India, Mauritius inaugurate airstrip and jetty in Agalega

Expanding its strategic outreach in the Southern Indian Ocean region, India last week inaugurated an airstrip and a jetty built with its assistance in Agalega Islands in Mauritius.

Notably, at a virtual ceremony, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Mauritian counterpart Pravind Jugnauth jointly inaugurated an airstrip and a jetty that India has built on Agaléga, a two-island Mauritian dependency 1,100 km to the north of Port Louis and 2,500 km southwest of Malé.

Apart from the airstrip and St James Jetty at Agalega Island, six other projects, implemented with financial assistance from India, were also inaugurated by both leaders virtually.

Prime Minister Modi said in his address that Mauritius is a key partner of India’s ‘Neighbourhood First Policy’ and a special partner under Vision SAGAR.

“As members of Global South, we have common priorities and the last 10 years have seen unprecedented momentum in the relations between the two countries and new heights of mutual cooperation have been achieved,” he said.

“India has always respected Mauritius’s needs and acted as the first responder,” he said.

PM Modi said that India and Mauritius are natural partners in maritime security to deal with these challenges.

“We are actively working to ensure security, prosperity and stability in the Indian Ocean region. We are cooperating in all areas like monitoring of Exclusive Economic Zone, joint patrolling, hydrography, and Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief,” he said.

Jugnauth said, “We are making history today on the island of Agalega with the inauguration of a new airstrip, a new jetty and several other development projects.”

Jugnauth rubbished claims about the establishment of military bases on the islands and said, “There has never been any agenda for Mauritius to relinquish its sovereignty over the Agalega islands… Likewise, there has never been any agenda to transform our Agalega into a military base.”

As Indian Ocean outposts, Mauritius and the Maldives have great strategic significance for India.

New Delhi’s maritime security and strategic imperatives in the Indian Ocean are linked to the presence and increased activities of China in the region.

The Maldives case

Soon after coming to power in November 2023, Mohamed Muizzu, the pro-China President of the Maldives, requested India to withdraw its military personnel from his country. Muizzu had defeated the incumbent Ibrahim Mohamed Solih in the presidential election on the “India Out” plank.

Late on Monday, the Maldives defence ministry said the first team of Indian civilians had arrived, and would take charge of the operation of a helicopter in Addu, the country’s southernmost atoll.

The two countries had agreed on February 2 that India would pull out 80-odd military personnel stationed in the Maldives between March 10 and May 10.

The Indian Ministry of External Affairs had said that the two helicopters and a Dornier aircraft in the Maldives would be operated by “competent Indian technical personnel” who would replace the “present personnel”.

The Mauritius case

Following Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Mauritius in March 2015, India signed a Memorandum of Understanding for the “improvement in sea and air transportation facilities” at Agaléga island.

The MoU, signed in the Mauritian capital Port Louis in the presence of Modi and then Prime Minister of Mauritius Anerood Jugnauth, provided for “setting up and upgradation of infrastructure for improving sea and air connectivity at the Outer Island of Mauritius which will go a long way in ameliorating the condition of the inhabitants of this remote island…[and] enhance the capabilities of the Mauritian Defence Forces in safeguarding their interests in the Outer Island”.

At the inauguration of the new airstrip and jetty on Thursday, Prime Minister Jugnauth recalled that several attempts to upgrade the airstrip on the 70-sq-km island since 2003 had not been successful.

He said that India was committed to assisting his country, and “deplored” the “India-bashing campaign” by “ill-minded persons in and outside Mauritius”.

“The March 2015 MoU (to upgrade the airstrip and the Set James jetty) reflected India’s commitment to continually assist Mauritius in meeting its development goals satisfying the principles of mutual benefit…,” Prime Minister Jugnauth said.

“There has never been any agenda for Mauritius to relinquish its sovereignty over the Agalega islands, as some ill minded persons in and outside Mauritius attempted to make believe.

Likewise, there has never been any agenda to transform Agalega to a military base… I wish to forcefully deplore, condemn India-bashing campaign, some people in Mauritius have commented,” he said.

The presence of India would lead to more effective monitoring of Mauritius’ vast 2.3 million sq km Exclusive Economic Zone, and equip it to better counter piracy, terrorism, narcotics and human trafficking, and illegal and unregulated fishing, Prime Minister Jugnauth said.

China in Indian Ocean

China sees great value in having a powerful presence in the Indian Ocean region. “Nine of China’s top 10 crude oil suppliers transit the Indian Ocean… [which] is also the primary theatre of transit for China for engagements with Africa, Middle East, island nations, and littorals across the vast ocean,” Darshana M Baruah, a maritime security analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said in a testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Committee of the United States Congress in April 2023.

Baruah said the Indian Ocean is “also the main trading route between China and Europe”, and “as history will tell us, the flag follows trade”. There was little doubt that China’s interest in the Indian Ocean would only grow,” she said.

Baruah noted that “China is the only nation with an embassy in each of the six islands in the Indian Ocean — Sri Lanka, Maldives, Mauritius, Seychelles, Madagascar, and Comoros”, and “none of the traditional players — the United States, the UK, India, or France have embassies on all six”.

Beijing had gone beyond diplomatic and trade partnerships in the region, and had begun to maintain a consistent military presence as well, she said.

In 2017, China opened its first overseas military facility in the Indian Ocean in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa. Analysts believe that it is only a matter of time before a second Chinese military facility comes up in the Indian Ocean — whether in Pakistan, Myanmar, or the western Indian Ocean.

View from New Delhi

India sees the urgency and importance of working with the governments of all these island nations.

The domestic politics of these nations often impact their behaviour and policies abroad — and India will have to manage its diplomatic relationships well while continuously pursuing its strategic interests in the region.

The Jugnauth government in Mauritius has so far been able to manage the domestic criticism of India’s presence better than the Solih government was able to do in the Maldives.

New Delhi will be keenly watching the situation in Malé.

The former Maldives Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid, who has recently been elected president of the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party, said on Saturday that President Muizzu’s claims about “thousands of Indian military personnel” were “just another in a string of lies”, and that “there are no armed foreign soldiers stationed in the country”.