India’s Strategic Move in Africa
The international focus on China’s expanding presence in Africa has overshadowed another significant development – India’s strategic investment in the region. Quietly, but assertively, India has been building a naval base on the remote Agaléga islands of Mauritius.
A Remote Oasis in the Indian Ocean
The Agaléga islands of Mauritius have remained a pristine sanctuary, untouched by tourism and industry. Home to around 300 residents, these islands have largely sustained themselves through traditional practices, relying on coconuts and fish. Yet, beneath this tranquil façade, a seismic transformation has taken place.
India’s Strategic Makeover
In a region that houses some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, India has unveiled a significant upgrade to it facility in the small island. Previously, the islands possessed a single dock for fishing boats and a small airfield. However, this changed in 2021 when India constructed a substantial airstrip and jetty on Agaléga’s larger northern island. The Indian Navy will send at least 50 officers and guards to staff the new airstrip, which can handle Boeing P-8I surveillance and anti-submarine warfare aircraft of the Indian Armed Forces. This development signifies India’s ambition to extend its influence in the southwest Indian Ocean, solidifying its maritime presence.
Countering China’s Reach
One of the core motivations behind India’s move is to counter China’s increasing presence in the region. Over the past 25 years, China has been steadily expanding its footprint. The Indian Foreign Minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, highlighted this during a discussion at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. The growth of the Chinese Navy has raised concerns, particularly in Indian security circles.
China’s sole overseas military base is in Djibouti, and the Indian government is keeping a close watch on it and other ports that China has developed in regions like Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Maritime concerns, including piracy, smuggling, and terrorism, are at the forefront of these apprehensions. When there is a lack of authority and enforcement of international maritime laws, the risk multiplies.
“From an Indian point of view, I would say it’s very reasonable for us to try and prepare for greater Chinese presence than we have seen before,” Jaishankar said. “Maritime concerns are not necessarily today between two countries. If you look at maritime threats, piracy, smuggling or terrorism, if there is no authority, no monitoring, no force out there to actually enforce the rule of the law, it’s a problem.”
The Agaléga Base’s Role and India’s Strategic Posture
The newly established Agaléga base serves several critical functions for India. It will support surveillance and anti-submarine warfare aircraft, bolster maritime patrols over the Mozambique Channel, and offer a strategic vantage point for observing shipping routes around southern Africa.
The Agaléga facilities also will enable maritime patrols over the Mozambique Channel, and its staging point will let the Indian Navy observe shipping routes around southern Africa. “This base on Agaléga will cement India’s presence in the southwest Indian Ocean and facilitate its power projection aspirations in this region,” Samuel Bashfield, a research officer at the Australian National University’s National Security College, wrote for The Lowy Institute, an Australian think tank.
The move to strengthen its presence in the southwest Indian Ocean is part of India’s broader geopolitical strategy. This presence allows India to monitor its interests in the region effectively and counterbalance China’s growing influence.
Although, the facilities have been framed as a development priority to improve this remote island’s sea and air connectivity and support the Mauritius Coast Guard. The installations would undeniably increase the country’s surveillance, maritime awareness and staging capabilities once fully functional.
Beyond regional dynamics, the rivalry between India and China in Africa holds far-reaching geopolitical implications. Africa is a pivotal component of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), comprising 46 African nations. The economic and military consolidation of Chinese power on the continent could fundamentally shift global dynamics. This could weaken the dominance of the United States and relegate Europe to the sidelines of international affairs.
The Atlantic Frontier and Africa as a Forward Base
China’s naval base in Djibouti provides a strategic foothold in the Indian Ocean, but it is not alone in its indebtedness to China. Other African nations have significant financial ties with Beijing. Equatorial Guinea, for instance, presents an opportunity for China to establish a military presence on the Atlantic. High levels of debt and economic dependency on China make other nations vulnerable to similar developments.
A Wall Street Journal report earlier this year says that US officials have warned that Beijing plans to establish a permanent military installation in Equatorial Guinea. If true, beyond the obvious strategic challenges posed by China possessing a naval base on the Atlantic for the first time, the move signals a new phase in the country’s Africa policy. This holds far-reaching geopolitical implications.
China’s extensive economic influence in Africa, supported by approximately 10,000 Chinese enterprises, has provided a solid foundation for its geopolitical moves on the continent. By extending its military presence, China has managed to avoid widespread international backlash.
Equatorial Guinea presented China with an opportunity to establish a military presence on the Atlantic. But the country’s government is not alone among African nations with a high indebtedness to China and in which Beijing plays a central economic development role. It is possible that other Chinese naval bases may yet appear on Africa’s Atlantic coast. Whether or not it builds such new installations in the short term, Beijing’s consolidation of a pan-African security architecture will undoubtedly lead to their establishment in the long term. In such circumstances, in the long term, if China continues to consolidate its presence across Africa, the continent could serve as a forward base from which China could project power toward North America and Europe.
Beyond maritime activities, India has over the years provided the Mauritius Coast Guard with equipment to assist in monitoring the coastline such as in 2015 with the installation of 104 static radar surveillance stations in Mauritius. Indian company Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL) was contracted by the Indian Coast Guard to implement the project with help from Danish electronic defence solutions provider Terma. Terma supplied the SCANTER 2001 radars being rolled out to enable the Indian Navy Information Management and Analysis Centre (IMAC) to monitor ship movements in the IOR.
Last year, India’s defence company Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) supplied a single Dhruv Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) to Mauritius Police Force. HAL delivered the improved Dhruv ALH Mk III helicopter, which features an all-glass cockpit, an integrated architecture display and automatic flight control systems.
In 2021, India transferred a HAL-produced Dornier 228 turboprop aircraft to the Mauritius Coast Guard, the maritime branch of the police. Mauritius also received a $100 million fund from India to procure needed security equipment for its Coast Guard. Mauritius will utilize the funds to procure military equipment, including aircraft and patrol boats, from Indian defence equipment manufacturers. In November 2018, India retrofitted Mauritius Coast Guard Maritime Air Squadron HAL Do-228 aircraft with 7.62 mm machine gun pods to combat criminal activities.
India’s strategic move in the Mauritius may appear inconspicuous compared to China’s endeavors, but it is a clear indicator of India’s commitment to preserving its interests in the region and countering China’s influence. In the evolving power dynamics of the Indian Ocean, India’s silent rise should not be underestimated.