India secretly building a naval base, air strip in Mauritius

The Nation  |  Aug 04, 2021

Mauritius has traditionally enjoyed close economic and cultural ties with India, with nearly half the population being of Indian-origin. China's expanding footprint in the Indian Ocean has prompted New Delhi to revise its policy towards Port Louis. The Indian government extended a $100 million defence credit line to the African nation in 2021.

The Indian Navy is developing a new base with a 3 kilometre-long air strip on the island of Agalega, about 1,100 kilometres north of the main island of Mauritius, as per a new investigation by Qatari broadcaster Al-Jazeera.

The estimated price of the overall project is said to be around $250 million.

The report alleges that as part of a deal between New Delhi and Port Louis, the Indian government has agreed to develop infrastructure for the 300 inhabitants of the island in return for the right to locate its base facilities there.

The Mauritian government, headed by ethnically Indian Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth, has denied  claims about the construction of an Indian military facilityon Agalega island, as per the report.

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In 2015, India and Mauritius signed an agreement, which specified the upgrade of infrastructure to improve sea and air connectivity on the Outer Island of Mauritius.

"It will go a long way in ameliorating the condition of the inhabitants of this remote island. These facilities will enhance the capabilities of the Mauritian Defence Forces in safeguarding their interests in the Outer Island," the document about the agreement reads.

However, several island residents have expressed concerns regarding the massive scale of infrastructure development, which they say is disproportionate to their needs.

“We asked for an airport and hospital, but we didn’t ask for such a big airport,” Franco Poulay, an island resident, has been quoted as saying by Al-Jazeera.

“When we see this airport, we are worried,” the report also quotes him as saying.

Other islanders worry that they might end up facing the same fate as the former residents of Diego Garcia, another Indian Ocean base in Mauritius which was leased to the US military by the United Kingdom.

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The residents of Diego Garcia, backed by the Mauritian government, have been involved in an international legal dispute with the UK for their return to their homeland, after being resettled from the island in 1971, when the base was transferred to the US.

A United Nations (UN) court ruled this year that the UK has no sovereignty over the island and that it must be returned to Mauritius. The UK, a close ally of the US, however, said that it would vacate the island after it no longer serves its purpose.

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Former Indian Navy officer and ex-regional commander of the Indian Coast Guard, Commodore (Ret) Seshadri Vasan tells Sputnik that the Agalega base “has been in the making” for some time now.

“But, it was only in the first term of the Prime Minister Narendra Modi government that the tempo really picked up,” says Vasan, at present the director of the Chennai Centre for China Studies, an Indian think tank.

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The expert further reckons that such a base, if fully-operational, would increase the Indian Navy’s maritime awareness in the Indian Ocean region.

“It would also serve as a potential counter-weight to China, which already has a military base in Djibouti,” reckons Vasan.

The former Indian Navy officer believes that having a “formidable presence” in Mauritius would also ensure that the nation “doesn’t fall in China’s orbit of influence”, after Beijing and Port Louis agreed to a Free Trade Agreement in December last year. Then, in February this year, India and Mauritius sealed the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation and Partnership Agreement (CECPA), signed during the visit of Indian foreign minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar to Port Louis.

India has been worried that the increasing presence of China's People's Liberation Army-Navy would pose a direct challenge to the Indian Navy’s dominance around Mauritius.

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Besides having played a key role in guarding Mauritian waters, Indian defence personnel have also held important roles in the Mauritius Police Force (MPF) - the senior force in a country which otherwise doesn’t have an army.

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