, whose area of operations encompasses the southern coast of the Middle East, Pakistan, and the Horn of Africa, is a fully Indian Ocean fleet. Statistics speak volumes about the immense presence of the US in the IOR and the littoral regions - most ofthe US military bases and personnel are situated in the Persian Gulf. According to the 2016 Index of US Military Strength, around 15,000 US troops are stationed in Kuwait, 5,000 in the UAE and 7,000 in Bahrain, along with around 125,000 close to Iran, of which around 20,000 are based on navy vessels. In 2011, the then US president Barack Obama announced that around 2,500 US Marines would be stationed in Darwin (Australia) that would complement the Diego Garcia island station.
India is increasingly becoming the linchpin of US strategy in the IOR. For instance, its heightened presence in the Malacca Straits needs to be seen in the context of close to 40% of China’s oil and gas imports being routed that way, which Beijing has dubbed the ‘Malacca Dilemma’. China’s presence is miniscule compared to that of theUS which maintains a ‘string of pearls’ of its own, stretching all the way from Bahrain to SingaporeThe ‘US-India Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean Region’ has clearly stated the need for multilateral collaboration in the face of the changing dynamic - the increased presence of China - to remain the dominant power.
The Maritime Doctrine states that ‘the growing presence of the US and other western powers and their naval forces, along with the battle for oil dominance, is likely to have long term impact on the overall security environment of the IO region.” However, India never seems to have been really serious about this point. In 2005, India and the US conducted their first naval maneuver, called Malabar 05 in the Arabian Sea. The emerging India-US alliance, which is also likely to encompass countries such as Japan and Australia, is aimed at ensuring that China’s growth and influence remains limited. However, the growth of this new bloc can only herald an age of conflict in the region with smaller countries bearing the brunt of damage.
These developments are directly in contradiction to the commitment of the Non-Aligned Movement in 1970 and the UN General Assembly in 1971 to maintain the IOR as a ‘zone of peace.’ India’s moves indicate a certain blindness to the reality that the people of the Indian Ocean region share a rich history and have common interests that should not be sacrificed at the altar of the imperial interests of the United States.