An island state, the Republic of Mauritius is not a frequent news item. The republic consists of the two large islands – Mauritius and Rodriguez, and a number of small islands and reefs in the Indian Ocean, 900 km east of the island of Madagascar. The state is well known as one of the best resorts in the world. However, in addition to its perfect climate, Mauritius is strategically located on the Asia-Africa sea route. This makes it quite attractive to China, which hopes to turn Mauritius into an important point on its 21-st Century Maritime Silk Road, which is the sea sub-project of the One Belt One Road Initiative (OBOR). However, the major traditional partner of Mauritius is India, which does not welcome the growing Chinese dominance and does not approve of the OBOR. Quite possibly, the island state could become the next arena of the Indian-Chinese confrontation.
In June 2017, for the first time during quite a long period, Mauritius attracted the attention of the media by submitting territorial claims to Great Britain. These concerned the Chagos Archipelago located in the Indian Ocean halfway between Africa and Indonesia. In 1965, Great Britain separated the archipelago from its colony in the Indian Ocean, which included Mauritius. Thus, when Mauritius gained independence in 1968, the Chagos Islands remained in British possession. According to Mauritius authorities, this was a violation of the UN Declaration No. 1514 “On the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Nations” accepted in 1960, which prohibited the partitioning of colonies before their independence. All the indigenous citizens of the islands that remained the property of Great Britain were deported. In 1971, a strategic air base of the United States was placed on Diego Garcia Island, one of the largest islands on the Chagos Archipelago.
As a result of the claims by Mauritius, the situation with the Chagos Islands was considered by the UNO in June 2017. During the voting in the UN General Assembly, 94 countries out of 184 supported the desire of Mauritius to address the Hague International Court to establish the legal status of the archipelago.
As expected, the USA, its ally Japan, and South Korea opposed this decision and supported the right of Great Britain.
The air base in the center of the Indian Ocean is vitally important for America, as it guarantees its military presence in South Asia, the Middle East, and the Asia-Pacific region. Up to 70% of the world crude oil transportation and up to 50% of all container traffic are carried out through the Indian Ocean. Control over these sea routes has a huge impact in the entire Asia. Therefore, the American air base on Diego Garcia Island is extremely important both for the USA and for its allies such as India, Japan and South Korea. These countries are the world’s largest importers of hydrocarbons, and get most of the fuel from the Middle East through the Indian Ocean. They are interested in making provisions for the Americans to ensure the security of these supplies. They are also interested in US military presence holding back the spread of the influence of China, which India, South Korea and Japan fear.
In its turn, the People’s Republic of China would be pleased with the withdrawal of the Americans. China also receives most of its energy through the Indian Ocean. Being a competitor of the USA, it perceives the American military presence as a threat to the security of its energy supply.
So far, nothing threatens the base. After the vote in the UN General Assembly, the representative of Mauritius to the United Nations, Jagdish Koonjul, announced that Mauritius would propose that the US prolong the presence of its air base on Diego Garcia in case of the transfer of the Chagos Archipelago to his country. However, America does not have such a close interaction with Mauritius as with Great Britain. This means that Mauritius may allow the American military forces to remain on its territory on other terms and conditions that are not so favourable as before. In the event of the relations deterioration, Mauritius would be able to demand that the United States leave Diego Garcia Island, which would be virtually impossible during the period of the British control over it. Thus, if the Chagos Archipelago is transferred to Mauritius, the US status in the Indian Ocean will be less stable. As was mentioned before, this fact should exhilarate China and worry India, Japan, and South Korea.
However, curiously enough, India voted for the submission of the issue of the ownership of Chagos to the International Court. This is probably due to India’s fear of relations with Mauritius deteriorating. As is known, most citizens of Mauritius are ethnic Hindu, the descendants of workers who were brought here by the British in the colonial period. This fact ensures the good relations of the island state with India.
However, a Chinese expatriate community also lives on the island. Although smaller than the Hindu population, it is very powerful. Large financial assets are concentrated in the pockets of the Mauritian Chinese. Chinese Foreign Affairs Minister Wang Yi visited Mauritius in February 2017. The participation of the island state in the 21-st Century Maritime Silk Road project was among the major issues that he discussed with Mauritius Prime Minister Anerood Jugnauth. If Mauritius joins OBOR, the Chinese influence in this state may increase multiple times.
Such a development of the situation should worry India, which is actively competing with China for dominance throughout the Indian-Pacific territory. Mauritius is strategically important to India due to its strategic location as mentioned above, as well as due to the fact that the Indian radio electronic intelligence base is located there. Mauritius is also important because of its proximity to Madagascar, where an Indian Navy base is being built and the second Indian foreign radio electronic intelligence base is located. These two bases allow India to monitor events on the entire territory to the east of Africa. In addition, Seychelles, located near Mauritius, is host to another Indian Navy base. Thus, the growing presence of China on Mauritius is not favourable for India. Perhaps, to keep Mauritius in its sphere of influence, India is ready to make concessions and even weaken the position of its US ally on the island of Diego Garcia.
This is one of the versions explaining the vote of India at the UN General Assembly in June. However, an unambiguous interpretation could be given only to a few events in the world politics. It cannot be excluded that the transfer of Diego Garcia Island to Mauritius does not threaten the future of the American base on the island. Surprisingly, for many experts, China, which is interested in the US position weakening, abstained from voting in the UN General Assembly. Perhaps this is because China does not feel confident enough in Mauritius. In fact, the most influential power in this state is the rapidly-developing and rich India, which will do everything to preserve the US base, while the United Kingdom is rapidly losing its weight on the international arena.
This explains the position of the abstaining China. However, in this case, the question arises as to why the USA voted against submitting the Chagos Islands issue to the International Court if India is its ally and will preserve the base on Diego Garcia. Perhaps, because the US prefers to deal with allies that depend on it, but not with those on which it depends. America wishes to be the head in any alliance, and the transfer of Chagos Islands to Mauritius may result in its falling under the influence of India. This would lead to the strengthening of India’s position in the America-India relations and the weakening of the US role.
Thus, it can be summarized that the situation around Mauritius and Chagos Islands is quite complicated, and it is difficult to predict its impact on the power balance between India, China, and the US. Apparently, this matter is a great success for Mauritius: being at the intersection of the interests of such rich states, it can exploit the situation to receive various benefits from each of them.
Dmitry Bokarev, political observer, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”